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OTB – Conflicts in Organizations

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  • Pages: 11
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  • Category: Conflict

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Contemporary business world witnesses the changing of the workforce’s composition. This trend first has been completely appreciated in the practice of multination corporations (MNCs). According to Dowling, Schuler and Welch HRM and Organizational Behavior policies and practices of MNCs are likely to be different from those found in domestic firms (Dowling, et al, 1994). For MNCs the difference in geographical spread meant that MNCs should normally engage in a number of HR and organizational behavior activities that were not needed in domestic firms – such as providing relocation and orientation assistance to expatriates, administering international job rotation programs, dealing with international union activity, managing multicultural and virtual groups, etc.

Managing the diversity generated a number of coordination and communication problems that had not arisen in domestic firms, and simultaneously fostered specific methods designed for the resolutions of diversity related problems, including conflict management, particularly in conflicts caused by employees coming from different cultural backgrounds. There is already an extensive literature on cross-cultural management, and as the importance of the global economy increases and trade barriers begin to disappear, whether in Asia, the Americas or Europe, this literature will surely grow.

Therefore, as this literature suggests attempting to resolve the resulting conflicts by using only traditional methods of western management such as compromising, forcing, persuading, problem solving, etc., will not be adequate. Practically, as Adler et al (1986) points out, management should make use of the advantages of cultural diversity rather than see it as a negative impediment (Adler et al., 1986: 304-6).

In turbulent and globalizing business environment, contemporary managers in their roles need to positively manage the inevitable group conflicts. By anticipating the source of conflict as well as its causes, they may use conflict to produce new ideas and optimum solutions. Moreover, effective management of people holding different values and coming from different cultures will inevitably bring “[m]ore effective motivation of workers through the accurate interpretation of behaviors and the design of culturally aware motivation strategies” (Business Week Online, 2005).

            Thomas (1976: 885) defined conflict as the “process which begins when one party perceives that the other has frustrated, or is about to frustrate, some concern of his (or hers).” The meaning of concerns here are the needs, wants and values of an individual. Therefore, “conflict situations” arise when the needs, wants and values of two parties interfere with one another. Depending on how parties react to conflict it may not be harmful, indeed, it presents opportunities for situations to be driven forward effectively, particularly in business contexts.

According to Thomas (1976) the structural model of organizational conflict identifies the parameters that shape the conflict episode. Thomas (1976: 912-27) found that there are four such parameters: (1) Behavioral predisposition: including one party’s motives, abilities and personality; (2) Social pressure: the pressure arising from the group that one member is a constituent of and the pressure from cultural values, organizational work group norms, and public interest where those parties exist; (3) Incentive structure: the objective reality which gives rise to conflict, e.g. stakes, relationship between parties, conflict of interests in competitive issues and common problems;

(4) Rules and procedures: which includes the decision-making machinery, i.e. decision rules, negotiation, and arbitration procedures, which constrain and shape behavior of those conflicting parties. Thomas (1976: 930) concluded his research on conflict by suggesting integrative theory which looks for those basic events and structural variables which appear helpful in understanding the various manifestations of conflict in dyads. Therefore, Thomas’ position suggests that conflict can be defined as an interpersonal dynamic which is shaped by the internal and external environments of the parties involved and this dynamic and manifested in a process which affects group performance either functionally or dysfunctionally.

            Looking at the issue of conflict as well as group development, one can see that in almost every aspect culture can have a major impact on how conflict is perceived and responded to. In addition, cultural diversity gives rise to conflict in the group’s life and development in two additional important ways: trust building and communication.  For instance, trust in a multi-cultural task group is difficult to develop.

Research indicates that group members tend to adhere to other group members of their own culture rather than to those of other cultures. If there is no communication among members, a trusting relationship is difficult to develop. Moreover, mistrust precipitates a condition for conflict. For example, Japanese managers in the US and Arabic countries tend to interact among themselves, make decisions with consultation of Tokyo rather than local management, are reluctant to respond with definite answers, and frustrate the foreign workers (Elashmawi, 1990: 36-90).

            At the same time, even though members of a task group have to communicate, cross-cultural communication problems occur. Adler (1991: 67-83) pointed out that there are three barriers to cross-cultural communication. First, cross-cultural misperception means that our perceptual patterns are selective, learned, culturally determined, consistent and inaccurate (because we usually perceive what we expect to perceive). Second, cross-cultural misinterpretation means that we categorize situations from our own countries perspective and apply it to other countries.

In addition, we categorize behavioral norms of ethnic and national groups, which is called stereotyping. Third, cross-cultural misevaluation which means that we use our own culture as a standard of measurement or a self reference criteria to judge another culture as good and normal, if it is similar to our culture, and as bad and abnormal, if it is dissimilar.  Anderson (1983: 325), also concluded in a specific empirical study with the New Zealand Pakeha (white) male managers on the management of the mixed cultural work group as “cultural differences and the possible resulting communication problems may intensify the difficulty of manager’s job as he attempts to manage people’s work and attempts to produce an effective task strategy for the group.”

