Cultural Differences and its Effects on Conflict Resolution in the Workplace

by Stevie Hall*

It’s frustrating when someone doesn’t understand what you’re telling them. You can rephrase the same idea four different ways, but for some reason, the other person listening just isn’t understanding. Why is such a simple concept so hard to understand? If you can understand it, why can’t they? If you speak the same language, then why would they possibly not get it?

A couple of factors may come into play here, individual and cultural differences. As you may have noticed in your life time, unless you’re a twin, most of us are different than each other. We were reared with different morals, values, and work ethics. We attended different universities than one another, and obtained different educational backgrounds. We come from different geographical locations. Because of this, individual and cultural differences can play a key part in conflict resolution in the workplace.

In a study conducted by Kyungil Kim and Arthur B. Markman, published in 2012 in the International Journal of Psychology, differences in individuals and cultures were examined. Koreans and Americans (“Americans” is not defined by the authors) were primarily studied, but generalizations were made about Eastern Asian and Western cultures by the authors. The experimenters manipulated fear of isolation (FOI), the “anxiety or fear in situations in which one experiences loneliness, lack of community, confinement, or quarantine,” to get a glimpse at the difference in cognitive function and conflict resolution.

The researchers found that Eastern Asian cultures have more of a holistic and dialectical style of thinking, while Americans have a more analytic style. Cultures that are more holistic and dialectical focus more on finding a solution in compromising when conflict arises. On the other hand, cultures that are more analytic handle conflict with more adversarial methods.

It’s noted in this study that there are cross-cultural differences, as well as between cultural differences. Two personality factors that the experimenters noted fall in both categories of cross-cultural and between-cultural is the idea of collectivism and individualism. Collectivism is the idea that the greater good of society should come before the individual needs. Kim and Markman found collectivists to be more harmonious and prevention seeking and, therefore, more concerned with finding a solution if conflict does arise. Individualism is a theory to focus on oneself and being independent outside of the opinion of others. In this study it was concluded that individualists are more comfortable with conflict, but not entirely, and are more willing to confront it when it arises. This is an important characteristic to know about your colleagues, because collectivist individuals are going to be more comfortable with an employee addressing the conflict, whereas an individualist would prefers a person with whom they don’t directly work with to handle the situation.

What does this experiment show us? Differences in cultures really do matter when conflict arises in the work place. Since “Americans” are more likely to use adversarial methods of resolving conflict, the style in which they handle conflict may be different than other cultures. These differences aren’t to be seen in a negative light. Because individuals of a culture bring their own perspectives to the table with different behaviors, communication styles, and norms, there can be a high propensity for misunderstandings.

Katy Shonk of the Harvard Law School Daily Blog suggests that there are two reasons that cultural misunderstandings in the workplace occur: stereotypes and “interpreting others’ behaviors, values, and beliefs through the lens of our own culture.” According to Shonk, stereotypes often lead to expectations about another individual’s behavior which in turn can lead to miscommunication. For example, if I assumed that all Irish individuals are drunks, then it might lead me to become annoyed when my Irish counterpart arrives to work tired and groggy, because I think he’s drunk, instead of considering that they just welcomed a new born baby into their family. See what I mean?

Her second point relates back to the study conducted by Kim and Markman and the factors of collectivism and individualism. Interpreting others’ behaviors in comparison to your own can lead to more miscommunication. Values, beliefs, and work ethics not only differ between cultures, but individually as well. Because of this, it is important to understand where your counterparts fall on the spectrum of collectivism and individualism in addition to researching the characteristics of these groups to grasp a better understanding of their reasoning in exhibiting certain behaviors.

What does all of this mean? Well, you should really know your counterpart’s culture. This isn’t to say that a typical protocol when conflict arises should be ignored and an employee’s preferences should prevail, it’s just opening a new way to look at the issue. We will have less misunderstandings and more success when we try to understand the person at the other end of the conflict.

Not only is it important to understand the other person, but it’s important to understand yourself as well. What are your preferences? How do you handle conflict? Notifying others of your preferences of conflict can help the resolution process. John Ford, a managing editor for gives these tips for culture diversity and conflict resolution:

  1. Know yourself and Your Own Culture

What are your preferences, tolerance thresholds, beliefs, values, work ethic, etc.? Understanding this will help yourself, others, and the situation.

  1. Check Your Assumptions

It is important to make sure you’re not stereotyping your coworkers, as well as attributing their behavior to their culture. Ask questions if you don’t understand. It is better to have clarity than to assume and create tension or conflict.

  1. Consider the Golden Rule

We’ve heard it since grade school, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” As cliché as this has become, it still holds truth. If we expect someone to understand our side and emotions in a conflict, it is respectful to consider theirs as well.

“Every session is a multi-cultural session.” These are the words a professor of mine once said in a counseling class, and they have stayed with me. Every person we come into contact with can be a multi-cultural experience. Beyond geographical locations, we each have different goals, aspirations, tolerances, and preferences of conflict, education, and upbringing. If you want to be successful in the workplace, it is important to know that person working next to you so that conflict can be handled correctly when it arises.

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