Intercultural Conflict by Culture Spark Global

The Ultimate Guide to Intercultural Conflict

by | Collaborations Across Cultures

As a leader or manager of a global and multicultural team, it is expected that intercultural conflict will arise and it is our responsibility to resolve it. But what can we do? What are the key approaches or steps we need to take to resolve intercultural conflict? 

Conflict is inevitable and unavoidable. Conflict starts when there are disagreements, but it can quickly become toxic when emotions run high. When a conflict happens in an intercultural situation, its consequence can severely impact your team’s relationship, work performance and even increases the level of attrition.

To effectively address an intercultural conflict, we must first investigate the background of the intercultural conflict, analyse the cultural assumptions and underlying values as well as facilitate discussions in an inclusive manner to reach a harmonious resolution.

All this is much easier said than done. Intercultural conflict has a unique nature, in a sense that each culture approaches conflict differently. Where one culture show signs of hostility, another culture may show passive aggression when in conflict. As a global leader or manager, recognising these approaches and expressions can help you in solving intercultural conflict in an empathetic and inclusive manner.

The 2 Common Reasons for the Occurrence of Intercultural Conflict

Before we delve into the “how” of resolving intercultural conflict, it is always good to take the time to assess the reasons an intercultural conflict occurs. While there can be many reasons, we will share its two common reasons.

Stereotypes

The first reason why intercultural conflict occurs is that the conflicting parties rely on their stereotypes. Stereotypes are generalised beliefs about a particular cultural group. Stereotypes help to simplify and reduce cognitive processing as well as helps us to make faster decisions. 

There exist both positive and negative stereotypes. Some examples of positive stereotypes are that Germans are efficient, Koreans are hardworking or that Indonesians are hospitable. Some examples of negative stereotypes are that Italians are always late, Americans are superficial or that the Chinese are calculative. Though, quite often stereotypes are negative and put the stereotyped person in an unfavourable light.

However, the downside to relying too much on stereotypes is that it allows us to ignore the difference between people and have us believe things about others that might not be true. The problem with stereotypes is that it shapes our behaviour and decision making, even when the stereotype is often false.

Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.

Geert Hofstede

For example, a peer may hold a negative stereotype that Mexicans make lazy employees. When a new Mexican colleague joins the team, this peer may mock, belittle or dismiss the achievements of this new colleague through microexpressions. Or even worse, the Mexican colleague might be passed over for a challenging role, because their managers believe they might not have the capabilities to take it up. Despite their talent or hard work, their efforts and talents are not recognised.  

Especially in the workplace, when employees are being stereotyped, they might feel confused, unsupported, possibly ostracised. The employees may not have the chance to perform to their full potential. Hence intercultural conflict may arise when the stereotyped person is misunderstood, treated unfairly, denied of their needs or voice, and many more. 

Stereotypes in and of itself is not a bad thing. It is how our brains are wired to survive through the millennia, so much so that it is an unconscious process. As a leader or a manager, we need to stay vigilant and increase awareness of the stereotypes that we have of others and of others towards us.

Viewing through cultural lens

The second reason why intercultural conflict occurs is our tendency to view other’s speech and behaviours through our cultural lens. Everyone wears their unique cultural lens that is shaped by their upbringing, environment and society. We use our cultural lens to determine what is right, wrong as well as acceptable and unacceptable. When our employees judge each other based on their own cultural lens, it is inevitable that conflict arises.

These can occur even for the tiniest of actions. For example, hosting a short 15-minute meeting with an American will be viewed as efficient and reliable. To the American, a short meeting means that the host is respectful of their time and efficient in completing the task within a short period. Whereas, hosting a short meeting with an Indian might be viewed as cold and inconsiderate. From the Indian’s point of view, the host is not interested in establishing common ground or in building a trusting relationship. As such, the Indian colleague may perceive that the purpose of the relationship is purely utilitarian and may feel offended. 

When we use our cultural lens to judge another, inevitably intercultural conflict may arise. However, not all is lost. We can learn to view from another’s lens, through empathy, curiosity and openness to investigate and learn from each other. We may or may not agree with the cultural lens of others. When we learn to view other’s lenses, it helps us to shape our communication and behaviour so that we can be better understood by the other.

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Intercultural Conflict Image 1 by Culture Spark Global

How Different Cultures Approaches Conflict

When we think of conflict, our first impression is that of a heated argument as shown on our local soap drama. Arms flailing. Red faces. Clenched teeth. Raised voice. Banging on tables. Papers or furniture fly through the air.

