Resolving cultural conflict at work

Let me start by saying that I am a firm believer of prevention. Prevention is always better than resolving. What if you are too late though? What if the conflict is already there? How do you solve a cultural conflict at work? That is the topic that I will cover in this blog and I will approach it from two different point of views:
1. Cultural conflict between two employees.
2. Cultural conflict between a manager and an employee.

Before I start, let me define cultural conflict. Because to know how to solve an issue, we need to know what we are dealing with. A cultural conflict is a dislike or hostility between two or more people from different cultural backgrounds with different views and perspectives which derive from that cultural background. This is important to point out, because if this is not the case we talk about personality instead of culture.

Cultural conflict between two employees

Conflict is inevitable in every situation, so it’s also inevitable in culturally diverse teams at work. What causes a cultural conflict at work? Intercultural conflict is triggered through general interaction. In other words, it happens unintentionally. You can see it in the context of individuals that are: a. not willing to understand each other’s diversity, or b. believing their own way is superior/ ethnocentric world view.

If you want to resolve any workplace conflict, the key is to act fast. The last thing you want is any form of escalation. In order to act on the situation try to get a full understanding of the scope of the issue at hand. Let people talk, don’t criticise. Try to understand the underlaying aspects of the situation and the personal boundaries of the people involved.

After hearing the stories and the personal interpretation it’s time to create awareness of the impact of culture, for that you need to actively acquire information of the cultural backgrounds of the individuals whom it involves. The situation can get frustrated but it’s key to stay focused and impartial. Talk about the frustration, because in many cases this is directly linked to personal boundaries. When you learn about the different cultures at the table you will understand how and why to present yourself in line with the cultural expectations of the others, and how to use and interpret each others verbal and non-verbal communication without losing sight of personal boundaries. The last step is to move past the conflict and make plans to prevent conflict in the future. A proven method to do this is use the six step program of cultural awareness at work.

Cultural conflict between a manager and an employee
As a manager I’m sure you already developed a strong sense of self awareness, allowing you to be able to detach yourself from your personal biases. You probably also know how to actively listen, focus on behaviour not on personality, and be emphatic. First of all, in case of an intercultural conflict between two individuals in different hierarchical positions it’s wise to involve HR. Because in this case you are not dealing with conflicts based on personality types or work ethics, you are dealing with two cultures that need to be understood and broken down based on their cultural dimensions, for that you need an impartial person who knows the qualities and pitfalls of both, and who is at the same time capable to look further than the hierarchical status of the people involved in the conflict.

As a manager you will be aware of your own frame of reference and of the fact that there are different communication styles. What you want for your team is to be productive, creative, innovative and balanced. For that to be achievable I’m sure you developed common goals for your team and tried out different communication styles. In intercultural conflict the added step is that you as a manager need to learn how to anticipate the frame of reference of your team members. Their cultural frame to be exact. How to do that? There are great free online tools, like for example the compare countries tool by Geert Hofstede.

Of course Dialogue with the Dutch is here to help too through tailor made consultancy. What I can help with in case of a conflict is for example:

  • Addressing culture and cultural dimensions at work, by making them practical at your workplace.
  • Unravel theories behind corporate culture by linking your corporate values to the diverse personal motivation of your employees.
  • Interpret cultural differences in verbal and non-verbal communication.
  • Diversity and inclusion throughout your company.
  • Managing and international team and make your team members fully settle in your team.
  • Address intercultural sensitivity and increase the intercultural competence of your team.

Interested to know more? Schedule a free discovery call with Elianne Bilal-Caljouw.

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