            Gardenswarlz and Rowe (1993: 107-8), suggested that cultural lenses impact upon teamsmanship. There are four elements that need to be explored to explain this relationship:

(1) First, there is a desire for harmony, although North Americans will reluctantly deal with conflict, they will deal with it in team building sessions particularly as it relates to productivity. In many other cultures such as the Middle East, Orient, Central America and Mexico – harmony is central. The value placed on smooth interpersonal relationships would make it very difficult and highly unlikely to surface conflicts and deal with them in team building sessions. Differences will be dealt with and problem solved through the informal network, which is powerful in maintaining harmony and dealing with conflict simultaneously.

(2) Social status based on family connections: “Westerners” view teamsmanship as being designed to forge a collaborative, egalitarian work unit. Many other cultures do not see things that way. Social status, family connections, gender, seniority, and age have a powerful impact. This has an impact on the expectations of team members who have been differently acculturated. For example, some will not report to women. What is needed in situations like these are clear boundaries and expectations. While it is important to be sensitive to different upbringing and norms, there are also situations where it is not possible to bend because it will create team norms that cannot be supported nor reinforced.

(3) Emphasis on group: This cultural overlap can provide an opportunity to bring the group together. i.e. positioning the team building process as a chance to foster good relationships and build trust is one of the best ways to minimize resistance. A successful intercultural marriage takes place when one encourages individual growth and development as something that contribute to the overall team effort. Individual achievement can be channeled toward group accomplishment and rewarded accordingly. In that way, a manager supports a mainstream value, build self-esteem, encourage the strengthening of the group and cultivate collaboration rather than competition.

(4) Fatalism and external locus of control: In some cultures predestination is a strong force and problem solving may be inhibited. It is assumed that some issues are out of the domain of mortal human beings, no matter how sophisticated the problem solving system. A manager may determine that a person or group of people is being difficult-resisting and sabotaging group effort when they really are being responsive to cultural upbringing and belief (Gardenswarlz and Rowe, 1993: 107-8).

            Finally, Newman (1995: 69-94), has been investigating multinational joint ventures for more than a decade. The research concentrated on the interaction between organizations and individuals whose primary alliances remain rooted in separate cultures and merged behavior of individuals from different backgrounds into a hybrid organization. Researchers observed cross-cultural hurdles at all stages of collaboration between international companies. At the negotiation and planning stages differences in language, business practice and legal institution often prevented the parties from empathizing each other.

The culture interfered with the needed frankness. For example, the Chinese tradition of secrecy about business affairs coupled with politeness and avoidance of open argument is very different from the American blunt analysis. Also, based on their history, Chinese mistrust in foreigners can lead to impractical regulations against technology transfer as an example. Achieving an agreement between individuals from different countries and cultures encounters hurdles in communicating, in conceiving of unfamiliar operations, in understanding the institutional structure in which each partner lives and finally reconciling beliefs, fears and values.

            Conflict and disagreement can be handled most effectively by employing a wide range of approaches. In a research study to understand actual behavior (Kindler, 1995), people were asked the following “When your views on a work-related issue differ from the views of others who are also importantly involved, how do you prepare for such situations?” From the responses, two behaviors emerged as themes: (1) Deciding how firm or flexible to be when asserting one’s viewpoint, and (2) Choosing how intensely involved to be with others who hold divergent views.

            After these two dimensions – viewpoint flexibility and interaction intensity – were identified, a study of the literature on conflict revealed the following strategies. Managers should dominate on conflict arena, using power and pressure when speed or confidentiality are important or when the situation is too minor to warrant time-consuming involvement of others. Simultaneously, managers should use bargaining, offering something the other party wants in exchange for something one wants. This particular strategy implies a possibility of a mediator which may facilitate the process.

Mangers may also choose a decide-by-rule approach, when all parties agree jointly to use an objective rule such as a vote, lottery, seniority system, or arbitration.  This strategy is helpful when one wants to be seen as impartial but decisive action is needed. Finally, managers should learn how to negotiate, and as Mercer Human Resource Consulting points out (2005), “different cultures have remarkably different approaches to negotiation. Some may start with emphasizing the negative, others the positive; some may believe withholding information is power; some may believe it is rude to say no outright.” Therefore, the negotiation strategy should be adopted considering cultural peculiarities of group members or entire organization.

            The group process itself produces opportunities for managing conflict. Many people from different cultures retreat from confrontations and conflicts. This has been demonstrated in the discussion of how culture may influence teamsmanship. Conflict has a different meaning to people of different cultures. This difference illustrates that people from different cultures may have different norms of behavior, especially behavior in the workplace.

