Culture and Conflict: Understanding Differences

” The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

George Bernard Shaw

We’ve all heard the argument that diversity is great for communities and for competitive business.  I feel that workforce diversity should fall under the theme of social responsibility. We can all agree that inclusion is good, however diversity is not just about gender, race, or sexual orientation. Often overlooked is diversity of perspectives or the mind. This is where we find true diversity.

Increasingly we see and feel the effects of multiculturalism. We see it in all facets of life and we increasingly swim in the waters of cultural diversity.  How we react can alienate or unify us, but it is impossible to proclaim multiculturalism meaningless.

What happens when cultures collide? When sub-groups develop and conflict arises out of a lack of understanding of one another’s cultural differences? Dr. Kamil Kozan, of the St. John Fisher College School of Business, wrote a research paper entitled Subcultures and Conflict Management Style.  He writes, “Without knowledge of possible subcultural differences, managers in a multi-national organization would naturally think that all employees from a particular country would approach conflict the same way.”  

Cultural conflict in the workplace can be extremely destructive to a company. It can create severe strains amongst staffers and can lead to nightmare scenarios for management.  Among the possible flashpoints of conflict:

  1. Sets of beliefs
  2. Values
  3. Motivations
  4. Gender
  5. Ethnicity
  6. Low context vs. high context communication
  7. Individualism vs. collectivism
  8. Lack of assimilation
  9. Language barriers
  10. Exclusion
  11. Stereotyping
  12. Cognitive styles
  13. Misinterpretations

In business, we often think that our relationships with counterparts are transactional; that we are buying or selling products and once the order is placed we can move on to the next thing.  We must remember that companies are not the ones negotiating deals, nor are cultures negotiating deals—you are negotiating with another person! Let us look at the differing characteristics of a few cultures and describe the peculiarities in communication and businesses styles.

United States

In the United States relationships do not need to be developed to make a deal. We can look at a catalog and order without ever knowing or seeing a representative. We are impersonal in many business situations. We often look at elders as equals, even calling them by their first name. American culture reflects an independence perspective; most decisions are based on what is good for the individual or their organization without regard to the surrounding community.  It is much different in other parts of the world


Working alongside a Chinese individual or group may have its challenges. Your Chinese counterpart, co-worker, neighbor looks at things differently; age and titles are extremely important in Chinese culture. We must remember that Chinese come from a strict, hierarchal system.  The locus of decision-making is based on communist collectivism ideology; decisions are largely made by government planners.


Chileans are heavily vested in feeling over facts. Chileans come from a collectivist society, looking at the bigger picture of what is good for everyone, though without a communist perspective. Family is very important and thus decisions are made with family input. In Chile personal relationships are absolutely necessary if you with to be successful.

A successful cultural awareness training programs should encompass these areas:

  1. Expectation levels
  2. Delivery and Approaches to service
  3. Attitudes and Concerns
  4. Values and Behaviors
  5. Cultural Appreciation Day(s)
  6. Effective Communication
  7. Body Language
  8. Equality Training
  9. Role play with role-reversal exercises
  10. Cultural Questionnaire
  11. How are Decisions Made
  12. Greetings
  13. Attire


  1. Enhance communication and understanding
  2. How our diversity expands our knowledge and services to our customer.
  3. Stress commonalities and not differences
  4. On going training and follow-ups
  5. Appreciation of Culture and Diversity

As we can see, implementing a diversity program is much more than recruiting someone that looks different then you. I have presented some ways we can overcome cultural conflict in the workforce. Ideally, we want a productive, harmonious, and happy working environment. When cultures clash, what we do to positively recognize others is what brings others to the table.

Addressing culture and conflict within a diversity program is complex but is highly rewarding. A successfully implemented diversity program can attract a diverse talent pool, create a healthy and happy working environment and increase the reach of your business. I would love to hear your comments on Culture and Conflict or how implementing a successful diversity program has changed your business.

Lee Stotts M.A.

Conflict Analyst

Photo courtesy of Wonder woman0731 under Creative Commons license



Leave a Reply