Intercultural Conflict In a Corporate Organization. Conflict In the Workplace

Academic Paper, 2017

10 Pages, Grade: B+

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INTERCULTURAL CONFLICT IN A CORPORATE ORGANIZATION By Susan Njogu, International Leadership University


This paper develops theory about the conditions under which cultural diversity enhances or detracts from work group functioning. From research in the Maersk Group with four different business units in Kenya, yet with culturally diverse employees, namely: Kenyan, Nigerian, American, European, South African, Japanese and Indian.

The perspective on work group diversity a work group held influenced how people expressed and managed tensions related to diversity, whether those who had been traditionally underrepresented in the organization felt respected and valued by their colleagues, and how people interpreted the meaning of their racial identity at work. These, in turn, had implications for how well the work group and its members functioned. All perspectives on cultural diversity shows there had been success in motivating managers to diversify their staffs, in the different departments.

Employees in this group work in increasingly diverse environments: in terms of age, gender, race/ethnic group and nationality. Beyond these differences, there are also deeper cultural differences that influence the way conflict is approached. The use of teams represents an important change in the way the organization works. The theory is that through the interdependency of the part’s greater productivity is achieved by the whole. One reason that teams fail to meet performance expectations is their paralysis through unresolved conflict. This research focuses on the impact of culture on the prevention and resolution of conflict in the organization that has cultural diversity.

History and Background

Management Scientists have shared renewed interest in the subject of conflict and its management in workplaces (Jehn, 2000; Kumar and Van Dissel, 1996; Rahim, 2002; Zapf 1999). This interest could be ascribed to increased observation in organizations and the assertion that organizations are inherently competitive and riddled with conflict (Schermerhon et al., 1997).

The corporate organization picked for study in this paper is A.P Moller - Maersk Group, which is an integrated transport and logistics company with multiple brands and is a global leader in container shipping and ports. The company employs roughly 88,000 employees across operations in 130 countries. It comprises of 7 companies in one, however in Kenya it has four of them operating, that is; Maersk Line, Safmarine, APM Terminals and Damco Logistics. It has been operational since 1996 in Kenya. Maersk Line is the world’s largest container shipping company, known for reliable and co-efficient services. Maersk Liner business also includes Safmarine and Seago line. This business unit has a fleet of 639 ships which sail every major trade lane on the globe. APM Terminals business unit, provides port and inland infrastructure to drive global commerce. Damco Logistics business unit is a world leading freight forwarding and supply chain management services. Their focus is on simplifying complex supply chains, uncovering efficiency improvements that enable their customers to cut their inventories, reduce operating costs and making significant short term savings for long term competitiveness.

The group’s headquarter is in Copenhagen, Denmark and was founded by Arnold Peder Moller (commonly known as A.P Moller) a Danish shipping magnate, who died in 1965 and his son, Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller, took over who died at 98 in April 2012, after which the youngest daughter Anne Maersk Mc-Kinney took over as Chairman of the group.

The culture of the group is - Diverse, dynamic and unique.

Business Units Dynamics

Over time successful teams develop culturally distinct pathways to communicate, problem solve, make decisions, and resolve conflict. The development the business units does not take place in a vacuum, but is embedded in the wider social, political and economic context of the day. Sources of power differ, as do expectations about how and when it will be used. Writing for a North American audience, Cutcher- Gershenfeld & Kochan in the Impact on Economic Performance of a Transformation in Workplace Relations (1991), have suggested that a successful team will: Be comfortable dealing with conflict, Be committed to resolving disputes close to the source, Resolve disputes based on interests before rights and power, and Learn from experience with conflicts.

This ties in with research on the effects of interpersonal conflict in teams. An employee’s commitment to the organization and its mission can increase if conflict is well-managed and resolved, but decreases if conflict goes unresolved. If unhealthy conflict goes unresolved for too long, employees are likely to quit or to search for alternatives. (Wallace Bishop and Dow Scott)

Schein (1983) argues that the personality of a leader affects the development of organizational culture. Particularly focus on leaders and conflict cultures by Lewin et al. (1939) argue that leadership styles used by different leaders mattered, where they found that democratic leaders were friendlier, more spontaneous and more cooperative, as compared to laissez faire or autocratic leaders who were more competitive.