But when it comes to intercultural situations, conflict is not always obvious. How people manage and deal with conflict is learnt from their upbringing. If you’re taught to raise voices and stomp feet during a conflict, another culture may interpret this behaviour as childish and petty. If we’re taught to restrain our emotional outburst and defer to the person with the greatest authority, another culture may interpret this behaviour as uncaring or disempowering.

There are two dimensions to consider in assessing the conflict, one is the approach and the other is emotionality. There are two approaches to conflict, direct or indirect. Likewise, there are two ways to express emotions in a conflict which are, expressive and neutral.

Direct and Indirect Approach

The Direct Approach

The Direct Approach emphasises on explicitly sharing thoughts and feelings. It is expected that the exchange of messages is free-flowing, transparent and the speaker delivers their message in a clear and straight-forward manner. People who use the direct approach focus on the use and the meaning of words rather than interpreting the actions and behaviours. This Intercultural Conflict approach is valued by cultures who believe that conflict is good for building solid and stronger relationships. By being open with their thoughts and feelings, each conflicting party can better understand each other and reach a commonly agreed solution faster. 

For example, a Dutch manager explicitly expressed disappointment in the outcome of a project to their Japanese employee. The Japanese employee remained silent throughout the conversation and the Dutch manager wondered why the employee had not shared their opinion about the project. Soon after, the Japanese employee handed in their resignation. The Dutch manager was frustrated and confused with the employee’s decision to leave.

People who use the direct approach believe that sharing one’s thoughts and feelings is productive to the conflict resolution. However, when in conflict with a person from a culture that uses the indirect approach, the direct person’s behaviour can be interpreted as disruptive to group harmony or with the intention of causing another to lose their “face” or reputation. 

From the indirect person’s point of view, the direct person might be seen as aggressive or inconsiderate of the feelings, position or context of others. Also, the indirect person might not know how to respond because they are used to having others knowing and understanding their needs and wants, without explicitly expressing it. Subsequently, if a direct person does not adjust their approach, they may face social isolation or ostracism from their indirect peers. 

The Indirect Approach

The Indirect Approach takes into consideration the context as well as other parties involved in the conflict. This approach values the avoidance of confrontation and the maintenance of relationships in order to preserve group harmony and saving face. As such, disagreements and its emotions may not be as clearly articulated or openly expressed. Rather they are communicated through non-verbal behaviours. 

This Intercultural Conflict approach is valued by cultures who believe that confrontation is destructive and that it weakens or severs relationships. By keeping silent or avoiding confrontation, the harmony is maintained and eventually, the group will come to a compromise and consensus.

The Indirect Approach

The Indirect Approach takes into consideration the context as well as other parties involved in the conflict. This approach values the avoidance of confrontation and the maintenance of relationships in order to preserve group harmony and saving face. As such, disagreements and its emotions may not be as clearly articulated or openly expressed. Rather they are communicated through non-verbal behaviours. 

This Intercultural Conflict approach is valued by cultures who believe that confrontation is destructive and that it weakens or severs relationships. By keeping silent or avoiding confrontation, the harmony is maintained and eventually, the group will come to a compromise and consensus. 

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou

For example, a regional team consisting of country managers within Southeast Asia have a long-standing and tense relationship with each other. The Regional Head based in Australia attempted to repair ties through different methods, one of which is publicly acknowledging the good outcomes and efforts of individuals. The regional team faced a region-wide problem, and so the Regional Head brought the team together to work towards a solution. The Vietnamese country manager independently came up with an effective solution quicker than the regional team. The Regional Head publicly praised the Vietnamese manager’s efforts on a conference call. While the conversation was polite and supportive, none of the other country managers adopted the solution in their respective countries and reasons for not adopting the method was not brought up in subsequent conference calls. 

When a direct person is in conflict with a person using the indirect approach, the indirect person might be seen as avoidant, insincere and uninterested in solving the conflict. They also feel lost and confused because the thoughts and feelings of the other are not clearly articulated. Subsequently, the direct person may feel frustrated when their attempts to engage the indirect person seem to regress or their efforts futile.

Expressive and Neutral Emotionality

 Expressive 

People from emotionally expressive cultures appreciate explicit displays of emotions, especially during conflict. When one is upset, it’s important to show these emotions as it is interpreted as an authentic and sincere attempt to establish trust and credibility. Both trust and credibility are required to de-escalate a conflict.   

If one tries to hide, control or downplay the expression of emotions, it may lead to further escalation of the conflict. Advice such as “calm down” or “take a break” can be interpreted as an act of dismissing, devaluing and invalidating the expressive person’s emotions. They may feel that their expressed conflict is not taken seriously and may subsequently provoke them to escalate their emotional expression.  

