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Choosing conflict resolution by culture

By Golnaz Sadri

Executive Summary
In the age of globalization, conflict resolution often can involve a clash of cultures. Research has shown that differing cultures solve disagreements through a variety of approaches. Expatriate managers and those working with a diverse workforce would do well to learn how their employees view the many ways conflicts get resolved. 

Conflict has become accepted as a normal part of life at work. Whenever one person (or group) senses a negative impact from a second person (or group) regarding an issue that the first person attaches some importance to, the opportunity for conflict exists. Conflict resolution is the process through which the conflicting parties reach a settlement. Many researchers and organizational specialists believe that when the conflict resolution process is handled constructively, the episode proves positive for individuals and organizations. Three desirable outcomes from an effectively managed conflict are: agreement (long-term as well as short-term); stronger relationships between the parties involved; and an opportunity to learn about the people and the organizational processes involved in the conflict.

But while researchers have provided important insights on workplace conflicts and their resolution, it behooves us to realize that technology and globalization have made it more common to work with people from different cultures and subcultures. There is now evidence that the perceived effectiveness and use of different conflict resolution behaviors varies across cultures. We will look at what we know about how cultures differ in terms of work-related values and practices, and we will address how culture affects the way we respond to conflict situations and shapes people’s perceptions of how to resolve conflicts.

A conflict resolution primer

In their book The Managerial Grid, Robert R. Blake and Jane S. Mouton developed a dual concerns theory. It suggests that conflict situations in organizations require balancing the needs to meet one’s own goals (concern for production) and the need to maintain healthy work relationships (concern for people). Kenneth Thomas in the Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology identified five different orientations to resolving conflict in terms of assertiveness (satisfying one’s own concerns in a conflict situation) and cooperativeness (satisfying the other party’s needs in a conflict situation). These five orientations are: competing or forcing (high in assertiveness, low in cooperativeness); accommodating (low in assertiveness, high in cooperativeness); avoiding (low in both assertiveness and cooperativeness); collaborating (high in both assertiveness and cooperativeness); and compromising (midway in both assertiveness and cooperativeness).

Collaborating is the only one of these orientations considered to yield a win-win, where both parties end up getting what they want. Avoidance is the only one of these orientations that results in a lose-lose outcome, where neither party to the conflict gets what they want. Compromising results in a partial win/lose, as each party gains something from the settlement and has to give something up. Accommodating results in a "you win/ I lose" outcome, where the goals of one party are sacrificed while the goals of another are met. Competing (or forcing) results in an "I win/you lose" outcome. Again, the goals of one party are sacrificed at the expense of meeting the goals of the other party.

In Academy of Management Review, Kenneth Thomas provides the results of a study in which executives identify situations where each of the five conflict handling behaviors described above would be appropriate and useful. He found that competing works best in situations that require the implementation of important issues and/or unpopular actions; on issues that affect the overall welfare of the company; when a person knows for sure that he/she is right about a particular issue; when fast, decisive action is needed; and against people who take advantage of noncompetitive behavior.

Collaboration is appropriate when both sets of concerns are important, when the parties wish to learn from the conflict situation, to include insights from people with different perspectives, to gain commitment to a decision through consensus decision-making and to work through feelings that may get in the way of an effective working relationship. Compromising works well when both parties think that their goals are important but not worth the possible disruption of more assertive conflict-handling approaches, when the parties have equal power and a strong commitment to opposing goals, to achieve temporary settlements to complicated issues, and to arrive at an acceptable solution within certain time constraints.

When both parties have tried collaborating and/or forcing with no success, compromise is an effective alternate strategy. Avoiding works to resolve conflict when the issue is trivial, when there are more urgent matters to contend with, when there is no chance of satisfying one’s concerns and/or when the potential disruption of confronting the problem or issue is greater than any potential benefit to be gained from a resolution. Avoiding is a good strategy to give the parties involved time to calm down, reassess the situation and gain a greater perspective. It allows people time to collect more information so that they can make better decisions. Avoiding is also appropriate when others are able to resolve the conflict more effectively and/or when issues seem to be connected to other overriding issues.

