Fortunately, conflict is a natural part of doing business in any organization. Yes, you read that right. Workplace conflict and creative friction have been found to increase the probability of technical and commercial success. That helps explain why culturally diverse organizations have superior business performance: working across cultures naturally leads to more conflict! It’s no wonder that conflict management is one of the most sought-after skills when managing cultural diversity in the workplace.
We haven’t really thought of ourselves as conflict-resolution experts here at CultureWizard but, in a sense, our entire business purpose is to help people working across cultures to avoid unproductive conflict and to accelerate resolution when cross-cultural conflict does occur. I’ve recently studied conflict resolution, and it seems to me that the critical skills for conflict resolution are the same as intercultural communication. Both start with self-awareness; both require you to understand the other person’s view, or at least to see how their view is different from yours and why; and both require flexibility to adapt your style or viewpoint in pursuit of the “greater good” of business goals.
In today’s globalized business environment, diverse beliefs, behaviors, and viewpoints are more prevalent than ever before. It’s clear that good conflict-resolution practices are key to transforming disagreements into healthy creative friction, but we all know that settling disputes is rarely easy. Cultural diversity further complicates matters. It can even end up causing moreconflict, since different cultures often have different approaches to conflict-resolution. While you shouldn’t want a conflict-free workplace, you must guard against conflict that can spiral into team-damaging issues that tarnish relationships, decrease morale, and hamper productivity.
But First: Understanding Conflict
Like culture, conflict is a complex web of many interdependent factors. Experts often group these aspects into buckets like “type” or “temperature.” Understanding a conflict’s roots – or “type” – is the first step to help you learn to effectively turn a difficult situation into beneficial creative friction.
Conflict usually comes from disagreements about tasks, processes, or interpersonal tension. A task-based conflict is a disagreement about whatis being done, whereas a process-based conflict concerns how it’s being done. In other words, a disagreement about a new policy’s premises is task-based, but howto implement the policy is process-based.
It’s often assumed that interpersonal issues are the reason for tension, but that’s typically not the case. Task and process conflict are the most common sources of workplace tension, but our underlying values, norms, and beliefs can cloud our perceptions – just like when working across cultures. Recognizing that most workplace conflicts aren’t about “me vs. you” can help keep the focus on the issue at hand. This can make it easier to collaborate, see the situation as “us vs. the problem,” and reach a solution that benefits all parties (also known as “getting to yes” in conflict-resolution parlance).
Conflicts also have associated “temperatures.” Whether you’ve thought of it this way or not, you’ve probably experienced hot and cold conflicts. If you’ve ever worked with another culture that values indirect communication – Taiwan or India, for example – you may have noticed that they appear to avoid conflict or act passively. That’s “cold” conflict. On the other hand, direct communicators (like many Australians) tend towards “hot” conflict, in which viewpoints are explicitly stated and emotional intensity fills the room. Like a bowl of soup, hot conflict should cool down and cool conflict should warm up before proceeding. That way each party is more likely to see the other’s perspective, and can more likely get to yes.
It’s important to remember that neither trait is bad – they’re just our diverse cultural preferences. And not everyone always falls neatly into a category in any given situation, just as not every Australian is a conflict-seeking direct communicator. But knowing whether or not you tend to shy away from, or are eager to engage in, disagreements can help you get a sense of how you – and others – handle quarrels. Especially when working across cultures.
Effective Conflict Management When Working Across Cultures
Self-awareness is only part of the conflict-resolution (and intercultural communication) equation. We must also remember that others have their own naturally diverse perspectives and preferences. Imagine you’re an indirect communicator working to solve a task-based issue with a direct-communicating colleague. Without seeing from their point of view, their direct demeanor can seem aggressive or even hurtful to you. But taking their perspective can help you understand their tendency to approach conflict head on. That way you can stay focused on the issue – not the emotions involved.
Unsurprisingly, the Communication Dimension of the CultureWizard Intercultural Model® that affects how we tend to handle conflict. The Change Dimension is another. This Dimension speaks to the amount of control we believe we have over our lives, and defines our tolerance for change and risk.
Those who have a strong sense of external control – many Bolivians, for instance – are less open to change, are comfortable with the status quo, and believe outside factors strongly influence their destiny. But this can come off as stubborn to folks with an internal sense of control. Many Swedes, for example, value autonomous power over their futures. This also means they’re comfortable with questioning norms to achieve innovative solutions – a trait that can seem domineering to a Change Averse culture.
Conflict – like culture – is quite complex. Combine conflict with work across multiple cultures and things become much more complicated. Fortunately, the same critical skills that improve intercultural communication can help you effectively resolve workplace conflict.
By knowing yourself and understanding the fact that those around you often have different innate preferences, you’re better able to adapt your style to what will work across cultures without letting emotions and personal judgments get in the way. In this way, your cross-cultural team can use conflict as an opportunity to collaborate and transform it into the types of innovative solutions that set culturally diverse teams apart from the rest.