If you manage a multicultural team, and you’ve had to mediate a conflict between two or more team members from different cultures (and what supervisor or manager hasn’t had to do this, right?), you may have experienced the same situation that I’ve experienced as an intercultural mediator. You start off the mediation by asking, “What would a perfect resolution to this challenge look like for you?” and you get two similar yet different answers. One party says, “I want this to stop AND I want him (or her) off the team!” and the other party says, “I want this to stop and I want to be acknowledged for my contributions to the team.” Both parties want the behavior to stop but they want two different resolutions to make it stop.
As an interculturalist, it is always interesting to me to see the cultural aspects to these responses. The first response – I want to end this untenable situation by removing the offending party – is focusing on ending the problem immediately. It is “present-oriented” and resolves the problem quickly. The second response – I want to end this untenable situation through acknowledging contributions – requires much more energy and communication than the first. This response is “future-oriented” and suggests that all team members remain, but work be done to ensure the future of the team through communication and acknowledging resulting hardships from the conflict.
Most interculturalists would bet that the first response comes from someone from an individualistic culture, one that focuses on personal rights and immediate consequences that might even end the relationship. They would probably bet that the second response comes from someone of a collectivist culture, one that focuses on harmony within the team and solving issues so that the relationship will grow. This is a critical difference: some cultures focus on the individual and some cultures focus on the group.
Oh, and one more thing. As the mediator, don’t forget your own cultural filters. You will be seeing the “facts” through your cultural filters which might cause you to unconsciously favor one side over another.
When you manage a multicultural team or group, consider these simple suggestions for mediating a conflict:
- Do your homework before the mediation meeting.
Research each cultures’ orientation with regard to “individualism” and “collectivism” (including your own culture) so that you will have prior knowledge of some cultural values of each culture. A web tool to compare countries on this cultural dimension at http://geert-hofstede.com/countries.html. GOAL: increase your understanding of, and sensitivity to, the influence of culture in a conflict.
- Start the meeting by asking each party to describe the resolution that they want. �
Engage the parties in a discussion about the differences, focusing on the value that drives the expectation. You may find that each party has the same value (respect, for instance) but the behavior that each party associates with respect may be different. GOAL: find cultural commonalities as a way to connect the parties at a deep level.
- If the parties have the same or a similar value, facilitate the mediation by periodically referring back to it.
When both parties have the same value, even though the behavior associated with the value is different, use that “value connection” as a way to encourage discussion about differences in behavior. GOAL: take the focus off the behaviors that drove the conflict and onto the realm of understanding where the conflict began. Here is where potential resolution will begin.
Jacqueline Oliveira, M.A., is Director of Global Teams Practice at Charis and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org