Dealing with Conflict Across Cultures

During a regional management meeting several years ago, Donald (an Australian manager working in Singapore) delivered his progress update and unashamedly claimed full credit for the data gathering and completion of a particular project. The irony was that the actual contributors (Malaysians and Singaporeans) to the project of whom he was taking credit away from were actually seated in the exact same room at that time. Were we inclined to expose his lies then and there? Yes, very much so. Did we actually do so in front of the senior managers that were present? Sadly, we did not and chose to let the matter slide. Needless to say, we never trusted nor liked Donald very much from that point forward.

While it is true that nobody likes to deal with conflict, the Eastern cultures in particular have a stronger inclination to avoid engaging in direct conflict. As a face-saving culture, Malaysians have a tendency to take a non-confrontational approach to conflict. Wherever possible, we value harmonious relationships and at times go out of our way to avoid embarrassing ourselves or others publicly, even at the expense of being wronged. Additionally, we view personal relationships as an important factor before conducting business with one another. If we do not like or trust someone, we will likely not work well with them.

If this is our way of handling conflict with our colleagues from Western cultures (who often display the exact opposite approach to dealing with conflict), it is easy to foresee potential threats to our working relationships with them. Being non-confrontational could mean we often inevitably allow an unfavourable decision or situation to go on, yet at the same time complain about it to others and develop resentment toward the individuals involved. With such ill feelings, it can affect our willingness to cooperate and collaborate effectively with them.

How then can Malaysians who are working in multinational organizations resolve conflicts in an assertive manner without compromising respect for one another? Using the example at the outset, we will consider the DESO method that has proven useful in dealing with conflicts successfully. Depending on the hierarchy in the room, this can take place either during the meeting or after the meeting by approaching Donald individually.

  1. Describe the situation rationally and briefly.

“Donald, I would like to make a clarification on a statement you made earlier. The project required substantial collaborative work between our three functional teams, without which successful implementation of the system would not have been possible.”

  1. Express your feelings about the situation.

“I feel it would be unfair and inaccurate to attribute the success of the project to only one individual or one team.”

  1. Specify desired changes.

“I would like the senior management team to have an accurate overview of the situation and for all three teams to be acknowledged for the hard work and effort that has been done in making this a success.”

  1. Outcome of results may occur.

“Doing this will help us maintain trust in our relationship, and make it easier for us to provide continuous support for the next phase of this project.”

Undoubtedly, there will be many situations of potential conflict that will arise within our workplace and personal life. The method outlined above are practical suggestions to be used in any situation of conflict and can help us accomplish two things: 1) We address the conflict at hand instead of allowing it to fester, which could lead to resentment and a negative working environment; 2) We express our thoughts in a way that maintains trust and respect with each other.  Our cross-cultural communication training programs can help you learn more about common real-life workplace scenarios and how to address them in a culturally intelligent manner.

By: Boleh Blogger