Resolving Conflicts in a Global Team

Managing conflict is already a hard-enough skill for many managers, let alone managing conflicts across cultures! However, the ability to resolve cross-cultural conflict is becoming critical as global teams become more prevalent in the corporate landscape.

Different cultures approach conflicts differently. For example, Lee, from Asia, mostly chooses to tone down disputes to maintain harmony. On the other hand, Matthew from Canada prefers to confront assertively as soon as possible to avoid escalating it. As a result, Matthew might regard Lee as avoidant, whereas Lee will perceive Matthew as aggressive.

If you are not aware of these cultural preferences, you might deepen the misunderstandings. 

Examining in detail how each culture approaches to conflict is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, this article explores one cultural dimension that heavily impacts one’s approach towards conflict: whether the culture is collectivistic or individualistic.

Collectivistic cultures are those that emphasize cohesiveness among individuals. Prioritization is given to groups over individuals. Each individual is encouraged to do what’s best for the family and the community. Values that are important to these societies are unityharmony, and selflessness. They highly value indirect communication in order to preserve “face” for others in the community. Cultures like China, Korea, Mexico are collectivistic cultures.

Individualistic cultures, as the term goes, give priority to individual needs, values, or dreams. These societies place high importance on direct communication and personal achievements. Countries like the USA, Germany, and many western countries are dominantly individualistic cultures.

In general, when approaching conflict, collectivists tend to play it down for two main reasons. First, maintaining harmony in the group takes priority. Individuals are expected to keep the peace as much as possible–especially if the conflict occurs within the workgroup or family. Second, the act of toning it down gives “face” to the opposing party. If the opposing party is sensitive enough to appreciate this act, he will return the favor in the future.

Individualistic societies, on the other hand, desire direct communication — a “heart-to-heart talk.” This act is considered healthy, brave, and authentic. What makes this possible is that individuals in these societies can often separate the issue at hand from the personal self-worth behind it.

So, what’s the best way to manage conflict in a global team with these two cultures? Here are some suggestions to start with:

  1. Invite both the collectivistic and the individualistic members to list down their points of reasons that cause the conflict. By doing so, both are less likely to become defensive when the other party brings up issues that cause misunderstanding.
  2. Have a “cultural interpreter” who understands both cultures to mediate the talk. The interpreter can help the collectivists with direct communication—to strengthen the message. He can also help the individualists to deflect some strong words.
  3. Follow up with each party to ensure that the issue has been resolved. The collectivistic member might appear okay after the talk, but that does not mean he feels that the conflict has been resolved. Some follow-up talks might be necessary.

Don’t assume just because we have friends from other cultures, we know the deeper values of their cultural paradigms. Moreover, as the present-day workplace is becoming more global, cultural competency training will avoid wasting unnecessary resources in cultural misunderstandings.