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Understanding Intercultural Conflicts In the Workplace

To say that conflict happens is a gross understatement. The problem with intercultural conflicts in the workplace is that oftentimes they are happening and no one is even aware of the problem. Believe it or not, the way we handle conflict is very culturally driven. Conflict resolution (or lack thereof) involves core beliefs about people, respect, hierarchy, thinking about the relationship, time, leadership and more. This means that when conflict arises in the workplace, there are many layers that must be worked through to reach resolution.

One of the first layers that must be peeled back and examined is the generational label. For example, in Korean culture you do not question someone who is older than you. It is considered disrespectful and rude, not to mention shameful. Therefore, if someone older than you at work is acting inappropriately or causing you stress, it simply is not an option to confront and work through the problem. Elder respect can often keep conflict from being addressed and managed.

Another layer to overcome is that of time. For many Western cultures time is seen as something linear, measurable, and highly valued. If you say the meeting starts at 8:00am, a Westerner expects everyone to be seated and ready to go on time. For many other cultures time is more relaxed or flexible. Because of this, personal relationships will always trump time. Meetings may start late and project deadlines are flexible. Learning how to wade the murky waters of time will go far in understanding conflict.

One layer that has tremendous affect on intercultural conflict in the workplace is styles of leadership. For some employees those above them need to be static and demanding to earn their respect. In other cultures the leader should be personally invested in the private and family lives of their workers. In some cultures, leaders expect and encourage their employees to contradict and challenge them if they have a different idea or opinion. In other words, they encourage a conflict and see it also as a positive tool for creative thinking, independence and quick problem solving.

Understanding the various expectations your co-workers have towards leadership will help to diffuse conflict or manage it better.

So there are many different approaches and factors that impact on conflict, when it ccurs in an multicultural situation. However, if conflict is handled ineffectively or if conflict is ignored, the results can be damaging. Conflicting goals can quickly turn into personal dislike, ineffective teamwork , loss of trust, and talent is wasted as people disengage from their work. Conflict within the workplace can result in a vicious downward spiral of negativity. If you're to keep your team or organization working effectively, you need to stop this downward spiral as soon as you can.

Understanding what is culturally normative in terms of self-worth, confrontation, emotional expression, and managerial intervention can help people involved in workplace conflict understand what they are experiencing. It can also help managers intervene effectively.

Skilled leaders responding to an increasingly diverse workplace know that now more than ever, intercultural awareness is a key component to preemptively addressing and effectively managing possible work place tensions and conflict. leaders with intercultural training are well versed in best practice strategies to examine work place issues regarding a larger scope of cultural differences in their teams.

Infusing intercultural awareness trainings, surveys and other tools into your formal and informal learning processes is one way to shift corporate culture toward an increase in cultural awareness. When workplace tensions arise, there is more often than not a simple misunderstanding at the root of it. Building formal intercultural communication strategies and processes into your infrastructure can increase corporate confidence since employees and managers will know that if there is a concern, the organization has a logical strategy for handling it

If you are working in an intercultural environment, contact us for more support and information. We believe that developing cultural competency is a major challenge, but it is not impossible!

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