Study Notes Similarities and Differences Among Chinese and American Conflict Management Styles

Summary of:

Yuan, W. “Conflict management among American and Chinese employees in multinational organizations in China” (2010). Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal, 17(3), 299-311.

Background & Theory:

Past studies have suggested that organizations in Western countries value competing or solution-driven methods of workplace conflict management. On the other hand, studies have argued that organizations in Eastern countries value harmonious relationships and saving face more than their counterparts in the west. This study focuses on the conflict management styles and preferences of Chinese and American employees working in multinational companies in China.

Question(s):

Research was conducted by Wenli Yuan to answer the following question:

    1. How do American and Chinese employees in multi-national companies manage workplace conflict?

Methods:

Data were collected from 20 non-Chinese Americans, 19 Chinese citizens, and 3 Chinese Americans from across 28 different multinational organizations in China. All participants had experience communicating interculturally within their companies. Participants took part in in-person interviews with Yuan, with each interview lasting an average of 50 minutes. These interviews were conducted in either Beijing or Qingdao, half of which were conducted in Chinese and the other half in English. After interviews were completed, the data were analyzed through a constant comparative method for categorizing patterns and themes. The discovered themes were then analyzed in relation to the proposed research question.

It is important to note that participants were from Northern China and had backgrounds working in multinational organizations with experience working across multiple countries. Due to their location and these experiences, the interviewees may have been more receptive to typical Western workplace practices and communication styles.

Results:

Both American and Chinese employees utilized a number of conflict management strategies in the workplace, including integrating, insisting on one’s own ideas, compromising, complying with authority, avoiding, passive resistance, dissolving the relationship, and utilizing a third-party approach.

Certain conflict management styles were more often used by certain cultures. For example, Chinese employees used strategies like avoiding and passive resistance more often, while Americans were more likely to confront conflict directly and insist on their own ideas in major policy decisions. Yuan suggests that Chinese employees are influenced by China’s historical connection to Confucianism, valuing group harmony. Chinese employees seemed cognizant of power status, especially with American managers, often complying with their decisions even if it made employees unhappy. The principle of obedience to authority is also rooted in Confucianism.

While differences existed, most styles were utilized by both Chinese and American employees. Both Chinese and American employees found value in constructively communicating (integrating) and compromising with their counterparts. Both American and Chinese employees also used dominating strategies when their ideas benefitted the organization’s goals. This suggests that focusing on organizational goals may be a helpful reference point for employees of different cultures deciding how to handle workplace conflict.

Analyzing the interview data also determined that different conflict management styles are interpreted differently across cultures. This suggests that even if two employees of different cultures utilize the same conflict management style, their motivations, expectations, and ideas surrounding the style may differ. For example, while avoiding conflict is often seen from an American lens as having low regard for your own needs and high regard for others’ needs, a Chinese employee may argue that avoiding workplace conflict shows high regard for both self and others due to the protection of harmony.

What We Can Learn:

Looking over this research, we can take away the following key insight:

  • While there are differences between common Chinese and American conflict management methods, similarities exist as well. Most Chinese and American employees desire to deal with conflict in a cooperative manner and are not bound to their cultural stereotypes. This being said, it is important for multinational organizations to be culturally sensitive and competent to deal with workplace conflict, but not to the point that cultural differences are amplified and exaggerated.

Final Takeaways

For Consultants: In multinational organizations, recognizing cultural differences can be important to managing conflict. However, regardless of culture, many people desire to utilize pragmatic and cooperative conflict management approaches.

For Everyone: If you work in a multinational company or a cross-cultural workplace, it may be helpful to consider the role cultural differences play in workplace conflict.