When a person from a neutral emotionality culture is in conflict with an emotionally expressive person, the neutral person may perceive and interpret the expressive person behaviours as aggressive, insincere and possibly manipulative. As with all intercultural misunderstanding, these perceptions are often false.

Neutral

A person who is more neutral in their display of their emotions, focuses on controlling and hiding one’s emotions when one is upset. To the neutral person, displaying strong emotions disrupts the group harmony and upsets others. The control of one’s emotions is seen as a sincere attempt to de-escalate the conflict by avoiding further emotional harm of the other person.

If someone explicitly displays their emotions, it may lead to further avoidance of the conflict. People from neutrally expressive cultures are uncomfortable with emotional displays. Neutral people may feel that attempts to resolve conflict will mean further harm to their own feelings, position or face and that such efforts are futile. Subsequently, people from expressive cultures will be avoided and eventually isolated or ostracised. 

When an expressive person is in conflict with a person who is more neutral in their expressions, the expressive person may perceive the neutral person as disengaged, uncaring and uninterested in their attempt to resolve conflict. As with all intercultural misunderstanding, these perceptions are often false. 

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Considerations for Conflict Resolution

When we have different approaches and emotionality in a conflict, we need to assess, investigate, strategise and take the appropriate action to a successful resolution. But before jumping into action, there are two questions one needs to reflect upon, “What does a successful resolution look like?” and “What is your position in the conflict?”

What does a successful resolution look like?

With these different approaches and emotionality to conflict, the typical conflict resolution steps or framework may not always work. When one culture perceives an intercultural conflict as a  successful resolution might be perceived as a failure for the other. 

As such, you need to take the time to consider what a successful resolution will look like to all parties in the conflict. Some perspective-taking and reflection is required. There are some questions that can be reflected upon to help you visualise a successful resolution. To help you get started, consider a few of the following questions. 

  • What is the best outcome for you?
  • What is the desired outcome of the other?
  • What are the available options?
  • What resources or steps to get the best outcome for all parties?
  • Who’s buy-in or involvement is required for a sustainable resolution?

As you consider and reflect on these, other questions may appear for your or might be asked by others. Take the time to explore them. The clearer your vision of successful resolution the easier it is to plan out the steps towards achieving it.

What is your position in the conflict?

Your position in the intercultural conflict will have an influence in the resolution of the conflict. Position refers to your own power and status in relation to the parties in conflict. In a hierarchical cultural environment, your title, seniority and status, plays a role in the path to intercultural conflict resolution. Position also refers to whether you are one of the conflict parties or a third party.

If you are a third party, you may choose to be the mediator or engage another to help mediate the conflict. If you are a leader or a manager and the conflict is among your employees, it is an opportunity for them to become aware and learn of each other’s cultural nuances, deepen their understanding of each other as well as grow together as a high-performing team.  As leaders and managers, we can, however, facilitate an environment where everyone feels safe and included in sharing their perspectives. 

If you are one of the parties involved in the conflict, it will be good for you to consider their intercultural conflict approach and to adapt your approach in order to effectively engage the other. Michael Hammer, a prominent psychologist and researcher in the intercultural conflict space suggests the following adaptation based on the approach and emotionality.

Intercultural Conflict Chart by Culture Spark Global

Accommodation

Accommodation emphasises emotional restraint and indirect approach. People with this style will typically use stories, anecdotes, metaphors, non-verbal cues to reduce confrontation and disruption of group harmony. Other styles may perceive people who use the accommodation approach as ambiguous, unclear with their opinion and not committed to resolution.

Discussion

Discussion emphasises on facts and logic in their resolution and downplay the emotions. People with this style prefer to be clear in their goals and opinions, be objective in problem-solving and are unafraid of confrontation. Other styles may perceive them as cold and not considerate of the feelings of others.

Dynamic

Dynamic focuses on expressing emotions in their verbal and non-verbal behaviours. People with this style use stories, humour, and may exaggerate in their communication. Other styles may perceive them to be too emotional and don’t get to the point.

Engagement

Engagement focuses on both the emotional expression and being clear with their goals and opinions. People with this style are similar to those who engage with the Discussion style, only they are comfortable in sharing their emotions. If overdone, other styles might perceive them as dominating and inconsiderate of others.

Intercultural Conflict Image 2 by Culture Spark Global

Steps for Intercultural Conflict Resolution

Intercultural conflict resolution is complex. Not only does it involve the different approaches and emotionality of the conflicting parties, other factors such as the context, power dynamics, number of stakeholders and other factors play a major role within the conflict situation. Hence, it is difficult to define a set of steps to guarantee the successful resolution of an intercultural conflict.

