Healthy Disagreements on Cross-Cultural Teams

Jul 20, 2023 | 2 comments

Conflict. 

Avoid at all costs. 

That’s how I managed conflict in my early years. 

Don’t compete. Avoid the bully. Let everyone else win. 

My early-in-life strategy of complete conflict avoidance doesn’t work in adulthood. 

Marriage, ministry, and missions made sure of that. Every leader faces unavoidable conflict. Avoiding conflict is a strategy that won’t work. We all must learn how to manage conflict in the family and workplace in life-giving ways. 

Then I moved to Mongolia, and conflict got complicated. 

One would assume Asia to be a great place for default conflict-avoiders, like me. Many Asian cultures also avoid direct confrontation. This was not true of the culture I was learning. 

I was living in conflict-forward Asian culture. 

While learning Mongolian language and culture, I kept to my avoidance strategy. If there was ever an issue with a government official, police officer, or even a shopkeeper, I went back to my childhood ways of “letting them win.” A fight was not worth the stress. It seemed like the “Christian” thing to do. 

As I became more familiar with my host culture, I discovered this was not the best approach. While no one should go around picking fights, Mongolian culture gives more respect to those who stand their ground. I discovered this one day when a police officer threatened to take away my driver’s license at a routine traffic stop. Rather than giving up and giving in, I refused. It’s probably risky to deny the request of a police officer, but I knew well enough he didn’t need my license—and I did not want to go through the hassle (and expense) of going to the police station later to retrieve it. After a few minutes of argument, the officer handed me back my license, with a smirk and complimented my use of the language.  

What I discovered that day, is this: Mongolian culture leans into the aggressor quadrant for conflict. It could be why the Mongolian empire once dominated most of Asia.

Everybody deals with conflict differently. Contributing factors exist, for sure. Upbringing, personality, culture, or treatment by a disgruntled math teacher. There are over 8 billion ways to experience the world. 

With conflict, this framework is helpful. Conflict culture works at two levels: 

1. Emotional expression: People are on a spectrum of expression, from stoic (no emotional expression) to spirited (emotions worn externally like a button on a coat pocket).

2. Level of directness: Directness runs on a spectrum from avoiders (do not engage in this fight at all costs) to aggressors (I will find something to fight with you about). 

It’s helpful to place these two on an XY grid* 

(The idea for this framework is from Erin Meyer’s excellent and highly recommended book called The Culture Map)

For starters, it’s helpful to understand where you fall.  

I am a spirited-avoider.

Now think about your home culture. Americans, as a culture, are in the spirited aggressor quadrant, while UK culture is stoic-avoider. Japanese culture takes stoic-avoidance and moves it all the way to the right. German and Dutch cultures are stoic-aggressors, while Greeks, Italians, and Israelis are spirited-aggressors (Much more than the US!). Philippine culture is on the far edge of spirited-avoiders.  

You can see the obvious challenge for cross-cultural teams! 

Most of you already know how to navigate cross-cultural living. We adjust to our host culture. I had to learn to be a little more stoic — and a little more aggressive when dealing with the Mongolian public. We can adjust. It is a skill that takes practice. But is entirely doable. 

Now things get complicated.  

What if you’re on a multi-national team, with people from Germany, the US, the Philippines, and Korea? 

Individual team members on this sort of team spread wide across our conflict grid. What do you do, now? 

The best way to prevent and resolve current and potential conflict is to create and cultivate a transcendent team culture. 

Since coming off the field and working as a Growability® Consultant, I’ve found that helping teams to establish a team communication playbook is a great way to build this transcendent culture that navigates conflict in healthy ways. Begin with understanding where each team member falls on this grid. Then, no matter the cultures involved, every team can implement communication and conflict ground rules. 

I recommend beginning with these three: 

1. No Strife.  

This is primarily for team members who land on the aggressor and/or spirited side of the grid. Strife is when you try to win by being the loudest, most confrontational person in the room. If I can drown out every other voice, my voice wins. Our team culture doesn’t do strife. It’s simply not allowed. 

2. No Silence

This is when the people who are stoics or avoiders assert their power by simply being silent, to the point of discomfort. I will say nothing. I’ll stew in my silence and let you win — all while harboring bitterness and resentment for the rest of the team that brought me to this miserable place. Silence is not allowed! Everyone has a voice and is, in fact, required to use their voice. 

3. No Sarcasm

This is a tendency for the spirited avoider (Ahem. I’m looking in the mirror here). But it is available for everyone. Humor is wonderful until used as a weapon. Sarcasm is a way to engage, while remaining “the likable one”. Sarcasm (humor as a weapon) destroys team culture. Sarcasm is forbidden (At least, with team disagreements). 

While conflict is inevitable, it is possible to disagree in healthy ways. On our cross-cultural teams, disagreements can edify, rather than destroy when we take the time to build a transcendent team culture. 

Begin building your team’s communication and conflict playbook. 

Here are three steps for getting started. 

1. Know your default conflict strategy. Are you a: 

Stoic-Avoider?
Stoic-Aggressor? 
Spirited-Avoider? 
—Spirited-Aggressor? 

2. Understand each team member’s conflict strategy. 

Having a conversation about conflict strategies with your team will help everyone recognize differences in personalities and cultures. Acceptance is the first step to resolution. While many contributing factors exist, culture remains an enormous part of this. 

3. Create common ground rules. 

I always start with these three:

—No Strife
No Silence
—No Sarcasm

This is the beginning to negotiating conflict healthily. Best practice is to establish this playbook as early as possible, well before conflict’s inception. 

Cross-cultural teams can be life-giving. Labor to establish a team culture that brings together the unique internal wiring of each person to form a working, beautiful whole.  

If you want help to develop your team culture, Growability® provides a variety of team building resources and tools. Visit Growability.com/coaching for more information about working with a coach. 

Bernie Anderson

Empowering next-generation leaders, business and non-profit consultant, writer, and speaker.

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2 Comments

  1. Margaret Lyman

    Thank you for a spot-on article. Strife, Silence, and Sarcasm each seem to be especially relevant to one of the quadrants of your cross-cultural conflict matrix. I wonder if there is a word that is especially relevant to Stoic Aggressors?

    Reply
    • Bernie

      Thank you Margaret! You are correct! We need to make all of this balance! Ha!
      Giving it some thought. I think stoic-aggressors tend to deal with conflict through manipulation. So to stay alliterated, I wonder if we could say “scheming”?

      Appreciate your input so much!

      Reply

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