Cross-Cultural Differences in Conflict Management

In our first blog we looked at Edward Hall’s “High and Low Context” model, which categorizes countries and their behaviors into distinct contextual groups. We took Hall’s model a step further and highlighted some specific areas of difference between high and low context societies. For example, in high context cultures such as Japan relationships are crucial and take a long time to build. Due to the importance placed on relationships there is often a tendency to avoid conflict, disagreement and criticism of ideas. On the other hand in low context societies, such as the US and Northern European countries, relationships can begin and end quickly. Conflict and disagreement are accepted and often seen as an opportunity for positive engagement.

This time we will expand on this area and discuss how culture can create significant challenges when attempting to resolve conflict. We will also offer advice on how to overcome such challenges, which we hope will help develop your understanding of cross-cultural communications in global organizations.

What do we mean by “conflict”? Our dictionary defines it as “an incompatibility between two or more opinions, principles or interests.” Or in other words, anything from a minor disagreement to a major argument; even war. Conflict (though hopefully not war!) is unavoidable in business. The key issue for international business people is: “How can we successfully overcome conflict?”

To answer this question it is useful to investigate some of the differences in conflict resolution style between high and low context cultures.

Conflict in High Context Societies:

• In general members of high context societies tend to avoid conflict.
• Disagreement with colleagues is often avoided due to the fear of “loss of face.”
• Business people tend to avoid disagreements and conflict with clients at all costs, even if client requests are unreasonable.
• Disagreeing with management, especially in more traditional organizations, is avoided.
• Disagreeing with superiors in these “top-down management” structures is seen as disrespectful. Silent acceptance is often expected.
• There is more emotional attachment to ideas so criticism of ideas can lead to emotional responses and damage relationships.

Conflict in Low Context Societies:

• In general conflict is accepted
• Conflict and disagreement is seen as an opportunity for engagement within teams and between colleagues.
• Management expects subordinates to proactively challenge ideas. “Management by objectives”
• Employees who positively challenge management and engage in potential conflict situations are respected.
• Silence in conflict situations is often seen as lack of interest or ability.
• When communicating with clients in conflict situations, discovery and exploratory questions are used to discover reasons for differences, rather than acceptance and accommodation.
• There is less emotional attachment to ideas and a more objective approach is required.

These are, of course, generalizations so we should be wary of lazily stereotyping nations, organizations or individuals. However truly globalized business people will consider these fundamentally different styles of dealing with conflict; they each have their own advantages and disadvantages, and the ability to adapt according to the situation is an invaluable tool. Failure to consider our counterparts’ cultural backgrounds is one of the biggest barriers facing international business people.

Many experts in the field of conflict management have written at great length on various strategies to overcome cultural boundaries. William Ury suggests that active listening, or “stepping to the side of your counterpart” is a crucial step in conflict management. Whilst this has considerable value in low context societies, it raises a difficulty in countries such as Japan where actively listening by asking lots of questions can cause annoyance. Here at Platinum we often experience this at first hand when delivering our training courses. Japanese participants frequently complain about the amount of questioning and clarifying done by their global colleagues, leading to frustration on both sides. Overcoming this cultural barrier where active listening through questioning is seen by one side as “positive engagement” and by the other as “communication overkill” is just one of the many challenges of globalization.

In our Cross-cultural Conflict Management workshop we use a tool called the “Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument” (TKI) to help us identify which communication styles we favor when dealing with conflict. After completion of a multiple-choice test, trainee tendencies are categorized and mapped on an X-Y axis showing assertiveness and cooperativeness.
When delivering this course we help participants to first identify their own preferred style, then develop new communication skills in areas of weakness, and finally try and identify the different styles used by other people. This process is rather detailed and individual, but today we’d like to share with you an interesting observation from our experiences of running the course.
The graph below shows the results of recent participants, categorized according to their communication styles:

It’s striking to see that nearly all of the Japanese (high context) trainees tended towards a more cooperative than assertive style. They try to accommodate or avoid when faced with conflict, whereas the American and Australian (low context) participants preferred a more competitive or collaborative approach. The key issue is not which style is best, but the gap between the two cultures represented by the dashed black line. For example, if an “accommodator” is faced with a “competitor”, the most likely outcome is that he will accept most of the “competitor’s” requests or arguments, regardless of merit. This will inevitably lead to poor outcomes and further disputes, either on a corporate or individual level.

In order to try and overcome this cultural gap there are certain tips and communication techniques we can employ in cross-cultural conflict situations, such as:

• Research the cultural background of your counterparts
• Accept that there are different ways to respond in conflict situations, not one “best way”
• Be open to different communication styles (understand, accept, embrace)
• Learn how to understand and identify your counterparts’ communication styles
• Understand your own preferred conflict communication style
• Do not be afraid to adjust your communication style when appropriate
• Always be prepared to listen first, talk second
• Be objective (do not react emotionally)
• Be prepared to explore options together with your counterpart
• Focus on shared interests, not on inflexible positions

To conclude, regardless of cultural background or natural communication preference, the best leaders are able to switch communications styles depending on their environment and situation. The ability to recognize, understand and accept other people’s conflict management styles is essential in the global workplace.

What are your opinions on the issues covered in this article? Do you think you have a natural tendency towards one conflict style over another? Is this related to your cultural background? Do you find it easy to adapt to different communication styles? Have you experienced any cross-cultural conflicts in your business? Were you able to resolve them successfully?

Please feel free to share your experiences. We’d love to hear them and will reply to all comments.