Resolving Conflicts in a Global Team

Managing conflict is already a hard-enough skill for many managers, let alone managing conflicts across cultures! 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, who is from Asia, mostly chooses to tone down disputes to maintain harmony. On the other hand, Matthew from Canada is trained to confront assertively as soon as possible to avoid escalating it. Matthew might regard Lee as being avoidant, whereas Lee will perceive Matthew as aggressive.

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

To examine in detail how each culture approaches conflict is beyond the scope of this article. This article aims to consider one dominant cultural factor that impacts one’s approach towards conflict: collectivistic vs. individualistic culture.

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 values 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, the favor will be returned 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 with the personal self-worth behind it.

So, what’s the best way to manage conflict in a global team where individuals come from both collectivistic and individualistic societies? 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 points that cause misunderstanding.
  2. Have a “cultural interpreter” who understands both east and west cultures to mediate the talk. The mediator can help the collectivists with direct communication —to strengthen the message—as well as to 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. As the present-day workplace is becoming more global, managers and leaders must receive training on cultural competency to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings.