Academic Discussion

Internal conflict resolution

From perusing the foregoing case discussion, it is clear that cross-cultural management faces enormous challenges when an organization has to operate in a turbulent environment. Quite often, the need for conflict resolution arises because managers from habitually opposed cultural groups have to work together. Nienke Boersma, a former MBA student (2001), narrated her first-hand experience regarding internal conflict while working for an international consultancy company. Boersma is Dutch, but opines that in her experience, the cultural differences between the Dutch and Belgians are greater than those between the Dutch and any other country. According to her, this resulted in a conflict situation when a Belgian came to head a four-member Dutch team of which she was a member. Belgians feel comfortable in an authoritarian structure, where managers enjoy stature and position depending on their place in the hierarchy. The Dutch on the other hand are expected to demonstrate their competence on the job. Managers do not automatically occupy a position of importance by virtue of their job title.

The first day the Belgian manager assumed his position as the head of his team, the Dutch started experiencing problems getting along with him. They had to develop a business plan for a client, and wanted to start working on it straightaway. The Belgian instead insisted that the team first develop advance plans, and that Boersma, as the most junior member of the team, learn a particular computer programme. Boersma perceived this as an attempt on the part of the Belgian to demonstrate his authority.

The Belgian also proceeded to have a telephone line put in the room where the team met with its client. This enabled him to check his e-mail in that room, instead of in his office that was just next -door. The Dutch viewed this also as an attempt on the part of the Belgian to demonstrate that as the team leader, he was entitled to certain perks. Meanwhile, the Dutch managers felt that he was not showing any performance, and found it difficult to respect him as a professional. Very quickly, the group had polarized into two camps: the Dutch managers versus the Belgian team leader.

Matters came to a head when the Belgian complained to the managing director of the consultancy's Dutch office. This was in keeping with the Belgian way of resolving conflicts; however, it went against Dutch norms. Dutch managers first try to resolve a conflict at their own level, before taking the matter to a higher authority for arbitration. The managing director saw the situation from a perspective different from the Belgian's. He 'resolved' the conflict by summoning the entire team, and informing them of the complaint the Belgian had made. He made it apparent that the Belgian's lodging a complaint with him was tanta-mount to an admission that he could not handle the situation. He then assigned Boersma the responsibility of providing guidance to the Belgian. It was also suggested to the Belgian that the team should start working on the project assigned to them, instead of spending so much time planning their work procedures.

The Belgian did not make any headway, and seemed to spend his time going around in circles. His Dutch team members soon realized that the hapless Belgian was unable to work on his own. Since he was accustomed to working in a hierarchical system, where seniors did not ask their subordinates for help, he tried to muddle on by himself. In any case, asking for assistance now would have led to considerable loss of face for him. Since no progress was achieved on the project, and the Belgian was viewed as the bottleneck, he was removed from the project and sent back to Belgium.

The project then had to be completed by three people, instead of the original four, and the Belgian fell sick on his return and was not available for work for two months.

We can draw specific inferences from this example:

  • Boersma suggests that employees adopt the culture of the dominant group of managers when functioning in a cross-cultural context. According to her, adopting the culture of the dominant group means adopting the work culture of the country from which the majority of the employees hail. It also means adopting the work culture of the country a manager is working in. In the above instance, this suggestion may be valid, as in another situation when Boersma was deputed to work in the consultancy company's Singapore office. Being the only Dutch manager in a Singapore branch dominated by Singaporean managers, she adapted to a work culture dictated by Singaporean traditions. She accepted the hierarchical structure that was in place, and the more bureaucratic style of functioning. She did this even though, as a Dutch manager who had until then worked in the Netherlands, she was not comfortable with a hierarchical environment.

  • Boersma's suggestion has validity in limited situations. However, life is not always that simple. Before we turn to more complex situations, we will examine a few other issues related to the straight-forward situation described by Boersma.

  • Before managers are despatched by an international company to assume a leadership position in another country, the organization should make them aware of the prevailing work culture at their new place of work. They should be mentally prepared to adapt to the prevailing work culture. In the case cited above, the Belgian was not only unaware of how to adapt to the prevailing work culture, but was not very professionally competent. Generally, managers despatched to another culture should have a good level of professional competence. This will facilitate their being accepted more readily.

