How to Manage Conflict in Your Multicultural Team

Every culture has behaviors that influence the way we handle conflict in the workplace. Only when we start understanding these cultural preferences can we reduce misunderstandings and manage conflict effectively.

The ability to manage cross-cultural conflict is becoming critical as global teams become more prevalent in the corporate landscape. The good news is that we can find ways to deal with these issues when we explore what interculturalist Geert Hofstede calls cultural dimensions. Here, we will examine one of the cultural dimensions: how collectivistic or individualistic cultures handle conflict differently.

If we look at two people from different this particular cultural dimension, we start to understand how each culture approaches conflict differently.  As an example, Lee is from China, and he usually chooses to tone down disputes to maintain harmony. On the other hand, Matthew from Canada prefers to confront conflict assertively early on to avoid it escalating. As a result, Matthew might regard Lee as avoidant, whereas Lee will perceive Matthew as aggressive. 

In fact, they are dealing with the situation based on how their culture approaches conflict—Lee from a collectivistic culture and Matthew as individualistic. Collectivistic cultures like Chinese, Korean and Mexican emphasize harmony among members within their group. Individual opinions and feelings can give way to group or leaders’ priorities. Individualistic cultures, as the term goes, place importance on individual ideas and values. Countries like the USA, Germany, and many western countries are dominantly individualistic cultures.

In general, when approaching conflict, collectivistic cultures tend to play it down for two main reasons. First, maintaining harmony in the group takes importance, and each person should consider the values and expectations of the people whose relationships are important to them. Collectivists are expected to keep the peace as much as possible—especially if the conflict occurs within the workgroup or family. Second, they value indirect communication to preserve “face” for others in their community. Toning down conflict gives “face” to the opposing party. If the opposing party is sensitive enough to appreciate this act, they will return the favor in the future. 

Individualistic societies, on the other hand, place high importance on personal values and direct communication. Acts like having a “heart-to-heart” talk are considered healthy, brave, and authentic. This is possible because 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 cultural differences? Here are some suggestions to start with:

  1. Invite both the collectivistic and the individualistic members to list their reasons for the conflict. By doing so, both are less likely to become defensive when the other party brings up issues that cause misunderstanding.
  1. 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. They can also help the individualists to deflect some strong words.
  1. 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 they feel that the conflict has been resolved. Some follow-up talks might be necessary.

We can learn from the term “lend me your eyes” to step into the perspective of others and fully understand their situation. Just because we work well with colleagues from other cultures, we shouldn’t assume that we know the deeper values of their cultural paradigms. But we also don’t need to be hampered by fear. We can remain curious and open to learning more about others’ cultural preferences when we see conflict management styles different from ours. 

As the present-day workplace is becoming more global, cultural competency training will prevent wasting unnecessary resources to deal with cultural misunderstandings. Get in touch about a complimentary session to learn how we can work together to reduce conflict within your team.

How do you manage conflicts in your multicultural teams? Share with us your experience and insights.

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