Finally, Thomas found that accommodating was a good technique when a person is wrong, wishes to learn and show his/her reasonableness, when the issue is more important to the other party, to build collateral for later issues, to minimize loss and when harmony and stability are especially important.

The role of culture at work

Culture is a broad and encompassing concept. It relates to how the world is viewed and organized by a large group of people. The impact of culture on behavior has been studied extensively in recent decades and is becoming increasingly important as advances in technology continue to diminish the barriers of time and geographic distance that used to separate people around the globe.

In addition, heterogeneous societies like the United States consist of subcultures (groups of people with distinctive values and norms and rules for behavior). Both cultures and subcultures represent large numbers of people who view and interact with the world based on their implicit and explicit knowledge of generations of human existence. Cultural norms and values are passed on from one generation to the next and affect work-related values, attitudes and behaviors.

Geert Hofstede in his book Culture’s Consequences details a study on work-related values conducted with 116,000 IBM employees in 50 countries. Hofstede’s original research identified four dimensions of national culture: individualism-collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance and masculinity-femininity. He subsequently added a fifth dimension: long-term vs. short-term orientation.

Individualism-collectivism relates to the extent to which members of a culture prefer to act as individuals rather than as members of a group. Individualistic cultures focus on individual rights, rewards and actions, while collectivistic cultures focus more on group rights, rewards and actions. Power distance relates to the extent to which members of a culture are comfortable with power and status differences in organizations. High power-distance cultures are more comfortable with power and status differences, while low power-distance cultures are less comfortable with power and status differences and have strategies to downplay such differences. Uncertainty avoidance relates to the degree of comfort within a society with uncertain and ambiguous situations. High uncertainty avoidance cultures prefer structured over unstructured situations, while low uncertainty avoidance cultures have a greater tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.

Hofstede describes masculinity-femininity as the extent to which a culture values the traditionally masculine virtues of assertiveness, achievement and materialism, or whether a culture values the traditionally feminine virtues of nurturing and concern for members of society as a whole. Finally, long-term vs. short-term orientation looks at a culture’s attachment to thrift, persistence and tradition (long-term) over present-moment, short-term reward and change (short-term).

Hofstede’s study found that the dominant culture in the United States is individualistic, low power distance, low uncertainty avoidance, masculine and short-term oriented. This affects the way people function in organizations on a number of levels. For example, members of individualistic cultures respond best to individual goals and individual rewards. Members of low power-distance cultures respond well to employee empowerment strategies and open channels of communication.

Members of cultures low on uncertainty avoidance are more likely to embrace change and be more accustomed to working within an unstructured organizational context. Lifetime employment is a good example of a reward strategy that works well in Japan (a high uncertainty avoidance culture) but likely would not work as well in the U.S. (a low uncertainty avoidance culture). Members of masculine cultures value financial rewards and are prepared to work longer hours to gain such rewards. Finally, members of short-term oriented cultures value short-term goals and rewards (e.g., performance-based compensation attached to a sales or production target) over long-term goals and rewards (e.g., compensation based on seniority with the organization).

Building on Hofstede’s cultural survey, Robert J. House, Paul J. Hanges, Mansour Javidan, Peter W. Dorfman and Vipin Gupta are engaged in an ongoing cross-cultural study of leadership and national culture detailed in their book Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies. Their study began in 1993 and identifies nine dimensions on which national cultures differ: uncertainty avoidance, power distance, institutional collectivism, in-group collectivism, gender egalitarianism, assertiveness, future orientation, performance orientation and humane orientation. The GLOBE (Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness) project examined each of these nine dimensions in terms of practice (how things are done in a culture) as well as measures of values (how things should be done in a culture).

Uncertainty avoidance (similar to Hofstede’s study) is the extent to which members of an organization or society rely on social norms, rituals and practices to alleviate uncertainty and ambiguity. Power distance (also similar to Hofstede’s study) is the degree to which members of an organization or society accept the uneven distribution of power in organizations. Institutional collectivism is the extent to which practices within organizations and societies promote and reward the collective distribution of resources and collective action. In-group collectivism is the degree to which people within a society express attachment, loyalty and pride in a larger group, such as their families and organizations.