  • Sometimes the cultural differences between neighbouring countries can be quite considerable. Managers going to a neighbouring country should do as much prior preparation, to understand both the local culture and the work culture of the company, as they would if they were going to a country on the other side of the globe. Very often, there are very strongly held beliefs about a neighbouring country. Thus, for instance, Dutch people who hear that a Belgian is going to become their neighbour will already have some beliefs about this Belgian. These beliefs may be based partly on their interactions with other Belgians, and partly on their friends ' and associates ' experiences with Belgians. Because Belgium and Holland are small neighbouring countries , and it is easy to go from one to the other, there is much exchange of visitors . The resulting knowledge about each other's countries has also heightened awareness of differences. Many Dutch people aver that there are many differences between them and Belgians, and vice versa. This is the case with people from many neighbouring countries, such as Switzerland and Germany, Malaysia and Singapore, India and Pakistan, England and Ireland, Argentina and Brazil, Mozambique and Botswana, and Canada and the United States. Consider the case of Switzerland and Germany. Despite the presence of many Germans in Switzerland, the Swiss perceive them as being culturally different. The German language spoken by Germans, called by them Hoch Deutsch (or high German), is very different from the various dialect forms of German spoken by the Swiss.

The author of this book, when working in Switzerland, had a German colleague. She remarked to me that she found the Swiss very different from the Germans, although this was not apparent to people from other parts of the world. Describing the Swiss-German language, she said, 'The Swiss write a language they do not speak, and speak a language that is not written.' Many Swiss view the Germans as the people who started the Second World War.

Differences in recent history, in stage of economic growth, in form of government, in language spoken, in the religion practised by the majority of the people and so on can all contribute to cultural differences between the people of neighbouring countries.

Conflict between managers from different cultures working for a global company can surface, and global corporations are interested in knowing how to deal with this. According to Tjosvold and Deemer (1980), conflict by itself can improve rather than impede organizational functioning. (It may be noted that Tjosvold and Deemer were discussing conflict in a general sense and not with specific reference to intercultural situations. There is no academic work yet that deals comprehensively with the issue of conflict in an intercultural context.) Tjosvold and Deemer believe that when people with opposing ideas try to arrive at an amicable settlement by bringing their differences to the forefront, they become better able to understand the opposing party's point of view.

Let us examine the Tjosvold and Deemer proposition with reference to the caselet described on pages 18889. The international consultancy should have made the Belgian and the Dutch aware of their different working styles before they were thrown together. If they had been prepared for differences they might have been more tolerant of each other's lapses. In this case, however, the lack of competence of the Belgian was a stumbling block, quite apart from his lack of cultural sensitivity.

International companies could consider having a department at headquarters for managing diversity. Such a department would prepare expatriates for life in a new culture. It would also prepare local nationals for accepting expatriates from other cultures. Additionally, it would monitor processes when people from different cultures start working together for the first time. When conflicts arise due to cultural differences, the department would work at bringing the differences into the open so that managers could come to terms with them. In fact, a skilled department would anticipate likely conflict areas. In the case of the misfit Belgian manager, the department should have realized that a manager accustomed to operating in a hierarchical structure was being sent to work in a culture were there was not much hierarchy. A conflict should have been anticipated, and methods of working through the conflict thought out. Removing one of the parties from the scene of the conflict is not the best remedy. At some point in the future the company will have to contend with Belgian and Dutch managers working together.

Weiss (1994) has argued that in the context of managing diversity, there is a need to focus on flexible, multi-option avenues for resolving conflicts before they escalate into costly win-lose or lose-lose battles . In a classic article about conflict resolution techniques, Thomas (1997) identified and described five conflict-resolution approaches. These approaches he termed competition, collaboration, avoidance , accommodation and compromise. He also developed a matrix in which the approaches could be positioned. The matrix comprises two dimensions: one, how assertive or unassertive each party is in pursuing its own concerns, and two, how cooperative or uncooperative each is in satisfying the concerns of the other. If people are unassertive about their concerns, and uncooperative with other people in conflict situations, they are said to employ the avoidance approach. People who are unassertive about their concerns, but are cooperative in trying to satisfy other people's concerns, are using the accommodation approach. If people are moderately assertive in satisfying their concerns, and moderately cooperative in satisfying the concerns of other people in conflict situations, they are assuming the compromise approach. People who are both assertive in satisfying their concerns, and cooperative in satisfying the concerns of others in conflict situations, are said to use the collaboration approach. And finally, people who are assertive in satisfying their concerns, but uncooperative in satisfying the concerns of others in conflict situations, are using the competition approach of conflict resolution.