The recent out-going CEO of Damco Logistics Kenya Ltd, one of the business units, is a democratic leader who was friendly to all the staff, he would want to find out how everyone was doing, knew all members of staff’s names and their roles and would often come up with ideas where employees would participate in a fun activity together. He has had an open-door policy where anyone could walk into his office with whatever matter. Regarding conflict managing, he came up with a suggestion box, where employees would air their grievances, however it needed to be positively criticized, and then this would be discussed in the town halls. If it was a member of the management team, the name would be mentioned. This was done for accountability purposes, as the senior managers were to be role models. He also introduced celebration of birthdays every month and this has remained the culture of the organization for the past 3 years.

The Increased Importance of Sensitivity to Cultural Differences

The increased connection among countries and the globalization of corporations, does not mean that cultural differences are disappearing or diminishing. On the contrary, as economic borders come down, cultural barriers could go up, thus presenting new challenges and opportunities in business. When cultures come into contact, they may converge on some aspects, but on others they will likely amplify. For example McDonald’s serves wine and salads with its burgers in France. In India where beef products are taboo, it created a mutton burger: The Maharajah Mac.

Globalizations opens many opportunities for business but it also creates major challenges. One of the most important challenges is acknowledging and appreciating cultural values, practices in different parts of the world. All experts in international business agree that to succeed in global business, managers need the flexibility to respond positively and effectively to practices and values that may be drastically different from what they are accustomed to. This requires the ability to be open to others’ ideas and opinions. Being global is not just about where you do business, it is also about how you do it. In survey of Fortune 500 firms, which Maersk group is, having competent global leaders was rated as the most important factor for business success. (Robert J. et al.2004)

Max Weber talks of theories of ethnicity, that “behind all ethnic diversities there is naturally the notion of the ‘chosen’ people which is merely a counterpart of the status differentiation translated into the plane of the coexistence. The idea of a chosen people derives its popularity from the fact that it can be claimed to an equal degree by any and every member of the mutually despising groups, in contrast to status differentiation which always rests on subordination” (Weber 19996, 37). In this context, the organization having a mixture of different racial backgrounds and ethnic groups, it is important to have proper structures in place as well as values that guide the organization. There also must be a common language that is acceptable, professionally, so as not to have some employees feel more superior that others. Respect to all and by all must be emphasized, where everyone understands that their opinion and role in the organization matters.

Some cultures are individualistic while others are controlling. For example the case of Asian descent manager, whose leadership style is authoritarian and may want to get involved in every decision and copied on every email can cause conflict and slow the progress of a certain project, if people have to wait for authorization of every document by a this manager who may have a lot on their plate. This may not work in big and busy organization, and therefore empowerment of supervisors is important, where they can make decisions and ensure smooth running of the organization.

Defining Culture

The definitions of culture are several. However, for our practical purposes, culture is defined as the shared set of values, beliefs, norms, attitudes, behaviors, and social structures that define reality and guide everyday interactions. (Adapted from Moore and Woodrow).

This definition implies that culture is an attribute of a group, and also contemplates the fact that there may be as much variation within the group as between different groups. We often associate culture with a national group, however, culture includes ethnic groups, clans, tribes and organizations. Teams within organizations also have beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that constitute unique cultures. For example, one of the famous culture in the Maersk group is cultural Friday, every last Friday of the month, where one wears what represents their culture and they then celebrate the day with cake. This helps celebrate diversity within the organization.

Although there are many similarities between cultures, it is important not to minimize real differences that do exist. A useful tool for considering the cultures of different groups is the bell curve. The majority of a group culture will confirm to a dominant set of beliefs, attitudes and behaviors, but there will be members of the cultural group that differ in significant ways from the norm. In intercultural context, conflict is the explicit or implicit emotional struggle or frustrations between people from different cultures over perceived incompatible goals, norms, values, face concerns, scarce resources and communication outcome. Individualistic and Collectivist

Dimensions of a Culture

An important dimension of culture is the extent to which members identify with the group (in this case the team) rather than themselves as individuals. Individualistic cultures place a high value on "autonomy, initiative, creativity, and authority in decision making." (Moore and Woodrow)

Individual interests trump group interests, and any group commitment is a function of a perceived self-benefit.

