PPS Monthly Peacebuilding Panel Series: Navigating Cross-Cultural Disputes at Work - Pollack Peacebuilding Systems

On Thursday, November 19th, 2020, Pollack Peacebuilding Systems hosted the November installment of our monthly Peacebuilding Panel Series. The topic for November was entitled, “Navigating Cross-Cultural Disputes at Work” and was discussed by a group of four expert panelists: Jeremy Pollack, Toni Hawkins, Allen Weiner, and Dr. Sukhsimranjit Singh. These panelists discussed a variety of issues as they relate to culture, cross-cultural dispute resolution, and cultural differences in the workplace.  Watch the full panel discussion here.

What is culture and how does it impact us?

Jeremy Pollack, Found of Pollack Peacebuilding Systems

Broadly defined, culture is a set of norms, values, and beliefs that distinguish one group from another. These norms, values, and beliefs act as both the unique features of a group as well as the characteristics that make it different from other groups. Founder of Pollack Peacebuilding Systems, Jeremy Pollack, first addressed this question, explaining the relationship between culture, organizations, and society: “An organization as a subgroup of the larger society is going to be influenced by some of the cultural distinguishing lines within that society. Whatever is going on in society is probably going to trickle down into the organization on some level.” For example, our biases that are influenced by society will likely translate into the workplace and even into the organizational culture to some degree.

Considering that organizations are subgroups of the larger society, Jeremy Pollack posed that when someone joins an organization, a subculture is created that links them to others in that organization. Jeremy Pollack further explained, “You create some shared identity with the people that you’re in the organization with—now you have dual identities.” This changes how you normally think of those around you. For example, if you’re walking on the street and see someone that you would normally attribute as outside of your group, sharing a common identity with them through an organization would allow you to cross intergroup lines in some ways.

However, the creation of a shared identity through an organization should not nullify the existence of distinguishing identities and individual cultures. This is where cross-cultural workplaces and dispute resolution can become very interesting. Having multiple subgroup identities within an organization can create an environment ripe for conflict. It is important therefore, to know how to handle cross-cultural conflict in the workplace. While a common identity is valuable, organizations must recognize the importance of honoring the cultural identities of individuals in navigating these disputes.

What can we do to constructively handle cross-cultural differences and cross-cultural disputes in the workplace?

Dr. Sukhsimranjit Singh, Managing Director of the Straus Institute of Dispute Resolution, Pepperdine Caruso School of Law

Dr. Sukhsimranjit Singh, the managing director of the Straus Institute of Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University, tackled this question and offered a few key points that are crucial to constructively handling cross-cultural differences in the workplace, the center takeaway being the importance of good communication. Dr. Singh elaborated, “Communication is the most powerful way of developing relationships, it is the most powerful way of reaching impasse, and it is one of the easiest ways in which we as human beings create misunderstandings.” Through breaking communication, underestimating the power of good communication, and not communicating enough, we can easily lead ourselves into conflict.

For example, if an employee who reports to you walks in late to the office one day, you have a choice in how you communicate to this employee the importance of coming in on time. You can choose to send an email telling them they were late and that they need to correct their behavior, or you can choose to approach them in person and ask, “I noticed that you arrived to work late today. Is everything ok?” If the supervisor decided to communicate via email as described above, the employee may feel uncared for at work—they may come to believe that they are only valued for their time and not for their character, work ethic, creativity, and more. In both of the methods listed above, the same message is communicated, but the latter shows care, helps develop the relationship between supervisor and employee, and does not allow for misunderstanding to occur on behalf of the supervisor.

This aspect of misunderstanding and miscommunication is such an important element to consider in deciding how to communicate with someone at work. Dr. Singh explained in the panel discussion, “When you have miscommunication, something happens—conflict or stress takes birth. When you have conflict, it takes your energy away, it creates mistrust, it creates boundaries, it can be unpredictable, and it creates emotion. In all of these categories, we tend to go to ‘us versus them’ mode, into miscommunication mode, into blaming rather than understanding.” Once we assume an ‘us versus them’ mindset, conflict can intensify, leading to further conflict, distrust, and miscommunication among everyone.

Jeremy Pollack added a hypothetical question to this point: “Why are we so focused on these particular salient social categories and not focused on the ones that we share—which is our humanity—and also the ones that are we are so unique in—which is our individuality—and how do we move between that?” The panelists agreed that one answer to this may lie in the simple act of approaching differences with curiosity. Instead of labeling others and being fearful of differences, the act of investing in people and celebrating differences may be key in allowing others to feel heard and reminding them of our common humanity. Leaders in the workplace can engage in curious discovery and attentive listening, simultaneously helping employees focus on their shared identities while honoring their unique identities.