Let us examine Thomas's options for conflict resolution with reference to the misfit Belgian. The Dutch managers initially used the avoidance approach for conflict resolution. As a result the situation grew worse , with resentment from both sides mounting, resulting in complete loss of face to one side in the conflict, and the team project having to be completed by four people instead of three. According to Thomas, avoidance is a worthwhile approach:

  1. when an issue is trivial or more important issues are pressing;

  2. when you perceive no chance of satisfying your concern;

  3. when potential disruption outweigh the benefits of resolution;

  4. to let people cool down and regain perspective;

  5. when gathering information supersedes immediate decision;

  6. when others can resolve the conflict more effectively;

  7. when issues seem tangential or symptomatic of other issues.

(Thomas, 1997)

If any of these factors apply to the Belgian/Dutch situation and justify use of the avoidance approach, it could only be number 7, 'when issues seem symptomatic of other issues'. The situation of the Dutch not being able to accept the Belgian as their leader was symptomatic of the main issue: that both sides had not been prepared to deal with cultural differences. The company had not communicated to the Belgian the style of working that would find acceptance among the Dutch, while the Belgian had not done his homework about the leadership style prevalent among the Dutch.

It is interesting that it was never conveyed to the hapless Belgian that the underlying reason for the conflict was that his leadership style was not congruent with what the Dutch managers expected. The Dutch managers themselves did not do this, even though Boersma had correctly diagnosed the root cause of the conflict. The Dutch CEO did not communicate this point to the Belgian when the matter was brought to him for adjudication. This flies in the face of contemporary academic work on conflict resolution, which advocates that the root cause of the conflict should be brought to the surface, and both sides should understand their role in the conflict. It is possible that managers from certain cultures, Thailand for instance, may not feel comfortable when conflicts are discussed openly. Even then, it is preferable if they are enabled to confront conflict situations in a positive fashion, rather than that the situation be avoided and allowed to fester.

By taking up the matter with the Dutch CEO, the Belgian adopted the forcing approach. As a person comfortable with a bureaucratic style of working, he wanted to impose his authority on his Dutch team members. And what better way to achieve this than by having the highest authority in the Dutch subsidiary back him? Obtaining the stamp of approval from the highest authority is standard practice in a bureaucracy.

According to Thomas (1997), the forcing approach is recommended:

  1. When quick decisive action is vital (such as in emergencies).

  2. On important issues where unpopular actions need implementing (such as in cost-cutting, enforcing unpopular rules, discipline).

  3. On issues vital to an organization's welfare when you know you are right.

  4. Against people who take advantage of non-competitive behaviour.

If the Belgian's choice of forcing as a conflict resolution approach can be justified, it is on grounds of recommendation 3, where enforcing unpopular rules is necessary. He did not succeed in what he had intended because the CEO reacted in a manner he had not anticipated.

The Dutch CEO also opted for the forcing approach. He proposed a solution that reflected the concerns of the Dutch managers, and ignored those of the Belgian. As a result of his 'conflict resolution' approach, the CEO may have succeeded in taking quick decisive action. But in the process, the Dutch managers seemed to have gained the upper hand, while the Belgian felt humiliated. After he was sent back to Belgium, he was unwell for two months. The conflict arising out of differences in culturally determined working styles was not resolved in a win-win sense.

In this situation, the conflict resolution approach that was most suitable was the collaboration approach. Thomas (1997) recommends this approach when it is important:

  1. To find an integrative solution when both sets of concerns are too important to be compromised.

  2. To learn.

  3. To merge insights from people with different perspectives.

  4. To gain commitment by incorporating concerns into a consensus.

  5. To work through feelings that have interfered with a relationship.

The international consultancy organization should have used the collaboration approach. The operationalization of this approach requires skilled practitioners . The organization would have benefited if it had an internal cell for managing intercultural relations, as recommended earlier.

Intercultural Management
Intercultural Management: MBA Masterclass (MBA Masterclass Series)
ISBN: 0749435828
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 98
Authors: Nina Jacob

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