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From the August, 1996 issue of
Managing Diversity

Helping Managers Solve Cultural Conflicts

By Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe

Professor Nancy Adler from McGill University has created a three-step problem solving model that helps work groups and individuals wind their way through conflict with increased effectiveness. It is elegant in its simplicity. Her three steps are the following:

1. Define the problem from both points of view

Let's take the case of the supervisor whose Latino employee takes the whole day off each time he takes his wife to the doctor, even though the wife can drive. The first step is to identify the points of view of each party. How does each view the conflict?

What does each think is wrong? The boss in this situation is irritated and upset that the employee is not there when he needs him. In fact, the boss described the employee as "irresponsible" for taking time off work. The employee undoubtedly feels - his boss is being insensitive and punitive.

2. Uncover the cultural interpretations

The second step is to uncover the cultural interpretations. What assumptions is each making about the other, based on his own cultural programming? In doing this, the boss might realize that in the employee's culture, his role as head of the family requires him to take his wife on such important appointments. He was being very responsible within the context of his cultural values. The employee might realize that in his boss's programming, work commitments take precedence over non-emergency family matters, and that family members take care of such responsibilities on their own. The issue is not who loves his family more, who is a better spouse, or who is a more committed worker, but how these different values and viewpoints can be accommodated.

3. Create cultural synergy

The last phase of this process requires devising a solution that works for both. They might, for example, decide that the employee can use his sick days for such family responsibilities or that he might only take a few hours off for the appointment. What is important in this process is the recognition and acceptance of others' cultural values and the working out of mutually acceptable alternatives.

Once managers understand the model, there are a number of techniques they can use to utilize it. Many of the best ones you probably already use. But identify one among the ten and commit it to your repertoire.

Ten Suggestions for Managers in Effectively Solving Problems

1. Use the indirect approach

Use a go-between, a third party who can give you suggestions for resolution and find out the other party's desires. This avoids direct confrontation and like the paper walls in Japanese homes, which create the illusion of privacy, it allows both parties to save face by never having to confront the issue face to face.

2. Emphasize harmony

In attempting a resolution, talk about the cooperative spirit and harmony that would result if the disagreement were settled. "This problem is upsetting for all of us and is causing remarks from other departments."

3. Clarify the cultural influences operating

Help each party understand the cultural programming of the other. For example, talking privately with each employee about the differences in cultural styles of communicating could help each see the other's behavior as less threatening and less as a personal affront. It may also help to encourage each party to see the other in non-stereotypical ways. For example, you can ask, "What is one thing about [name] that does not fit the stereotype of a [group]?"

4. Work with informal leaders

Get help from the most respected member of each party's culture or group. Ask for their advice and assistance in bringing the two individuals or groups together. This is especially helpful in group-on-group conflict.

5. Get specific

Have each party spell out their rubs with one another and their needs in specific behaviors and situations. It helps to give people time to think these through first. Open-ended statements such as the following are a good way to get the individuals involved to think constructively about the situation:

  • I get most irritated when...
  • When this happens, I feel...
  • What I'd like from you is...
  • I'd be willing to resolve this if..
  • If this conflict were resolved, I'd...
  • If this disagreement continues...

6. Get honest with yourself

Recognize your own reactions and preferences. You, too, are culturally programmed. You may have a preference for one person's style or one group's position over another. If you are a party to the conflict, you may find the behavior or values of the other party's culture distasteful. Dealing with your own reaction, feelings, and ethnocentrism before you get involved in attempting resolution will help you remain more objective and more powerful in the negotiation.

7. Find out how conflicts are resolved in the culture of the other party

Knowing that a go-between is always used, for example, can help you choose an appropriate strategy. Seek help from a cultural informant, someone familiar with practices and norms in the other culture. Get their perceptions and explanations of the situation as well as suggestions for resolution strategies.

8. Keep out of corners

In any conflict situation, avoid cornering someone in a losing position. Just as animals attack when cornered, human beings of any culture are apt to strike back in unpredictable and irrational ways when they feel they have no recourse. Always leave room for both parties to get something. Either/or ultimatums produce losers who can become powerful saboteurs of any resolution.

9. Capitalize on the relationship

If you have developed a relationship with the individual, use it to help you in working out a solution. "We've always had a cooperative working relationship. I 'd like for that to continue. Having this tension between us is bothering me, and I care enough about you to want to work it through."

10. Respect. Respect. Respect

If an individual is treated with dignity and respect, he/she will be much more likely to work with you. If this universal law of human relations is broken, you may have created an enemy for life. How does one show respect? By dealing with the other party(ies) privately and as discreetly as possible. By listening and not discounting what they have to say. By owning your part of the problem and being willing to give as well as take in the negotiation. By apologizing. By showing sincere appreciation for this person's contribution to the work unit.

Gardenswartz and Rowe are diversity consultants/trainers and authors of several books including MANAGING DIVERSITY: A COMPLETE DESK REFERENCE AND PLANNING GUIDE and DIVERSE TEAMS AT WORK. They are also the authors of diversity training materials such as THE DIVERSITY TOOL KIT and the new video series DlVERSE TEAMS AT WORK: CAPITALIZING ON THE POWER OF DIVERSITY. They can be reached at 12658 W. Washington Blvd., Ste.105, Los Angeles, CA 90066; (310) 823-2466.

Call toll free 800-542-7869 to subscribe; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. eastern time, weekdays.

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