Two things are essential to remember about cultures: they are always changing, and they relate to the symbolic dimension of life. The symbolic dimension is the place where we are constantly making meaning and enacting our identities. Michelle Lebaron says “Cultural messages from the groups we belong to give us information about what is meaningful or important, and who we are in the world and in relation to others — our identities. Cultural messages, simply, are what everyone in a group knows that outsiders do not know. They are the water fishes swim in, unaware of its effect on their vision. They are a series of lenses that shape what we see and don’t see, how we perceive and interpret, and where we draw boundaries”. In shaping our values, cultures contain starting points and carriers that influence and character our interactions with others.
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Since culture is so closely related to our identities (who we think we are), and the ways by which we make meaning (what is important to us and how), it is always a factor in our daily lives. Cultural awareness leads us to apply the Platinum Rule in place of the Golden Rule. Rather than the maxim “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the Platinum Rule advises: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”
Cultures are embedded in every conflict because a conflict arises from how we perceive situations, which are defined by cultures. Cultures affect the ways we name, frame, blame, and attempt to tame conflicts. Whether a conflict exists at all is a cultural question too. In an interview conducted in Canada, an elderly Chinese man indicated he had experienced no conflict at all for the previous 40 years. Among the possible reasons for his denial was a cultural preference to see the world through lenses of harmony rather than conflict, as encouraged by his Confucian upbringing. Labeling some of our interactions as conflicts and analyzing them into smaller component parts is a distinctly Western approach that may obscure other aspects of relationships.
Culture is always a factor in conflict, whether it plays a central role or influences it subtly and gently. For any conflict that threatens us where it matters, where we make meaning and hold our identities, there is always a cultural component. Intractable conflicts like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir are not just about territorial, boundary, and sovereignty issues — they are also about acknowledgement, representation, and legitimization of different identities and ways of living, being, and making meaning.
In organizations, conflicts arising from different cultures escalate tensions between co-workers, creating strained or inaccurate communication and stressed relationships. Culture permeates conflict, sometimes pushing forth with intensity, other times quietly crawling along beneath, hardly announcing its presence until surprised people nearly stumble on it.
Culture is inextricable from conflict, though it does not cause it. When differences surface in families, organizations, or communities, culture is always present, shaping perceptions, attitudes, behaviors, and outcomes. Cultures shared by dominant groups often seem to be “natural,” “normal” — “the way things are done.” We only notice the effect of cultures that are different from our own, attending to behaviors that we label exotic or strange.
Culture is intertwined with conflict, sometimes knowingly but mostly unknowingly. It acts as a reflective mirror of our identities and when transgression takes place across those boundaries it presses a fickle switch that lays down a cyclic process of future actions which inadvertently are controlled by cultures too.
In multicultural organizations, rudimentarily culture and conflict are inseparable, always dictating the final outcome.
Culture is not a Problem – Unless it’s a Problem
Let us understand one thing clearly. Culture is not a problem – unless it is a problem!
Many international projects have undoubtedly been carried through without anyone ever noticing that cultural differences may have caused unanticipated frustrations or hurdles.
However, quite a number of projects never reach optimal levels of operation or customer satisfaction because prevalent cultural asynchronizations have amplified the other difficulties that may have been encountered.
One company which presented a case story in one of the “Management of Multicultural Projects” programs described a project in North Africa which involved interested parties from 3 continents – Korea, Libya, the UK and Denmark. For the experienced Danish company alone, the project was to be finished within 2 years with a profit of 2 million US dollars. After 6 years the project was finally completed, but at a loss of 1 million US dollars. Even the start-up meeting, which was to have been the energetic start of the project attended by all the key interested parties, turned out to be a preview of the problems that were yet to come. The parties were never present that start-up week all at the same time. It was nearly impossible to draw up project plans and agreements to everyone’s satisfaction. Organizational relationships were never quite clear. Language and cultural differences made communication difficult.
Most, if not all, of us have heard of problems that occurred when slogans for products were not effectively translated in international advertising promotions. On the website www.grammarlady.com, Mary N. Bruder mentions several translations gone bad. For example, when Chevrolet tried to sell the Nova to Spanish-speaking countries, it never sold well because in Spanish, “No va” translates into “It does not go.” Also, when Pepsi started marketing products in China, the slogan, “Pepsi Brings You Back to Life” was translated pretty literally. The slogan in Chinese really meant, “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave”.
With the wisdom of hindsight managers of multicultural projects understand that many of the problems through-out the project, even after the start-up phase, could always have been foreseen and at least partially resolved, if there had been a careful cultural analysis of the interested parties at the start. Thus by letting culture being a problem they made it a problem.
Cultural Conflicts: How to Manage
According to Thomas, “conflict management is purposeful intervention of managers or leaders to stimulate beneficial conflicts and suppress, resolve and prevent harmful conflicts”. Given culture’s important role in conflicts, what should be done to keep it in mind and include it in response plans? Unless we develop comfort with diverse cultural responses, we may find ourselves tangled in its net of complexity, limited by our own cultural lenses. The change from homogenous to heterogeneous work force requires managers to be adaptive in cross-cultural skills.