Gender egalitarianism reflects the level of gender equality within organizations and societies. Societies high on gender egalitarianism minimize gender role differences. Assertiveness reflects beliefs as to whether people are or should be encouraged to be assertive, aggressive and tough or nonassertive, nonaggressive and tender in social relationships. Future orientation is the extent to which members of an organization or society adopt future-oriented behaviors such as planning, investing in the future and delaying gratification. Performance orientation is the degree to which an organization or society encourages and rewards performance improvement and excellence. Humane orientation is the extent to which individuals in organizations or societies are encouraged to be fair, altruistic, generous, caring and kind to others.

Of these nine dimensions, the United States was among the countries ranking highest on assertiveness and performance orientation. In a world of globalization, cultural differences in the workplace can have an impact on conflict resolution behaviors.

Culture and conflict: A behavioral analysis

There is evidence that members of different cultures tackle conflict situations differently. For example, one study found that Americans were more likely to discuss a workplace task-oriented conflict directly while participants from Hong Kong were more likely to try to involve upper management in trying to resolve the conflict. Another study found that Americans were more likely to select a direct approach to conflict resolution, while Chinese managers were more likely to select an indirect approach. A study comparing Brazilian with American preferences for styles of negotiation showed that Brazilians preferred negotiation styles that expressed a concern for the outcomes of others and that they were more likely to accommodate or avoid conflicts with members of their in-groups.

Hofstede’s study with IBM employees found that the United States ranked highest of all 50 countries on individualism, followed by Australia, Great Britain, Canada and Netherlands (tied), and then New Zealand. Research shows that members of individualistic cultures use a more dominating style in dealing with conflict and are more likely to push for speedy closure, while members of collectivistic cultures use more accommodating and avoiding styles. Cultures scoring higher on individualism view the self as free and independent of groups, favor individual goals over group goals, use more direct forms of communication and pursue a higher incidence of social interactions (which tend to be shorter and less intimate).

Asian cultures, Latin cultures and Middle Eastern cultures are typically collectivistic. For example, Hofstede found that Venezuela ranked highest on collectivism (ranking 50 on collectivism in the study of 50 countries), followed by Colombia (49), Indonesia (47-48), Pakistan (47-48), Peru (45), Taiwan (44) and South Korea (43). Stella Ting-Toomey in a book edited by Y.Y. Kim and W.B. Gudykunst, Theories in Intercultural Communication, wrote about the importance of face-saving in collectivistic cultures. She describes how in collectivistic cultures, the "we" identity takes precedence over the "I" identity, in-group interests take precedence over individual wants, and saving face for others takes precedence over saving face for the self. Cultures scoring high on collectivism view the self as interdependent with groups, and group goals take priority over individual goals. In collectivistic cultures, communication is indirect (indirectness is used as a vehicle to save face), and social interactions are fewer, longer and more intimate.

Collectivists prefer cooperative approaches to conflict resolution and are more likely to accommodate others or avoid conflict rather than opting for more assertive approaches. Members of collectivistic cultures are concerned with preserving group harmony. One study found that the higher Chinese tendency to avoid conflict was explained by the Chinese belief that direct conflict would hurt the relationship with the other party.

Other aspects of culture also are likely to affect the conflict resolution process. For example, in high power-distance cultures (where people are more comfortable with power and status differences) employees will show more respect to those in higher positions and will be less likely to speak up against the boss, while in low power-distance cultures (where organization members downplay power and status differences), strategies like employee empowerment work well and employees are more likely to feel empowered to discuss differences of opinion openly with one another and with their superiors.

In terms of uncertainty avoidance, avoidance of conflict can be seen as a strategy to avoid uncertainty, ambiguity and change. When we say nothing, everything stays the same, and we lose the risk of disruption and change. Hofstede’s masculinity-femininity dimension taps into how a culture values assertiveness and achievement over nurturing and concern for others. Clearly, members of masculine cultures would be expected to pursue more assertive strategies (competing and collaborating) in resolving conflict. Finally, if a culture is more long-term oriented, members of that culture may find it easier to pursue the conflict resolution behaviors of accommodating and collaborating with a view to long-term gains. This also is in the interest of preserving long-term relationships over short-term gains.

