Conflicts and clashes are quite unavoidable in human interactions. If a conflict is not resolved it may lead to disengagement (and resulting under performance) of employees. Conflicts can have many forms, interpretations and solutions, especially in a diverse context. Also, conflict is not always a bad sign. It might as well be a sign of well integrated team members who feel comfortable enough to express their differing opinions and feelings.
People react to conflicts differently, which in turn can cause further dismay or discussion. When working in a team, it is good to discuss and agree on how to move forward from a conflict situation. Preferably before there is a conflict situation at hand.
Conflict can be connected to the cultural socialization in which one grew up (national culture, family culture, gender expectations, etc.), and it can just as well occur due to personal or organisational preferences. Conflict can present a source of development and improvement, if well handled.
The first step to managing conflicts is learning about yourself. It is important that you recognise how you behave in conflict situations and why, what triggers conflict for you, and what can solve the conflict situation for you. The exercise below can offer some insight into how you handle conflicts.
1. Think of a conflict or an unsettling situation, particularly one in an intercultural context.
2. Identify your conflict habits in that situation and in general, by asking yourself the following questions:
3. What role did the context (e.g. personal condition during the situation, time pressure, etc.) play in the conflict you initially recalled?
4. Can you estimate how much of the conflict was culturally related, or was the core conflict caused by diverging individual, social or structural experiences and expectations?
5. Do you understand what conflict means to the other person(s) involved (conflicts as social failure, as a chance, as a taboo, as something inevitable, etc.)? Observe how your (international) employees, colleagues, superior, or clients experience, handle and act in conflict situations*(E.g. What does it mean if the other person does not look you in the eyes? Don’t assume and interpret from your source of knowledge or intuition, rather make sure by asking).
6. Based on your insights from the exercise above, establish a common basis of knowledge on rules or process in conflict situations for yourself and with your colleagues or team.
* Also make sure you understand how and when a conflict situation can be considered acceptable. Some individuals are socialized to e.g. express feelings and opinions forcefully with raised voice, others are taught to avoid eye contact and to put on a poker face.
That is not a problem as such, however, problems might arise in the way people interpret or judge these different behaviours. E.g. someone who expresses an opinion loudly might be perceived as arrogant by others, whereas to that team member a restrained person can be perceived as inauthentic or not engaged in a conflict discussion.
Food for thought:
Instead of looking at conflict (disagreement, etc.) as a problem, look at it as a chance to change perspective and an opportunity to learn. It is one of the ’easiest’ sources to look beyond your own point of view.
Suggestion on a method to identify, analyze and move beyond conflict in a team, group, or as a pair:
1. Identify the conflict objectively: What is the problem?
2. Lay out the facts
3. Listen to the situation from the point of view of each person involved (positions and interests, feelings involved, role behavior, etc.)
4. Establish the conflict including the newly acquired knowledge and identify the next steps (future evolution) of the conflict
5. Point out action alternatives and agree on further proceedings