The East is doing more business with the West than ever before – with joint ventures now accounting for more than a third of China’s direct foreign investment. Increasing collaboration between businesses from opposite corners of the globe is always to be celebrated, of course. But managing teams comprised of people from very different cultural backgrounds isn’t always easy. Unresolved misunderstandings can lead to missed deadlines and sometimes jobs that simply do not get delivered.
Indirect and direct conflict management
It is widely acknowledged that there are fundamental cultural differences underpinning between the way in which the West and East approach conflict management. In the East, personal relationships are seen as essential to achieving business goals and dealing with conflict, wherever it arises. In the West, mixing the professional and the personal is seen as an impediment to entrepreneurial success, if anything, and should definitely not become an element of conflict resolution. We just want to get the job done. These two very different approaches have been labelled as ‘indirect’ and ‘direct conflict management’. And to become a truly culturally ambidextrous business person, it helps to understand how they both work.
Western business people are more likely to place less importance on getting along well with those that they work with. They don’t feel that it’s necessary to like a counterpart or colleague in order to work with them. East Asians prize interpersonal harmony, respect and empathy highly and deliver their best to the individuals and teams that they find pleasant to do business with. When things go wrong, they’re happy to discuss it. Third-party intervention should not be a last minute resort either; because saving face is key to successful conflict resolution in the East, they can be called on as soon as possible.
- In East Asian cultures, people and work are seen as parts of a whole, not separate elements
- If unresolved, indirect conflict can escalate into public shaming! Be careful…
- Apologies are not offered as admissions of guilt, but expressions of genuine remorse intended to restore harmony
In conclusion, if your company or team are working with a team from the other side of the world, keenly observing the small things will help you to get the big things in place. Look out for signals that things aren’t going as planned, or that someone vital to the success of the project isn’t happy. Ask a third party to mediate – as soon as you can.