Assertiveness

Deanne N. Den Hartog, who also wrote in Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies, contrasts societies that score higher on assertiveness with societies that score lower on assertiveness. She suggests that societies scoring higher on assertiveness tend to value assertive, dominant and tough behavior for everyone in society. They value competition, success and progress. Communication is direct and unambiguous. People are expected to be explicit, to the point and expressive. Revealing thoughts and feelings is valued.

Such cultures emphasize results over relationships, value those who take initiative and focus on what you do more than who you are. By contrast, Den Hartog suggests that societies scoring lower on assertiveness view assertiveness as socially unacceptable. Instead, they value modesty and tenderness. Such societies value cooperation, people and warm relationships. Competition is associated with defeat and punishment. Members of societies scoring lower on assertiveness tend to speak indirectly and emphasize saving face. Ambiguity and subtlety in language and communication are valued. Such cultures focus on who you are more than what you do. They emphasize tradition, seniority and experience as well as integrity, loyalty and cooperative spirit. Merit pay is viewed as potentially destructive to harmony.

Results from the GLOBE project showed that the United States ranked 11th of all countries surveyed on assertiveness society practices. Assertiveness is particularly emphasized in North America and parts of Europe (Germany, Austria, Greece, Turkey and Switzerland all ranked in the top 14 of 62 societies surveyed), while tolerance, humility and subservience are emphasized in other parts of the world (e.g., Japan ranked 58, India 53, and China 51 of 62 societies surveyed). Assertiveness is associated with managerial success in the United States. Assertive behaviors are accepted and valued. In the U.S., it is appropriate to adopt explicit, direct and unambiguous language patterns. Members of cultures higher on the GLOBE dimension of assertiveness will pursue more assertive behaviors in resolving conflict than members of cultures that are lower on assertiveness.

Performance orientation

Javidan’s work in Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies suggests that performance orientation has an impact on the way a society defines success as well how a society manages interpersonal relationships. Societies scoring higher on performance orientation reward performance, value assertiveness and competitiveness, reward individual achievement, have performance appraisal systems that emphasize achieving results, value taking initiative, issue bonuses and financial rewards, attach little importance to age in promotional decisions and emphasize being direct, explicit and to the point in communications.

By contrast, Javidan wrote that societies scoring lower on performance orientation tend to value societal and family relationships, emphasize loyalty, connectedness, seniority and experience, have performance appraisal systems that emphasize integrity, loyalty and cooperative spirit, view assertiveness as socially unacceptable, see merit pay as potentially destructive to harmony, emphasize tradition, connect competition with defeat and punishment, pay particular attention to age in promotion decisions and value ambiguity and subtlety in language and communications.

Similar to assertiveness, results from the GLOBE project showed that the United States ranked 11th of 62 countries surveyed on performance orientation practices. By comparison, Switzerland ranked highest, China ranked 13th, India 23rd and Japan 26th. Again, members of cultures higher on performance orientation will adopt more assertive behaviors (competition and/or collaboration) in resolving conflict than members of cultures lower on performance orientation.

Choose your conflict-resolution tool to match culture

Conflict is a widespread component of life at work. Each of the conflict handling behaviors described here has merit and is well-suited to resolving problems. But results always depend on the particular circumstances involved. Global research has revealed that preferences for which conflict resolution style to adopt are dependent on societal culture.

This is important to note for expatriate managers, managers working with employees, peers and customers from different countries as well as managers working with a diverse workforce. If we pursue assertive behaviors within a cultural context that values cooperative behaviors, we may not get the result that we want. Similarly, when we adopt more passive behaviors in negotiating with people who value assertiveness, any resolution likely will be unsatisfactory. As advances in technology make the world a smaller place and provide global access to business opportunities, it behooves managers to be cognizant of cultural preferences for and dispositions toward negotiation and conflict resolution.

Golnaz Sadri is a professor of organizational behavior in the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics at California State University, Fullerton. She holds a B.S. in management sciences and a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology from the Victoria University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. Her research has been published in prominent journals, including Applied Psychology: An International Review, the Journal of Vocational Behavior, the Journal of Managerial Psychology and Leadership Quarterly. She also participates in various national and international conferences, including those hosted by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, the Western Academy of Management and the National Academy of Management. 

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