We Are Not In Kansas Anymore: Managing Cross Cultural Conflict (Part 2 of 2)
Have you ever heard the saying by Ralph Waldo Emerson?
“Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.”
It is an interesting thought in that in many ways our words do not always align with either our body language or for that matter our true feelings. Like the wife who asks the husband if the dress she is wearing makes her look heavy or the husband, sporting a new haircut, asks if he looks good, depending on your point of view, the response could be either positive or negative.
Scenarios such as these are magnified when different cultures merge in a macaronic mix augmented by beliefs and customs. This can easily lead to misunderstandings that despite one’s best efforts can derail a collaborative effort.
When conflict arises within groups that are composed of individuals from different backgrounds or cultures, fast and certain action is required to diffuse the potential problems that will negatively impact the ability of the team to work together effectively.
If you find yourself party to a cultural meltdown, adopt an instant attitude of genuine curiosity and interest. With the right mindset, you are now ready to follow these winning steps you need to take to bridge the cultural gap and get back on track again:
1. To start, re-establish the whole purpose or reason for the group being assembled in the first place. According to R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr., author of the book “Building a House for Diversity,” it’s critical that the company’s mission and goals are communicated clearly and often, and that the workplace is driven by business requirements rather than personal preferences, traditions or conveniences.” Or to be more concise, focus on the task at hand and recognize the fact that in any group whether multi-cultural or not, a certain degree of conflict is both healthy and necessary to getting to the best results. A kind of “if both of us are always in agreement, then one of us is redundant” perspective.
2. Even though disagreements are bound to occur as a normal part of the collaborative process, seek to first gain a clear understanding for the reasons behind the other team member’s position. I find that in these circumstances, it’s usually a good idea to first seek to understand and avoid misunderstandings. Misunderstandings need to be corrected quickly. When you ask people for their viewpoints, it shows that you respect their knowledge and opinions and are prepared to be objective.
- Ask closed-ended questions to see if you were clear, if the information was useful, etc.
- Ask open-ended questions to uncover any ideas or problems that you may have overlooked.
3. Once you believe that you have a handle on the source of the disagreement, in explaining your position relative to the company’s mission and goals, be certain to avoid using culturally-centric jargon or slang as well as metaphors as this can only lead to further confusion. In short, be respectfully direct using as few words as possible in explaining your position to the other member.
Give the person time to express themselves.
- Listen quietly.
- Maintain physical position.
- Wait until they have verbalized their feelings.
- Use their name.
Avoid red flag words which can definitely sound accusatory:
- “You should” or “You’re wrong” or “That’s impossible” or “That’s ridiculous”
4. Never forget that in a team environment, there is no such thing as individual winners or losers, but instead adhere to a united we stand, divided we fall mindset. This will remove the potential for disagreements to become personal.
Respond rather than react. Projecting an attitude of openness will encourage participation and help achieve consensus from your colleagues. This quality is displayed by how you respond to people when they question your statements or opinions. Avoid reacting as they may simply be asking for clarification.
- Paraphrase to verify what the person has asked before you answer.
Say “Let me check – are you saying that….”
- If you feel attacked, focus on the situation or behavior, not the person.
Say “I understand your concern. Let’s try to come up with some options.”
5. Finally, if you do have any pre-conceived ideas regarding other cultures, check those at the door. While you will still need to be sensitive to the differences of the other team members who come from different parts of the world, your communication will be more objective and therefore effective if unencumbered by unproductive sentiments.
What is interesting is that the above tips can be applied to any team environment whether culturally diverse or not.
By following these guidelines, when everything is said and done, you will be able to establish the level of rapport that will make the collaborative process within multi-cultural groups both enjoyable and productive.
In the meantime, if you have any questions regarding how to interact with a person from a specific cultural background drop me a line through the comment section of this blog post or, send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.