Managers need to develop an openness to build trust so that needed desired information has a chance to emerge and evolve for conflict resolution. Managers also need to acknowledge the cultural impact on conflict and build on it (Gardenswarlz and Rowe, 1993: 113). In this case, it is necessary that the employee can explain it in a way that the listener can understand. An important element of this is the ability of the listener to listen effectively. Managers may find it also useful to use those instruments to try to begin to understand the employee’s culture and to see how one’s own differs from it.

            Abbassi and Hollman (1991) indicated several recommendations for managers of multicultural organizations. Managers should recognize and acknowledge that people from various backgrounds and ethnic groups with different values and unorthodox attitudes make up corporate life. Managers should communicate and show respect for the culture and values of others.

They should listen to the views of minority workers and make sure that they are included in their formal and informal networks. Managers should avoid stereotyping anyone from any culture. Provide workers with a sense of psychological safety; assist them when needed in the acculturation process. Managers should be empathetic, but be themselves, they should not try to be “one of them”. In addition, they should avoid projecting or imposing their own culture and value system onto others. Finally, managers should trust their instincts in dealing with foreign employees (Abbassi and Hollman, 1991: 7-11).

            According to Adler (1991), managing cultural differences is handled by defining the issues from the point of view of both cultures. The purpose is to uncover cultural interpretations of specific issues and then come together with a cultural synergy that works for both groups. The focus should be on building everyone’s repertoire of behaviors. This can help newcomers learn to acculturate while assisting “old-timers” (established employees) to be open, sensitive and non-judgmental. The climate should be such where being genuine is valued and the maintenance of integrity is the norm where differences can be discussed in a “low stakes productive way, an inch at a time” (Gardenswarlz and Rowe, 1993:131).

Different mechanisms can be used to discover the underlying cultural differences that are motivating people. An informal method may be to ask leaders or intermediaries (Gardenswarlz and Rowe, 1993:131 and Adler, 1991). More formal procedures may be developed, depending on certain variables such as the situation, the organization, or even the stage of the group development. Initially, the responsibility for this should rest with the manager; however, as the group develops, it too takes on responsibility for discovering and working with differences that inhibit productivity.

            A beginning point of the more formal method might be an instrument such as the “Norms/Values Worksheet” (Gardenswarlz and Rowe, 1993: 133). The value of this is that it is a more objective instrument that can reveal much information about culture. It can be used as an icebreaker to this topic. In addition, to help overcome conflicts and reach an effective collaboration between cross-cultural organizations, management has to identify the distinct stages and manage each stage separately, selecting executives suited to each stage. To accomplish this cultural change management process, organizations will need to formally develop key behavioral skills and individual competencies needed to assist managers to deal with conflict, culture and change.


Abbassi, S.M. and Hollman, K.W. (1991), “Managing cultural diversity: the challenges of the   90s”, ARMA Records Management Quarterly, 25(3): 24-32

Thomas, K.W. (1976) “Conflict and conflict management”, in Dunnette, M., Handbook of         Industrial and Organizational Psychology, v. II, Rand McNally, Chicago, IL

Adler, N.J. (1991), International Dimension of Organizational Behavior, PWS-Kent      Publishing Company, Boston, MA

Dowling, P. J., Schuler, R. S. and Welch, D. E. 1994, International Dimensions of Human         Resource Management, Belmont: Wadsworth

Adler, N.J., Doktor, R. and Redding, S.G. (1986), “From the Atlantic to the Pacific century:      cross-cultural management reviewed”, Journal of Management, 12(2): 295-318.

Elashmawi, F. (1990), “Japanese culture clash in multicultural management”, Tokyo Business    Today, 58(2): 36-9

Anderson, L.R. (1983), “Management of the mixed-cultural work group”, Organizational          Behavior and Human Performance, 31(3): 303-30

Gardenswarlz, L. & Rowe, A. (1993), Managing Diversity: A Complete Desk References and    Planning Guide, Irwing/Peffer and Company

Newman, W.H. (1995), “Stages in cross cultural collaboration”, Journal of Asia Business,         11(4): 69-94

Kindler, H.S. (1995), “Managing conflict and disagreement constructively”, in Pfeiffer, J.W.     (Eds), The 1995 Annual: Volume I Training: 169-74, Pfeiffer and Co., San Diego

Mercer Human Resource Consulting (2005) “Culture Shock! Managing Cross-Cultural Differences”, Mercer, Nov 4. Retrieved from

            <http://www.mercerhr.com/knowledgecenter/reportsummary.jhtml/dynamic/idConten     t/1200495> Accessed Jan 15, 2006

“Cultural Competence Establishing a Knowledge Structure” (2005) Business Week Online,       Retrieved from

            < http://www.businessweek.com/adsections/diversity/diversecompet.htm>

            Accessed Jan 15, 2006

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