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The Case and the Problem Statement
The ongoing growth of international businesses has brought about increased demand for managing culturally diverse workforces. Even though today, the world has grown as interconnected as ever, many people still lack cultural awareness. This prevents them from choosing the correct communication strategies in the workplace – an issue that requires strong cultural leadership from those in the decision-making positions. A friend of mine, M., has currently observed a cultural conflict at his job, which the company has not successfully resolved. M. is working for a not-for-profit organization that brings together young people from different countries and cultural backgrounds to work together and help the underprivileged of the country.
One would expect heightened consciousness from those who knowingly join such initiatives. Unfortunately, it was not the case: one of the project teams involved participants (A. and L.) from Algeria who belonged to two ethnic groups – Berber and Arab. Now, these ethnicities have been in conflict with each other for years, and Algeria remains a social minefield due to the hostility between them (Montagne, 2019). These project participants, however, had never met each other before the project and had not had any personal history. Yet, merely based on their background, they formed some sort of prejudice toward each other.
The situation derailed as A. and L. would often make work discussions about them and bring up political issues. The conflict became heated, and the Berber employee, A., refused to work with her Arab colleague, L.. A. said that she did not care much about the inconvenience that her decision might cause the organization. Moreover, A. went as far as insulting L., namely, calling Arabs “terrorists” and blaming her ethnicity for many world issues. The managing board was appalled when they heard of the clash between the employees. The mission of the organization was to bring nations together, not pitch them against each other. Without thinking twice, they fired A. on-spot, making it a cautionary tale for others. Some of L.’s colleagues fully supported the managers in their decision whereas others thought that the measure was too harsh. The question arises as to what the leaders could do better about the situation.
Synergistic Approach Toward Cultural Leadership
Cultural conflicts are multifaceted: they draw on the unfortunate history between the two countries, nations, or ethnicities as much as the opposing sides’ personal traits. One of the approaches toward solving cultural conflicts in the workplace recognized worldwide is cultural synergy. Synergistic cultural leadership means appreciating each other’s culture and acknowledging accomplishments and contributions (Mihaela, 2014). The theory of culture synergy argues that there are no inferior or superior cultures and, therefore, there are no winners or losers in a cultural conflict. Relating to the case described above, it is impossible to say which side of the conflict one should pick – that of A. or L. If anything, every party in that situation ended up losing: A. lost her job position, L. was deeply offended, and the management now had to handle an even more disjointed team. It is possible that had the leaders taken the synergistic approach toward problem-solving, the organization would have been much better off.
The theoretical framework of cultural synergy also implies that conflicts are a natural part of an international organization. Strøbæk and Vogt (2018) argue that more often than not, managers draw foregone conclusions and make hassled decisions when it comes to cultural issues. The researchers refer to bringing cultures together under the same roof as a “merger.” After a merger occurs, leaders need to let cultural synergy effects take time to settle in. For this, it is essential to leave an open space for cultural and social conflicts even if it means interference with both organizational performance and employee satisfaction.
Giving a situation time to unfold may not be quite welcome by the employees of an organization. In the case of A. and L., many of their colleagues saw a growing conflict as a direct threat to the integrity of the organization. However, as Strøbæk and Vogt (2018) point out, conflicts and frustrations may be the best source of solutions and innovations. The organization that M., A., and L. were working for saw open dialogues of cultures as one of the pillars of its mission. Yet, when the first problematic situation arose, it was first dismissed and then ended altogether. The leaders did not give it enough thought and did not see it as an opportunity to grow and develop.
The question arises as to if the managers of the organization could rewind the situation, what strategy would be the best to adopt. According to Strøbæk and Vogt (2018), one of the most common misconceptions among human resource managers is that common policies ensure common work practices and collaboration. The researchers see this point of view as somewhat faulty: people often see policies as something abstract. They can barely comprehend how vision and mission statements apply in real life, let alone find reflection in work practices and activities. Strøbæk and Vogt (2018) suggest a different solution: first, managers need to lay a foundation of trust for the employees. Leaders need to give their followers time to build informal bonds on their own. Only then is it possible to lead discussions on the ethical policies and values of a company?
Implications and Recommendations
The described theoretical framework seems to make sense, and yet, there is a need to clarify what exactly it implies of organizations. Gunkel, Schlaegel, and Taras (2016) argue that the conflicts such as the one that M. has witnessed in his workplace have both cultural and personal elements to them that need to be addressed separately. Thus, a blueprint for cultural conflict management within the framework of culture synergy may look as follows:
- Research. Leaders need to study the cultural backgrounds of the main protagonists to avoid making foregone conclusions. Admittedly, the managers of the organization in question might have had their own opinions regarding the conflict in Algeria and who the victims and aggressors are. Yet, it is essential to dive deeper into the neutral, reliable literature on the subject to remain impartial;
- Retain neutrality. Leaders should be ready to suspend judgments based on their own cultural norms;
- Establish the common ground. What could really help A. and L. come to terms with each other is to start seeing each other as human beings, not parts of respective cultures. A. and L. put labels on one another before building a relationship. Managers could have helped the conflicting parties to find common ground. For instance, they could have tried to involve them in team-building activities during which A. and L. could talk about their lives outside the political context. It is very possible that they could discover common interests such as books or movies. All in all, A. and L. would understand that the other person is multidimensional and deserves respect.
- Shift focus from personal to communal. Leaders should remind others that they are working to meet the common goals. While conflicts may be a natural part of the process, they should not be disruptive to collaboration. Based on single precedence, leaders might want to establish a common vision to follow, shifting focus from personal to corporate.
Critical Incident Generalizability
Generally speaking, a critical incident is an incident that can launch a process of observation and decision-making to improve existing work processes. In the case of M.’s organization, the conflict between A. and L. qualified as a critical incident and required stress management debriefing. Even though the way that the managers handled the conflict was far from perfect, they can still make some generalizations about the situation. Simply making conclusions about managing conflicts between Berbers and Arabs at the office would not be enough. Instead, the situation may teach them to spot early signs of a cultural conflict and prevent it from escalating. According to Fook (2015), almost any conflict or a problematic situation at work can be used for innovation and improvement. Critical incidents vary in gravity and magnitude, and yet, even the least complicated of them deserve reflection. A good leader needs to know which elements deserve generalization. It is difficult to infer the particularities of a certain ethnicity and personal traits. Yet, cultural conflicts often follow the same pattern that can be pinpointed and put to good use.
Fook, J. (2015). Reflective practice and critical reflection. Handbook for practice learning in social work and social care, 440-454.
Gunkel, M., Schlaegel, C., & Taras, V. (2016). Cultural values, emotional intelligence, and conflict handling styles: A global study. Journal of World Business, 51(4), 568-585.
Mihaela, H. (2014). A synergistic approach of cross-cultural management and leadership style. Journal of International Studies, 7(2), 106-115.
Montagne, R. (2019). The Berbers: Their social and political organization. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
Strøbæk, P.S., & Vogt, J. (2018). Cultural synergy and organizational change: From crisis to innovation. Wirtschaftspsychologie, 1.