While there is no cookie-cutter method in resolving intercultural conflict, there are a few recommended steps to consider in your path towards resolution, which are self-assessment, investigation, strategizing and facilitation. 

Assess yourself 

After taking into consideration your position in the intercultural conflict and what a successful resolution looks like, you must first assess yourself before taking further action. This self-assessment includes reflecting on your own stereotype, cultural lens, assumptions, values and beliefs with regards to the intercultural conflict at hand. 

Becoming aware of your own assumptions, beliefs, etc will provide you with an insight of how your speech and behaviour might influence the outcome of your intercultural conflict. For example, your cultural lens dictates that being late for a meeting is considered rude and disrespectful. However, if you learn to look through the lens of others, the strength of relationships and the reciprocity in supporting each other is seen as a better indicator of respect rather than being rigid with time. 

There are many ways to assess and reflect on your assumptions, beliefs and such. One effective way is to ask and honestly answer the questions below:

  • Have you formed a judgement of any of the parties involved in the conflict? If so, what are they? 
  • Where does this judgement come from? 
  • What are the personal assumptions and beliefs that may prevent your employees from feeling safe and included in the conflict resolution process?

Investigate

Whether you are the third party or one of the parties in conflict, it is good to do some investigation. Find out the history, background, perspectives of all involved in the conflict. When speaking to different stakeholders, ensure that you provide sufficient time for them to share their thoughts. Listen with an open mind, open heart and always make notes. 

To give a simple framework for the investigation, you can use the 5W1H questioning method as a guide. The 5W1H is a great place to start and may lead you to further questions as you deepen your investigation. 

  • What is the conflict about? 
  • Why did this conflict occur?
  • Who is involved in the conflict? What are their perspectives?
  • Where did the conflict occur?
  • When did the conflict occur?
  • How had the situation evolved into a conflict?

Be aware of analysis paralysis, where you spend too much of your time in investigation and procrastinate in taking action to resolve the conflict. To know when to end investigations, we’ll draw upon an economics principle called The Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns. The Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns suggests additional effort results in smaller returns.  For example, interviewing a stakeholder for the third time might yield minimal additional insight, as compared to their first and second interview. 

Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.

William James

Strategise 

Based on your self-assessment, investigation, position and the knowledge of the different styles of intercultural conflict, you will need to prepare and plan on the best course of action towards a successful resolution. Unfortunately, there is no “one-size-fits-all” strategy for intercultural conflict as conflict is highly contextual and requires careful consideration of all perspectives.

Once you have drafted a strategy, it is best to seek support from others who have encountered similar situations and are not involved in the conflict. Their insights from similar experiences will help you uncover blindspots or gaps or offer additional perspectives to further enhance your strategy.

Action Time!

After the previous steps, it is time to put your strategy into action. The action may vary greatly, from facilitating mediated sessions to engaging a mediator, to having multiple discussions with various stakeholders. 

Bare in mind that your strategy may not be foolproof. As you take action, you might uncover or discover new information which may require you to readjust your strategy. Resolution may require several mediated sessions, further investigation or involvement of additional stakeholders. Despite that, stay persistent and seek help when needed.

Addressing Intercultural Conflict Requires Practice

Intercultural conflict is not impossible to resolve. A successful resolution requires an understanding of how each culture approaches and expresses conflict. It requires the mediator to consider the various influencing factors of the intercultural conflict and to take the appropriate steps to reach a harmonious resolution. Unfortunately, when different approaches and emotionality exists, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to intercultural conflict. 

Addressing intercultural conflict requires practice and diverse experiences. The more that one seeks out opportunities to facilitate conflict resolution, the better one becomes. Not all attempts will be successful. However, there are deep lessons to be learnt with every experience, successful or not. With patience, empathy and courage, you are on the definite path to building your high performing multi-cultural team.

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Ling Ling Tai's Animated Photo

Ling Ling, Tai

Ling Ling is a seasoned Learning and Development Professional with a passion for supporting leaders and teams in leveraging diversity, increasing intercultural awareness, and cultivating inclusive workplaces. Her lifelong work spans across 21 countries and across various industries such as manufacturing, technology, travel and non-profit. Having lived and worked in 6 countries, she believes that openness, compassion and inclusion creates  thriving and engaging workplaces.

Any problem, big or small, within a family, always seems to start with bad communication. Someone isn’t listening.
Emma Thompson

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