Solving Conflicts With Cultural Dialogue

3/22/2016

One of the most difficult issues in managers’ professional lives is dealing with interpersonal problems among their team members. While large workloads and the staggering pace of globalized business require a lot of time and energy, nothing can get done if an organization’s employees do not like working together. Conversely, managers can help their employees with different work-style preferences collaborate effectively with minimal conflict.

So when it comes to settling interpersonal conflicts among employees with different preferences, what is a manager to do?

Take this example of preference gaps among colleagues leading to a major cooperation problem, and how their manager handled it.

Two members of Juanita’s team have been having a continuous personality conflict for several months now. Ali can become emotional during times of stress and vents his anger and frustration openly. Suzanne, meanwhile, is uncomfortable with Ali’s venting and feels that he should not “scream” at her or anyone else in the office. 

This scenario demonstrates how differences in communication styles can lead to conflict.  Suzanne feels “attacked” by Ali's loud voice and expressive, informal use of language. Ali feels that Suzanne is too sensitive and that she is rather frigid when it comes to interacting with her colleagues. 

As Juanita is the supervisor of their team, she has been asked to advise each on ways to resolve the conflict. She has several options. On the one hand, she could advise Ali to tone down his voice when talking with Suzanne, or to only communicate with her via email, so that his expressiveness doesn’t come through as strong. On the other hand, Juanita could reassure Suzanne that Ali is not attacking her and that he isn’t conveying anger at her when he yells; he is just an expressive and direct communicator.   

Juanita decides to convene all the members of the team – not just Ali and Suzanne – for a cultural dialogue. Without mentioning any names or specific situations, she explains to her team members the effect that communication style preferences have on collaboration. She also underscores that different preferences are not “good” or “bad,” and that learning about others’ preferences may help them get along better. Later, in a private meeting between Ali and Suzanne, she suggests ways they can work around the gap – Ali using mostly email with Suzanne and toning his voice down, and Suzanne giving him some leeway and working to understand how his preferences manifest themselves.

Cultural dialogue is part of creating an open, respectful and non-judgmental environment in which colleagues feel comfortable expressing their personal cultural preferences, and in working with others whose preferences differ from theirs. When employees work around their differences, they work better together, and the organization as a whole gains.