Different cultures, different ways of resolving conflicts

Recently a friend of mine was telling me how in the company she previously worked for, ‘Asians were literally abused, because they are so quiet’. Meaning, an incredibly heavy work-load was distributed to them, failure of projects was blamed on them etc. That’s not only sad to hear, but it’s also interesting how people attribute ‘quietness’ to their Asian colleagues. Yes, in some Asian countries, the Chinese one for example, quietness is valued. That’s because they perceive listening as more important than talking. However, if you’ve ever worked in an ‘Asian’ environment, you will know that by no means in a meeting with other Asians, everybody stays quiet. No. There is often as much of a lively debate than we are familiar with in the ‘West’.

People attribute ‘quietness’ to Asians, because oftentimes when conflicts develop, Asians tend to stay quiet on the issue. That is because conflict in Asia is dealt with in a completely different way than in the West. Among them, maintaining harmony is the most important factor – and that involves allowing others to save face. In other words, conflict is not as directly dealt with as it is in the west. A problem wouldn’t be as openly debated in an open forum like a meeting, but rather problems would be dealt with most commonly through a third party, in a confidential manner.


 Source: Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

Most of us are familiar with this model of conflict styles.

  • people with a competing style, tend to dominate others
  • people with a collaborative style, tend to try and integrate the different parties’ ideas
  • people with an avoiding style, tend to avoid conflict altogether
  • people with an accommodating style, tend to cooperate with others while not being assertive about their own needs
  • people with a compromising style, tend to try and reach conclusions that integrate both parties needs

Because the main goal in collectivist cultures is to maintain group harmony, the tendency in these counties is higher to be either accommodating, compromising, avoiding, or collaborating.

So, if you are bringing together people from individualist cultures, and people from collectivist cultures in one team, the tendency is that the voices of those from collectivist cultures are neglected, simply because they tend to be far less assertive about their own needs than those from individualistic cultures. If you want to make your Asian employees heard in the team, you need to create conflict resolution processes that accommodate their needs, too. One way of doing this is by making such processes anonymous. Let all employees write down their thoughts about what the problem is on a paper before the debate starts anonymously, and without assigning blame to any particular person. Appear to their wish to maintain group harmony by making the problem a ‘team problem’, in which everybody works together to find a solution, rather than finding an individual to blame.

Different cultures have different ways of resolving conflicts, never forget that!

Photo Source: HawkeyeConsultingAdvisors


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