The cross-cultural roller coaster Part 5 – “Conflict Management”​

Certain people love conflicts; they feel at home embracing them. Others, on the contrary, prefer harmony to discord. Even though we might prefer to sit in a circle, hold hands and sing “kum ba yah”, sooner or later we will be faced with conflict.

However, at times it is necessary to firmly put one’s foot down for a budget, project, an additional headcount to a team, or face a boss’ or colleagues’ different opinion. Whether we like it or not, conflicts are an inherent part of corporate lives. In the context of managing multicultural teams, we truly are on a “cross-cultural rollercoaster”, as various cultures approach conflicts in completely different ways. Managing conflicts can be a minefield – one wrong step and we might end up facing painful wounds that will take a long time to heal.

Explosive traps

Western managers working in Asia or the Middle East often stumble into “conflict management” problems. Similar traps await managers working in Poland on international projects – be it in a physical location or the virtual world. Carelessly managed conflicts can “blow up” projects with very high potential, which lowers their chance of success.

A project team composed of people from cultures, which openly and directly relay negative feedback, as well as people from cultures which value harmony, can quickly run into the problem of mutual perception. Even though the “intellectual potential” of people from both cultural groups is similar, one party will be seen as arrogant, whilst the other will be deemed unable to clearly explain their opinion. This can lead to a lack of motivation and willingness to work together, and overall can negatively impact results.

As always, the first step to fix this problem is understanding: both of one’s own and other’s cultural glasses, and both of one’s supervisors and employees. The other crucial step to resolving conflict is a humble acceptance that one size does not fit all and choosing the proper communication style to match the situation is necessary.

Harmony or discord

Some cultures value harmony. In many corporations in Asia, conflict is regarded as something that needs to be avoided – hence the reluctance to give employees direct negative feedback and to publically convey that something is not working. Here the attitude to conflict is one of waiting till the problem resolves itself or is no longer important. If there comes a time when a decision needs to be made, feedback given, this should be done indirectly and implicitly. Often a third party – be it someone on the team or an external consultant – is used to convey negative feedback, as he or she acts as a mediator that prevents the two sides from engaging in direct conflict.

On the contrary, in Western corporations, conflict is often seen as the so-called “manager’s breakfast”, a process in which participants more or less aggressively present their point of view and fight for what is theirs. Here employees do not necessarily consider the wounds inflicted on others. In fact, the ability to enter into direct conflict with others is a required skill for future corporation leaders. The very process of climbing a Western corporation career ladder exemplifies this, as future leaders are chosen through internal company talent acquisition programs, which are based on competition among participants and delivering results. Harmony? Who has the time?

Culture shock

An Asian manager moved to Poland will often be perplexed by the Polish open way of expressing one’s own view, as well as the public and direct nature of disagreement with a supervisor and questioning his or her authority. The Asian manager might perceive this behavior as arrogant, befitting ill-educated people who ruin harmony and do not show respect.

On the other side, a Western manager who used to “taking problems head on” and openly giving feedback, will experience a shock when moved to Asia. His Asian team will not openly discuss difficulties in the Western style, problems will often be swept under the rug, and employees will prefer to keep silent than disturb the team harmony.

I witnessed how difficult it was for my Asian colleagues to openly and publically express their opinions with the Regional President present. At the very same time, their Western colleagues were using the occasion to show off their creativity and openness. At the meeting’s conclusion it was the talkative Westerners who were deemed noteworthy for future corporation careers. Their Asian colleagues, although lacking nothing in intellect or experience, could not forget the cultural wisdom they were brought up in: “Who doesn’t know speaks; who knows stays silent”. Sadly, in the end they were rated a lot lower in terms of potential.

Similarly I remember my shock when, during one of my first presentations in a Russian organization, I was given a lot of negative feedback, especially regarding the main points of my argument: “I disagree”, “I think it should be done differently”, “Why should we do it this way?”. From my perspective, the presentation was a failure, however later on I found out the audience liked it and the project makes sense. When I asked about their earlier negative remarks I was met with bafflement: “Well, we just need to show that we’re thinking”. Later on I discovered that Russians have a much higher index rating of direct and open communication of negative feedback. Communication that I found aggressive and akin to a personal attack was, from their point of view, a healthy discussion.

In being able to remain diplomatic and understand other cultures, one can effectively minimize these problems. Here are two more examples from my experience of multi-cultural conflicts. Perhaps they will give you some ideas for conflict management in your teams.

Japan and Indonesia

In Japan, group harmony is very important, so openly saying “no” is often difficult. In our HR team we felt conflict and an unspoken tension associated with changes in the organization structure. We knew that during training sessions no one was willing to openly speak about disagreements and problems. So we divided the trainees into groups. We started by asked them to discuss uncertainties amongst themselves, and then a representative from each group would express the groups’ opinion. This method worked well, because the group representative no longer expressed his or her own concerns, and thereby did not “lose face”, but expressed the concerns of the group. We were able to gather lots of valuable information.

At the beginning of my placement in Indonesia, I committed a cultural blunder, unconsciously undermining a very warm and well-respected local area sales director. I was unable to meet him and apologize for what had happened, because he began to actively avoiding me, in order to sidestep from the conflict. To solve this problem I used a mediator, which I mentioned in the section above. I explained the whole misunderstanding to one of his trusted managers and asked him to pass on my explanations and apologies to the sales director. The method worked, as not only was my explanation accepted, I was appreciated for my willingness to adapt to the local communication method, thus allowing me to regain face.

Language is often a source of conflict. English has become the universal language of corporations, and e-mails the standard communication channel. However English is not the first language for most of the team, hence, although properly used, people from different cultures might take certain phrases to mean things they do not. (Especially when people from “direct” cultures communicate with people from “high-context” cultures.) For example, if you once write “Hi Irek”, and a second time write “Dear Irek”, someone from a high-context culture might attempt to read in-between the lines to see if you are trying to get a message across.

Similarly, the way one writes – whether giving a short reply using several words or providing an eloquent Shakespearean style response – can carry much meaning depending on culture. For example many Indonesians found e-mails sent by their Australian colleagues to be cold and aggressive; whilst Australians were simply using a precise and direct communication style which they were brought up with and one that came naturally to them. However consciously implementing several nice words in e-mail correspondence could go a long way to change the Indonesian reception.

It is often unconsciously, through one’s natural communication style, that one can fall into a communication trap, create unwanted conflicts, destroy one’s reputation or group effectiveness. How can HR help? First of all, do not wait for problems to arise, but foreshadow them and manage them in advance. The need to develop cross-cultural competencies is still an undervalued asset in international corporations; it should be an inherent part of the building blocks of organization culture. There are many available tools on the market: books, training sessions, mentoring and coaching processes both for groups and managers.

Areas that HR should work on:

·     Understanding the situation and cultural dynamics of the group.

·     Understanding the accepted form of communication and cultural taboos.

·     Helping the organization understand that “being different” does not arise from conscious aggressiveness or the inability to explain oneself.

·     Make developing cross-cultural competencies a long-term strategy for building and developing the organization.