Bi-Cultural Conflicts

Everybody knows that interpersonal conflicts take place everywhere. The practice of resolving existing and avoiding new conflicts is important. The deeper reason of any conflict, including conflicts in bi-cultural companies, is always the different and contradicting way of the same event is seen by different people.

Let's see how it happens: For example, if a Swiss person participates in a meeting starting at 12:30. Most likely he will arrive in advance. Around 12:15, he will already be in the office, with his coffee and ready for the conference. Meanwhile the Russian participant is at 12:25 still looking for a place to park, if everything goes well he comes in the office at 12:35, stops to pour coffee along the way, have couple of words with the secretary, this and that, and arrives in the meeting room at 12:45.

The fact that one person arrived 15 minutes prior to time, and another 15 minutes after, is neutral and has no inherent meaning, but similar situations frequently become a beginning of a conflict, since for the Swiss the delay is perceived as a personal insult, while for many Russian colleagues it is considered OK to be 10 minutes late. For them being late is not connected with respect or disrespect for partners. Especially if there is a legitimate explanation like the bad traffic.

A situation like this, without explanation, will begin to form a steady stereotype of Russians for the European: "They are disrespectful." This is especially true if there are similar moments later on. And quite naturally, he starts thinking that "they do not respect me," which causes irritation, offence, and dissatisfaction. And this may be neglected by the Russian side. Any attempts by the Swiss to call for a schedule will not work. Quite reasonable words like "let's start on time," pronounced with irritation and offence will cause only reciprocal dissatisfaction and irritation: "The Swiss are arrogant, puts themselves above others" and the attempts of further reconciliation become futile and only pour oil into the fire.

How is it usually done?

The most popular method of resolving conflicts goes like this: a higher level manager invites the conflicting parties in, and, after hearing their stories, calls them to find the solution and to reconcile immediately. Which most often is done on the spot. This can appear pretty optimistic on the surface, but if we do not search for, nor find, the roots of the conflict, then such steps won't have any long-term effect, and could be compared with the re-arranging the furniture in the house while the basement is on fire.

How could the conflicts be resolved?

The solutions do not lie in the domain of actions, but in the field of awareness and responsibility. I suggest three steps for becoming aware:

Step 1. Learn how to distinguish events from the interpretations. If we accept the idea that the events are neutral, then it is our relation to events that provokes our reaction. By distinguishing the events from the interpretations one can start to see what really is the cause of, say, hurt feelings – the very fact of the delay, or a perception of this fact as disrespect.

Step 2. Start to consider that one's own interpretation is not the only possible. Keep in mind that not one interpretation is "true."

Step 3. Learn how to listen, understand and accept the interpretation of the other side.

These steps provide us with the possibility of creating a new framework of perceptions, free from the judgments and assessments, inherited from the past. It is critical to uncover what in my own mentality, in my own worldview was the source of the conflict. To pose a question to myself: what specifically in how I looked at this event created the conflict? Often people search for the answer in every possible external factor. Only becoming responsible for creating the conflict gives us the power to solve it. This will allows us to interact at a completely different level of understanding and mutual respect and to create high-performance teams.

The good news is that in the context of awareness and responsibility, it is possible to avoid and to resolve any conflict. Obviously, in a bi-cultural company there are more opportunities for for misunderstanding. On the other hand, such companies have greater potential for mutual enrichment of cultures, exchange of experience, adoption of effective components, enjoying the strong sides of each culture. Such companies present a specific and complex arena for teambuilding, where we can use these steps to avoid and resolve conflicts and enrich and empower the team.