What role does organizational culture play in cross-cultural conflicts and dispute resolution?

Allen Weiner
Allen Weiner, Director, Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation

As mentioned previously, organizational culture can function as a shared identity that can assist with cross-cultural communication and dispute resolution. However, through its structures and systems, organizational culture can also act as an instigator of conflict. Professor Allen Weiner, director of the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation elaborated on this, explaining that an organizational culture’s processes and systems can allow for the demonization of certain groups when in conflict. For example, if a system makes it difficult for employees to file complaints or grievances and because of this, their complaints are hardly addressed, employees may create an organizational culture that views management as unreasonable. This idea can be internalized by employees, reinforcing an unhealthy company culture that does not trust management.

PPS Peacebuilder Toni Hawkins added on to the conversation by explaining the importance of diversity among leadership. While many companies are hiring more diverse employees, the rate of increasing diversity among leadership is much slower. In this case, the structural and cultural issues keeping minorities out of leadership positions harms the ability for effective cross-cultural communication. A lack of cultural acceptance at higher levels in an organization makes it difficult for everyday employees to learn how to effectively handle cross-cultural communication and disputes.

Considering that organizational culture can play a role in creating conflict, how can we use it to facilitate conflict resolution? Professor Weiner spoke to this by describing his experience working with parties in intractable conflicts: “We ask the parties to say, ‘Can you envision a mutually bearable shared future?’ Can we have each party reach an agreement where they can say, ‘Yeah that would be ok with me, I could live with that?’ This is a harder thing to do than you would think because normally the focus in conflict processes is, ‘Let me tell you what I need.’” However, when parties begin to focus on finding solutions that meet everyone’s needs, the conversation moves away from defensive positions to creative interests, allowing for envisioning of mutually acceptable outcomes.

Perhaps organizational culture can play a role in this process. Unlike most intractable conflicts, cross-cultural disputes in the workplace may allow for two conflicting groups to reach solutions that are not only bearable but preferred and welcomed. Organizational culture may be able to act as a point of common ground for conflicting employees or management in imagining a future that satisfies and excites both sides.

What are practical takeaways we can use to effectively deal with the cross-cultural disputes in our workplace and/or personal lives?

Toni Hawkins, M.P.H.
PPS Peacebuilder Toni Hawkins

As a final takeaway, Peacebuilder Toni Hawkins came up with a list of practical tips anyone can use to better handle the cross-cultural disputes in their lives:

  • Check your own assumptions: When in a cross-cultural dispute, it is important for everyone to start by examining themselves, their own biases, and the hot buttons and triggers they have to gain a greater awareness of how the conflict arose. Toni Hawkins mentioned, “We don’t want to make the assumption that because there’s a conflict, and that conflict might be between people of different cultures, that the conflict itself is a result of the cultures…We don’t want to assume that the little bit we think we know about someone is applicable to that person, situation, or even culture.” Making assumptions from the start can build barriers to resolving the conflict at hand, so it is crucial to examine and separate assumption from reality.
  • Learn about the people around you: This tip reflects a point made previously about staying curious. Asking questions, using Google, and reading can help you understand the experiences of others while validating them to those sharing. Additionally, it is important to recognize that not everyone necessarily feels like sharing these experiences or teaching others about their culture—and this is completely acceptable on their part. Ask these questions with an openness of truly wanting to learn about others’ experiences but also be open to the fact that they may not want to share experiences at the moment.
  • Listen: This is likely the most important tip provided here. One should genuinely listen with the intent to learn from others instead of with the intent to share their ideas or teach the other something. In cross-cultural communication, the simple act of listening can help build trust and understanding, often leading to more constructive conflict management.
  • Highlight the presence and contributions of different cultures: Toni Hawkins explained this point comparing different cultural contributions to food items at a potluck: “I tell everyone, ‘bring your best dish—bring the thing that you want to share with everyone else.’ When everyone brings their best to the table, it makes the party so much better. The same thing applies to the workplace.” This relates to another earlier point—cross-cultural communication requires a celebration of differences instead of being fearful of them.
  • Hire an expert to help with workplace conflict: Whether a cross-cultural dispute or not, allowing experts to come and assist with the dispute can make a huge difference in work life and job satisfaction. Not only can conflict resolution consultants help with various conflicts, but they can train employees in establishing positive communication skills, proactively dealing with conflict, and making the workplace a diverse and inclusive place for everyone.

Noah Shaw

Noah is the Peace Operations Coordinator at Pollack Peacebuilding Systems and holds a Master's in Dispute Resolution from the Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law.


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