Cultural fluency is a key tool for disentangling and managing multilayered cultural conflicts.
By Studying Different Cultures:
In observing other cultures, the differences are striking; the way business cards are exchanged, the way people greet each other, dress, negotiate and resolve conflict, and even the way visual information is seen and perceived. Other differences are topics of conversation and business customs that have been deemed appropriate. Also, nonverbal communication is different; the distance between us and another person when speaking, hand and facial gestures and how long eye contact is maintained with another person or if it is. In his article in Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Barry Thatcher claims “that while more empirical and ethnographic research must be done, we face the danger of oversimplifying people, organizations, and cultures”. Most intercultural communication research is based on limited assumptions of organizational relationships; therefore, it is not truly valid research. Managers need to obtain more valid and ethical cross-cultural comparisons, the focus should first be on similarities between cultures, and then on the differences within those cultures.
By Overcoming Ethnocentrism:
Ethnocentrism is inevitable since it is rooted in the impossibility of escaping from one’s experience”. Ethnocentrism can lead to a false sense of superiority. Managers must learn to combat this false belief and adopt the truth that just because people see things differently, does not imply that they are inferior. In his book Bridging Differences, William Gudykunst claims “that people must get away from the idea that we are right and they are wrong. This mindset exists when groups or individuals look out for their own interests and have little concern for others’ interests. This lack of concern leads to moral exclusion, which occurs when individuals or groups are perceived as outside the boundary in which moral values, rules, and considerations of fairness apply. Those who are morally excluded are perceived as nonentities, expendable, or undeserving; consequently, harming them appears acceptable, appropriate or just”. There are two dimensions which assist a manager in overcoming this propensity toward ethnocentrism:
a. An increased awareness of one’s own culture.
b. An awareness of the differences in work values and cultural values of other cultures.
By Avoiding Stereotyping:
The identification of stereotypes is an important key to cross-cultural communication. “Stereotyping is oversimplification of preconceived notions”. Although people of one culture share certain characteristics, stereotypes are likely to cause unrealistic expectations in interpersonal relationships. One of the best ways to avoid the problem of stereotyping is to make an effort at approaching all people as human beings. This mental choice helps to build a positive attitude toward people of other cultures.
By Developing Multiple Perspectives:
The leader needs to acquire the skill of approaching the world through multiple perspectives. Self-awareness is the first step in developing multiple perspectives. Being aware of personal cultural assumptions is a crucial aspect in developing competence in intercultural exchanges. A German head of department of a multicultural company in South Africa, who has lived there for twenty years, states that his cross-cultural experience has assisted him in learning that there are multiple perspectives. Managers are used to see things and black and white and with heterogeneous work force they must now understand that it is important to place all issues in different hues of grey. An important responsibility of a leader is to recognize the range of forces that affect each of the employees, then to assist them understand how these forces influence individual perceptions. This process creates an atmosphere of co-operation in the work place.
By Multicultural Communication:
An old Roman saying goes “The crucial question is not whether your message is understood but whether it can be misunderstood”. A manger must understand the influence of culture in communications. Communication refers to different starting points about how to relate to and with others.
A classification devised by Edward T. Hall differentiates communication as high and low context. He says “In high-context communication, most of a message is conveyed by the context surrounding it, rather than being named explicitly in words. The physical setting, the way things are said, and shared understandings are relied upon to give communication meaning. Interactions feature formalized and stylized rituals, telegraphing ideas without spelling them. Nonverbal cues and signals are essential to comprehension of the message. The context is trusted to communicate in the absence of verbal expressions, or sometimes in addition to them. Low-context communication emphasizes directness rather than relying on the context to communicate. From this starting point, verbal communication is specific and literal, and less is conveyed in implied, indirect signals. Low-context communicators tend to say what they mean and mean what they say”. High context communication being less direct than low-context communication may increase the possibilities of miscommunication because much of the intended message is unstated while low-context communication may escalate conflict because it is more confrontational than high-context communication. He further states, “As people communicate, they move along a continuum between high and low-context. Depending on the kind of relationship, the context, and the purpose of communication, they may be more or less explicit and direct. In close relationships, communication shorthand is often used, which makes communication opaque to outsiders but perfectly clear to the parties”. Within a multicultural organization the same choice is fallible and potential spark for conflict. Thus managers may choose low and high-context communication depending on understanding of cultural groups.
Barnabas identified redundancy as key in multicultural communication, where constant clarification and feedback is important. Steyn set forth five principles of effective communication which can be transpired to cross-cultural communication with an addition of a sixth point.
Keep the message simple, using direct and simple language.
Keep the message clear and concise.
Deliver the message at a time when the receptor is most receptive.
Give the message at speed at which the receptor is able to understand.
Minimize the use of junk words that detract from the primary message.
