Conflict in the workplace: It’s personal, even when it’s cultural

Imagine you are just heading into a crucial meeting with a client and you realise your colleague has failed to produce the correct documents as agreed. You are going to look unprofessional, the deal may be threatened and it is all your colleague’s fault. How would you deal with the situation? And what would you say to your colleague the next time you see them?

The response you have to this scenario can reveal something about your personal attitudes towards conflict managment. No doubt you would keep calm and carry on in front of the client. But how readily would you show your emotions afterwards? What kind of language would you use to communicate your frustration and embarrassment to your non-performing colleague and ensure there is no repeat? Would you give them a firm ticking off in front of the whole office? Would you write them an angry text describing your feelings? Would you catch them in the staff kitchen and ask them to check the documentation more carefully next time perhaps with a bit of humour thrown in to keep things cordial?  Or would you have a quiet word with an acquaintance that knows them?

Response factors

Clearly, many factors are at play that affect the way we choose to act in this situation. It would certainly depend on our relationship with our colleague, whether we see ourselves as equals or of different status, our shared history, but also how much is at stake in this particular circumstance. Our approach to managing conflict is also shaped by our personality: some people deal with conflict more directly while others are more circumspect. I’m sure we can all identify certain people in our immediate environment who are more prone to get involved in overt conflict than other quieter souls.

What causes conflict?

No matter how much we wish it were otherwise, conflict in the workplace is inevitable and can spring up for all sorts of reasons: disputes over resources, reward and remuneration; power and influence; strategic goals and priorities; personality clashes.

Cultural clues?

So where does culture fit into the conflict equation?  In a multicultural workplace or in a team working across cultures, conflict can occur for all the above reasons, but culture can lurk in the background and be the cause of further conflict or simply lead to misunderstanding.  Look at some of the words we have used in our discussion of conflict so far – directness, emotion, power and strategy. All of these have been proven to have a significant impact on our relations in a multicultural environment and can lead to minor or major problems. A British project manager recently described the lengthy delays that occurred when dealing with contacts in the Far East, where a simple miscommunication lead to months of confusion and fruitless exchanges via email and teleconference. Culture acted as a hindrance because it was not dealt with consciously.

Any kind of conflict makes us go back to our default position, which is likely to be shaped, at least partly, by our cultural expectations. And we wonder why our counterpart is not behaving in a ‘logical’ manner. In the heat of the moment, our emotions take over and it can be much harder to take a step back and think things through.

Practical tips for managing conflict across cultures

To manage conflict across cultures more effectively we need to:        

  • Do some research on the cultural backgrounds of the main protagonists
  • Be ready to suspend judgments based on our own cultural frame of reference
  • Shift our focus from the personal to the communal and from intransigent positions to reconcilable interest
  • Develop our self-awareness so that we are conscious of how we come across to the other party
  • Become more culturally competent by developing qualities such as flexibility in our thinking and behaviour, emotional resilience and empathy

Following this advice won’t mean that you avoid cross-cultural conflict completely but it will certainly help you to resolve it better.  

Rob Image


Rob is a lecturer, consultant and trainer specialising in intercultural communication and management. He is also accredited as a mediator for alternative dispute resolution. Rob has extensive experience of living, working and training in France, Germany, Japan and China. 

All articles Next article