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Constructive Conflict on a Multicultural Team

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

Cross-Cultural Facilitation with the Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™, part 2 of 5

"All eyes are on you. Twenty or so coworkers from different countries have gathered for your session around The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™. Can you draw them into a learning experience that will strengthen the way they work together?"

We want to share our experiences from walking this road, and what we have found to work well with a mix of western, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. This is part two in a five-part series.

If we have been successful in building Trust among team members around the first leg of the Five Behaviors model, the team is ready to move to the second stage of engaging in constructive Conflict. Lencioni uses the word “conflict” despite its negative connotations because he feels people should develop the ability to face situations they find difficult. He urges people to be transparent about issues and conflicts they have on the team.

Constructive Conflict

Conflict tends to reveal the real issues at stake and provides a great opportunity for a team to work through them. As with Trust, KnowledgeWorkx has built on top of Lencioni’s foundation to give greater flexibility in facilitating through the topic of Conflict in an intercultural setting.

The first dilemma we tend to hit from a facilitation point of view is that the term “conflict” is seen as negative and something to be avoided in most languages across the world. Using the language of KnowledgeWorkx’s Three Colors of Worldview and 12 Dimensions of Culture, this is especially true where Indirect Communication is the norm, where people are first of all Accountable to their Community, and where people feel their Destiny is Directed by outside forces. In cultures like these conflict is largely dealt with in an indirect manner, or not at all. People often leave conflict to work itself out, in hope a solution will come along on its own.

We have found that where the predominant cultural mindset is one of Innocence/Guilt, teams can more easily view conflict as neutral and engage with each other directly. Innocence/Guilt cultures tend to have a preference for Direct styles of Communication, Directive Destiny oriented approaches to taking charge of one’s own life, and assume that people are Individually Accountable for their actions and words.

Two Cultural Schools of Thought

Lencioni talks about the conflict continuum, where on the one side we can be so nice to each other that nothing ever gets resolved, and on the other there is all-out war and things are toxic. In intercultural settings we have found it helpful to also add a cultural polarity –– problem-centric approaches to conflict resolution versus relationship-centric ones.

Problem-centric approaches are focused on identifying problems and solving them. Relationship-centric ones are focused on maintaining relationships and personal connections. Where a team’s culture falls in these two school of thoughts will shape what behaviors people use to engage with or ignore conflict on a team, and what motivates people to engage. As a result, we need to be ready to flex the way we talk about and motivate constructive conflict.

The beauty of the Five Behaviors is that there is a very strong relational underpinning to the way we look at team development. Just the fact that we start with Trust gives the foundation to flex our discussion of Conflict for relationship-centric cultures as well.

One important note is that the two schools of conflict resolution are more of a polarity than a continuum. What we mean by that is that problem-centric and relationship-centric styles don’t mix very well. Part of our goal then in facilitating is to help teams appreciate and develop flexibility to use the pole they are least comfortable with. If they want to be a successful intercultural team, they need to be good at doing both.

Relational vs Problem-centric Approaches

Problem-centric approaches are focused more on the problem than the people. If there is a conflict, an important first step is to get the people involved together to talk about what the problem is. Once you have agreement about this, you can start looking for a solution. People will say things like, “Leave your emotions at the door. Don’t take it so personally. Let’s just solve this problem.” The problem-centric or issue-centric approach to resolution works well where people are culturally used to that approach.

However, among the majority of cultures in the world there is a more relationship-centric way of resolving conflict. This style puts strengthening the relationship first. Only when you have affirmed and strengthened the relationship can you find a meaningful way to deal with conflicts. And finding that way might still happen through indirect communication and be limited by external societal or community considerations.

In this cultural style my personal opinion, the hurt I feel, or the issue I have in the conflict might not be so important. I may even decide not to raise the issues that affect me directly for the sake of the health and success of the community.

In a Community Accountability culture, where people communicate indirectly to preserve honor, where relationships are more important than finding solutions, and where raising a concern may have significant implications in the wider community - it might actually be more constructive to not raise an issue publicly. It may be better within my cultural value system to deal with it quietly because of the impact on my community, and because the success of my community is served that way.

The strength of the Five Behaviors is pushing people toward constructive rather than destructive conflict. With Lencioni’s relational underpinnings we can redirect and channel the conversation in a more relational fashion where appropriate.

This is a fine line to acknowledge in facilitating. To a direct communicator, someone from this cultural background may appear to be unwilling to face an issue if they go about addressing it through indirect means. But addressing a sensitive conflict issue in an Honor/Shame or Power/Fear environment may actually only be constructive if it is done indirectly rather than openly. This is often the best way to keep and build the trust we’ve established.

Conflict resolution through indirect means will seem inefficient to a direct communication culture, but it can be quite effective if you plan carefully and the other person is expecting it. You may share your thoughts with a person who is not directly involved, hoping or expecting they will pass this along to reach the other person. You might leave hints about something you dislike, hoping the people on your team will be sophisticated enough to link your hint to the issue you have a problem with.