Repeat the message untill receptor grasps the intended meaning
By Mentoring Employees and Team Building:
A leader of a multicultural organisation should emphasize similarities among employees rather than differences. He must help his employees understand and appreciate the value of individual differences, determining a sense of community. According to various researchers (Salend, Garcia & Pugh, Kirtman & Minoff, Putzman & Johnson) a manger should:
Create an environment open to sharing.
Help to understand how each member perceives motives, actions, and situations.
Help to understand that people have differences in needs, objectives, and values.
Provide opportunities for workers to experience the diversity of cultures.
Be creative in providing adequate recognition for each employee.
By Empathizing with Employees:
Empathy is ability to exchange places with another person in order to understand the thoughts, emotions and behavior in a given situation. Empathy is not automatic but a developed response. According to Malone and Tulbert, “a centered person needs the ability to shift paradigms and view the world through eyes of other people”. A lack of empathy could be a problem, what may be minor for someone could be major for another. Also empathy helps in overcoming ethnocentrism.
By Approach to Meaning Making:
Approaches to meaning-making also vary across cultures. Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars suggest that people have a range of starting points for making sense of their lives, including:
a. Universalist (favoring rules, laws, and generalizations)
b. Particularistic (favoring exceptions, relations, and contextual evaluation)
c. Specificity (preferring explicit definitions, breaking down wholes into component parts, and measurable results)
d. Diffuseness (focusing on patterns, the big picture, and process over outcome)
When managers don’t understand that others may have quite different starting points, conflict is more likely to occur and to escalate. Negative motives are easily attributed to someone who begins from a different end of the spectrum. These continua are not absolute, nor do they explain human relations broadly. They are clues to what might be sub-terrain. Managers need to be meaning-making creatures, telling stories and creating understandings that preserve our sense of self and relate to our purpose. This can be done by the creation of shared stories, stories that are co-constructed to make room for multiple points of view within them. Trompenaars adds “Narrative conflict-resolution approaches help them leave their concern with truth and being right on the sideline for a time, turning their attention instead to stories in which they can both see themselves. Another way to explore meaning making is through metaphors. Metaphors are compact, tightly packaged word pictures that convey a great deal of information in shorthand form. As the manager facilitates the two sides to talk about their metaphors, the more diffused starting point wrapped up in different cultural perspective meets the more specific one”.
By Naming and framing a Conflict:
Ways of naming and framing a conflict varies across cultural boundaries. Not everyone agrees on what constitutes a conflict. For those accustomed to subdued, calm discussion, an emotional exchange may seem erratic and a threatening conflict. Intractable conflicts are also subject to different interpretations.
Is an event a skirmish, a provocation, an escalation, or a mere trifle, hardly worth noticing? The answer depends on perspective, context, and how identity relates to the situation. Since there is no consensus across cultures or situations on what constitutes a conflict or how events in the interaction should be framed, so there are many different ways of thinking about how to properly frame a cross-cultural conflict. John Paul Lederach, in his book Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures, identifies the role of a modern manager in a range of cultural contexts when to prefer in traditional, high-context settings, and when to act in a low-context settings. Mangers depending on their cultural sense of what is needed, how conflict should be addressed must be able to clearly define and frame a conflict least further escalating an existing one.
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By Suspending Judgment:
It is a critical skill for a leader in a multicultural organisation. When a manager makes a decision about a conflict management strategy he must take into account not only the achievement of short-term goals but the long-term consequences to subordinates as well. Knowledge of personal cultural patterns could assist a leader in suspending judgement. This could help in face management which are prominent in some cultures.
Recommendations and Conclusion
“When I think of what has helped me bridge cultural gaps, it is more than just sensitivity; it is enjoyment of the difference, even when they arise in conflicts” – Mayer
Cross cultural conflicts could be function or dysfunctional depending upon how the conflict is managed. The cross culture phenomenon may cause confusion and affecting perceptions, thus it is imperative for managers and those in leadership roles to understand the skills involved in suppressing such situations and guiding the diverse workforce to path of organizational success.
A multicultural organization should follow a three step plan.
An induction program for new employees focusing on cultural specific training.
A diversity and conflict resolution training.
A long term objective of continuous up gradation of employees understanding of cultural issues and new strategies for conflict resolution.
In current scenario the key term to understand for managers is culture fluency. Being culturally fluent involves all aspects discussed in this paper. It strengthens a leader’s skill in identifying the root cause, the nature of conflict and methods required to successfully resolve a potential escalating situation.
The multi-dimensional character of cross-cultural conflicts requires multiple perspective leadership. Adaptive and evolving managers in such organizations are key to success.
This paper only provides an insight into intra-organization cross culture conflicts. A further scope would add another dimension to already complex situation. How would we manage two or more multicultural organization conflicts? We also require more intensive research on cultural values from a global stand point to fully characterize needs of tomorrow’s managers.
The following statement from Mayer succinctly concludes this paper: “The most serious conflicts in our world, with gravest consequences, involve cross-cultural issuesâ€¦Resolution must involve a new approach to interaction, in which the diversity of people becomes a source of strength and not a cause of tragedy.”
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