Collectivist cultures, on the other hand, value the group above the individual. Group conformity and commitment is maintained at the expense of personal interests. Harmony, getting along and maintaining 'face' are seen as crucial. The dominant culture in the USA, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand is individualistic, while collectivism predominates the rest of the world. However, examples of both are found everywhere. In Maersk group Kenya, the biggest percentage of the employees are Kenyan while the rest about 30% comprises of American, Chinese, Asian descent as well as Europeans. It assumes that a relatively high percentage of the workforce comes from a social environment that is collectivist. However, in the other countries around the world, for example in Denmark, Maersk group will comprise of 80% employees being from Europe.

Defining Conflict

“Conflict may be viewed as a feeling, a disagreement, real or perceived compatibility of interests, inconsistent worldview or a set of behaviors.” (Mayers, 2000). Individualists and collectivists view conflict differently. Collectivists, who place a high value on harmony, getting along and 'face' see conflict as a sign of social failure. As a result, comfort levels with conflict situations, especially of an interpersonal nature are low. Conflict is often avoided.

While many individualists also feel discomfort with conflict, it is acknowledged as an inevitable part of life that must be dealt with. However, being in conflict with another is not necessarily something to be ashamed about and especially in the work place it is something that must be dealt with. The different cultures will handle conflict differently, for example the Nigerian and Americans will be more aggressive in handling conflict while the Chinese will avoid being in conflict. Some of the ways Maersk Group has helped handle conflict, is through the suggestion boxes where it is then discussed, encouraging team buildings in departments where employees get to know one another minimizing conflict, as well as an online platform done annually by all employees where they give feedback and suggestions on areas of improvement to the senior management.

Sources of conflict

The sources of conflict will play a critical role in determining the best way to deal with conflict. The best way to resolve something that is not going right, is to figure out what made it go wrong in the first place, so as to know where to begin from to make it right. In this case, knowing what brings about any conflict is what will help manage it. According to Mayer (2000:9), the six major sources of conflict include methods of communication, emotions, history, values, structures and needs. Mayer stated that, “Culture affects conflict because it is embedded in individuals’ communication styles, history and way of dealing with emotions, values and structures.”

In the organization set up, how one communicates something that went wrong to a colleague or a supervisor, matters a lot. The language used, the emotions involves and if they have considered the tone of voice they have used. Different cultural backgrounds in this instance of employs, can influence how they communicate and how they resolve conflict.

Involvement and Role of Third Parties

Employees from a collectivist culture will probably be more comfortable with a fellow team member addressing a conflict, rather than bringing in someone from the outside. Individualists, on the other hand, may prefer an impartial outsider, whose relationship to the team is remote-such as a Human Resource representative or another departmental head.

The expected role of the third party is also influenced by cultural dimensions. In western, individualistic cultures mediation has evolved as a process in which the third party does not make decisions for the disputants. Some mediators provide an evaluation of the strengths and weakness and they are described as evaluative. At the other end of this continuum are mediators who do not make evaluations. They are purely facilitative.

In collectivist cultures, mediators are often expected to provide counsel, evaluate and advise in an effort to restore harmony. Disputants engage a third party precisely because they are unable to find a solution themselves.

Communication Styles

There are a number of factors that contribute to communication style. One factor is the extent to which it is expressive or restrained. Some employees may have been socialized to reveal strong emotions and to feel comfortable with prolonged eye contact and touch. Others may be more stoic, and mask emotions with a poker face, use monotone speech and avoid eye contact.

These different communication styles are not problematic in and of themselves. However, problems arise when value judgments are made on the basis of the different styles. For example, if employees disagree and one represents his views and feelings forcefully with a raised voice, another more restrained team member may see that as arrogant. The same 'arrogant' employee may conclude that the restrained team member is untrustworthy because eye contact is not maintained.

Another area of difference relates to directness. Some cultures are very direct. They like to 'cut to the chase' and get frustrated with someone who 'beats around the bush'. Indirect cultures prefer to deal with relational aspects first, and to restore harmony before addressing substantive issues.

