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Published on: Challenge

Managing Conflict in a Cross-Cultural Environment

Les challenges du dirigeant à l’international

Gérer les conflits dans un environnement interculturel

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« In a disagreement, if you focus on the person and not the issue, you will always find reasons to continue the conflict » — Dalaï Lama

Paul, a French manager, had just moved to Mexico, and in one of his first meetings he criticized the behavior of Mario, one of his collaborators, in front of his entire team. He was astonished when Mario came to offer him his resignation the very next day. Indeed, Mario had felt humiliated at having been exposed in this way in front of his colleagues, he had lost face, and there was no doubt in his mind that he would soon be dismissed. He preferred to take the initiative and resign. For Paul, this attitude was totally strange to him.

This kind of situation is quite common in multicultural organizations, or when expats go to work in a foreign country. They lead to conflicts or positions that can get out of hand, when at first it is just a misunderstanding of different cultural values.

In this article, we offer some suggestions on how to avoid these misunderstandings and manage the resulting conflicts. First of all, let us try to better understand the causes of these misunderstandings.

Cultural Values

Cultural values are the fundamental beliefs and principles that define a specific culture. They are transmitted down from generation to generation through family traditions, education, socialization, religious beliefs, the media, and popular culture. Various authors such as Geert Hofstede or Erin Meyer have sought to characterize these values according to several dimensions.

Let’s look at two of the dimensions that have a significant impact on conflict.

Individualistic and collectivist societies

In individualistic societies, the bonds between people are weak and loose. Everyone is expected to take care of themselves and their families, with collective solidarity virtually non-existent. This is particularly the case in Anglo-Saxon cultures such as the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and Canada.

In contrast, in a collectivist society, individuals are integrated from birth into strong, cohesive groups. Throughout their lives, these groups continue to protect individuals in exchange for unwavering loyalty. In this type of society, the members of the community (family, village, ethnicity…) await the decisions of the group and act accordingly.

An observation that illustrates these differences: in English, the pronoun “I” is capitalized (I sing), while in Spanish, it is not pronounced (canto).

Having a conflict with a member of a community can lead to problems, especially when several members of that same community also work within the company. In Mexico, for example, where collective and communal culture is deeply rooted, especially among the poorer social classes, it is not uncommon to observe solidarity between members of the same family in the face of a conflict involving one of them.

Promoting a member of a solidarity group can be interpreted as a betrayal by former colleagues, especially if they appear to be seeking to assert their superiority. This behavior, perceived as “individualistic”, risks being punished by his colleagues, who may make his life difficult and no longer consider him as one of their own.

Another important factor in collective societies is the importance of saving face. For Mario, as illustrated in the example in the introduction of this article, it is imperative to meet the fundamental expectations placed on him because of his social position. Exposing his inadequacies in front of his colleagues, causing him to lose face, is an unbearable disgrace for him, and the shame drives him to give up.

It is important to point out that collectivist cultures are influenced by shame, while individualistic cultures are more characterized by guilt.

Hierarchical distance

Another dimension that exerts a strong influence on relationships, which can lead to conflicts if not carefully managed, is hierarchical distance. It is the extent to which less powerful members of a country’s institutions and organizations anticipate and accept the unequal distribution of power.

An executive from England or a Northern European country expects direct and open communication with all employees in the organization, regardless of their hierarchical position. Indeed, in these societies, hierarchical difference does not compromise fundamental equality. Everyone therefore enjoys the right to freedom of expression, and it is not only normal but also desirable that everyone should express his or her point of view, whatever it may be.

On the other hand, in Latin American countries, such as Mexico, as well as in Arab countries, or China, respect for hierarchy is so profound that disagreement with it is avoided. This situation can lead to serious misunderstandings if the manager and his team do not share the same hierarchical distance. An English manager in a Mexican environment, for example, will go ahead with an important decision, following his team members’ positive, while in fact, they are simply polite and not thinking of giving their opinion. It is highly likely that the implementation of the decision will be complicated. In fact, Mexicans don’t know how to say or understand “no”. To an insistent street vendor, we say “gracias” (thank you). If we say no, he will continue to offer us his goods.

On the other hand, a manager for whom respect for hierarchy is implicit, evolving in an organization where freedom of expression has long been established, may feel personally attacked by the observations of his employees. This could lead to a negative attitude towards them, which could even lead to dismissal.

Another situation that can generate tensions in countries where the hierarchical distance is high is when a manager speaks directly to the subordinate of one of his managers, without talking to him beforehand. The latter will feel ousted and is likely to take this situation very badly. If, in addition, we are dealing with people whose culture is rather collectivist, we will have created, without knowing it, a potentially conflictual situation that could explode at any moment.

Observations

It should be remembered that cultural differences between societies are relative. For example, French culture appears in surveys to be more individualistic than Brazilian culture, but less so than Anglo-Saxon cultures. In turn, Brazil ranks as a more individualistic country than Mexico.

Another point to note is that within the same society, there are significal cultural subgroups. There is an undeniable correlation between a country’s wealth and the tendency towards individualism, with wealth often associated with an orientation towards individualism. This is what happens when a person is promoted within a collectivist group. So, let’s not forget that the generic characterization of a culture does not mean that all people who are members of it behave in the same way.

Recommendations

Here are a few recommendations for preventing and better managing situations of conflict of intercultural origin.

1. Develop your awareness as well as your cultural intelligence

Reflecting on your own values and communication styles is crucial to understanding their influence on interactions. This awareness is both personal and collective. It is a question of explaining to those around you that differences in values exist, thus allowing an alternative and non-confrontational interpretation of situations.

2. Encourage diversity, without judgement

Promoting the sharing of cultural perspectives and experiences is of crucial importance. This promotes acceptance of differences without judging behaviors and values as superior to on another.

3. Establish agreements within your team or organizations

Creating clear and consensual rules within a group helps to clear up misunderstandings, recognize differences, and lead to mutual understanding.

Conclusion

It is essential to shine a light on latent conflicts within a team. Avoiding confronting or addressing them can only make them worse. A leadership coach can help the group become aware of these issues and solve them. In addition, if he is specialized in cross-cultural situations, he will be able to discern conflicts that have their origin in differences in values and beliefs.

Subsequently, he will be able to guide the group in the establishment of an agreement in the form of an alliance, which is essential to build trust, promote better communication and improve the team’s performance.

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