Negotiation Style

Negotiation is a means to satisfy needs. It can be broken down into one of two approaches- positional and interest based. Positional negotiation involves haggling over extreme positions without a clear understanding of underlying interests. By contrast, an interest based approach focuses on the needs and concerns of the disputants. An interest based approach is widely used by conflict resolution practitioners, especially in western cultures. It has been popularized through books such as "Getting to Yes" (Fisher, Ury and Patton) but the extent of its internalization is limited.

Teams should consider their own negotiation styles and make an explicit decision as to whether they will use an interest based or positional negotiation approach. During negotiations, cultures that prefer a direct communication style will seek direct, face to face communication rather than indirect shuttle diplomacy. There are other cultural factors that have a bearing on the way an organization will approach conflict prevention and resolution. (Sunoo 1990) These include:

- Our relationship to time (Whether we are monochromic and do one thing at a time or polychromic and do several things at once. Whether we expect the process to have a start and end or to be an ongoing process)
- Our relationship to rules (Whether we value rules and order over feelings and relationships)
- Our relationship to venue (Whether we are private or public, indoor or outdoor, formal or informal)

Implications from cultural diverse organizations ( Sunoo 1990). Given that organizations are comprised of diverse individuals with unique cultural backgrounds, what lessons can we distill for the successful prevention and resolution of conflict?

Know yourself and your own culture

Starting with yourself, examine your own beliefs, values, biases, and prejudices. Know how to behave and what your hot buttons are. Locate your individual culture in the context of your family, regional, and national cultures. Know what the social, political and economic context of the day is. Being aware of our own cultures helps us to be open to different ideas. We are able to compare and contrast different approaches without being threatened.

Learn others’ expectations

We should, as Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service Commissioner Jan Sunoo suggests, expect different expectations. The only way we will know what fellow employees expect is to have an explicit conversation about the nature of conflict and how we prefer to deal with it when it arises. This should lead to a more general conversation that addresses how the team wants to work together. The sooner this happens the better. We can also read books and watch movies to understand others culture. Learning about a new culture takes time. There is the surface culture, and then there is that which what a hidden deep culture is.

Check your assumptions

As we filter incoming information through our senses (Sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch) it is natural to make assumptions. We should develop acceptable communication protocols to check out the basis of our perceptions. Failure to do so leads to inaccurate stereotypes and may foster negative feelings of hostility.

One approach is to give specific feedback on the behavior you observed ("I noticed that you avoided eye contact when we were discussing the situation.") and to seek clarification of your interpretations. ("I suppose you could have been bored. Can you tell me what was going on?") Be open to various interpretations. Your first interpretation is not necessarily correct. Another variation is to give feedback on how you felt when the specified behavior occurred. ("I felt ignored when you avoided eye contact during our discussion. Can you tell me what was going on?") It sometimes helps to list all the possible interpretations you have thought of almost as if brainstorming.


Listening is widely acknowledged as a key conflict prevention and resolution skill. Care should be taken not to impose an approach to listening that causes discomfort. Not all cultures are comfortable expressing feelings in public. Used in a team environment, effective listening enables new norms to emerge that reflect a deep knowledge for one another's 'ways.' This level of multi- cultural maturity will not always be achieved, and the norms will often reflect an issue by issue compromise by the different cultures present. Each employee will adhere to their own ways, and when their culture conflicts with others, adopt the others through a mix match of procedures. However, a compromise over cultural norms is better the imposition of values by a dominant group.


Having worked in an intercultural organizations in the past five years, one of the challenges of working in an intercultural organization is that it can be very diverse on how employees view matters. Another is that conflict will arise from time to time. How employees choose to respond can often be the difference between success and failure. The importance of talking about conflict prevention and resolution issues up front cannot be overstressed. It will go a long way to the enhanced productivity that is expected from a team that is performing well.

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Intercultural Conflict In a Corporate Organization. Conflict In the Workplace
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intercultural, conflict, corporate, organization, workplace
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Susan Njogu (Author), 2017, Intercultural Conflict In a Corporate Organization. Conflict In the Workplace, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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