Cross-Cultural Leadership and Conflict Management in the Asian Context

Direct Confrontation Versus Harmony

Term Paper, 2017
16 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Table of Contents

I. Cross-Cultural Conflict Management Challenges

A. Cultural Differences: Asian Collectivism and Conflict Avoidance

1. Collectivism vs. Individualism
2. Conflict avoidance in collectivist Asian societies

B. Miscommunication between Cultures

1. Language Challenges
2. Direct, indirect and non-verbal communication

II. Opposing Leadership Expectations

A. Paternalistic vs. Participative Leadership Style
B. Expected Leadership Traits and Behaviors in Asia

III. Discussion of Improvement Approaches for Conflict Management

A. Creating Awareness for Different Leadership Expectations and Practical Advice
B. Limitations of Approach



In order to find out solutions for leadership and communication conflicts of Western expatriates in Asia, this paper examines cultural characteristics of the Asian, as well as Western, leader-follower construct and how miscommunication could occur. Furthermore, expected leadership styles are explained and which leadership traits and behaviors are desirable from the Asian point of view. Finally, improvement approaches for better cross-cultural conflict management and expatriate leadership in Asia are discussed, while pointing out their limitations.

Keywords: Conflict Management, Asia, Germany, Collectivism, Individualism, Leadership, Cultural Challenges, Leadership Styles, Paternalism, Participative Leadership, Power Distance, Cooperative Leadership

In an increasingly globalized world, it is more and more common to work in intercultural teams with intercultural leaders. This paper is about the problems that arise when leadership is not meeting the expectations in a particular culture and when conflicts are not managed with regard to the cultural backgrounds.

Asian societies tend to be collectivist cultures, where conflicts are usually avoided and where harmony is the ultimate goal. In Western societies, conflict resolution is usually characterized by direct confrontation. Expectations to a leader also differ: In Asian societies, a paternalistic leadership approach seems to be more common, whereas in Western societies a participative leadership style is used.

The scenario is the following: Adidas, a German sport fashion company, is a successful corporation, which is seeking to expand its already very profitable business in China by opening 2,000 additional stores within the next three years (Yining, 2017). For that reason, fictional young German manager Thomas Müller is transferred to China in order to introduce a new organizational structure to the subsidiary and lead the store expansion. At first his expatriate assignment is going well: He enjoys working with his new Chinese subordinates and they are also very friendly. When some tasks are not completed properly and too slowly, he approaches the responsible employees directly at their desks to tell them what they did wrong and how to improve their work. In team meetings Mr. Müller also praises the employees who did a good job and mentions the ones that made mistakes to give the whole team the opportunity to learn from them. After these encounters, the atmosphere seems to change: His subordinates seem unhappy and are not as friendly as at the beginning – employee surveys show that the team is demotivated, dissatisfied and frustrated. Mr. Müller does not understand this low morale and is wondering what the cause for this sudden change of working atmosphere might have been. This paper wants to bring the cultural causes to light and contrast the Western and Asian views and expectations on leadership. This issue has global and future relevancy, as more and more managers are being sent abroad in the globalized interdependent world of today. Finally, it will discuss possible approaches and their limitations to solve this cultural clash.

I. Cross-Cultural Conflict Management Challenges

A. Cultural Differences: Asian Collectivism and Conflict Avoidance

1. Collectivism vs. Individualism

The framework of cultural dimensions (Hofstede, 1980) helps to identify cultural characteristics, which may be the reason for behavioral and communication differences between Western and Asian colleagues. Two of these dimensions are particularly important for a leadership-follower relationship, namely power distance and individualism. Power distance refers to the degree to which members of society accept and expect inequalities in terms of the distribution of power. The dimension of individualism describes the extent to which members of society are interdependent. Collectivist cultures cherish group thinking and value loyalty to the group, whereas individualist cultures see caring for themselves and their closer family circle as the highest priority. Comparing Western cultures with Asian cultures, it is apparent that collectivist cultures are predominant in Asia, whereas individualist cultures are common in Western countries. Taking Germany as an example of a Western society, its score for individualism is rather high, making it an individualistic society, and low for power distance, which means that an unequal distribution of power is not well accepted and critically challenged (Hofstede, 1997). Taking China as an exemplary Asian country, its scores show the complete opposite: The score for the dimension of power distance is very high and the one for individualism very low, making it a culture where collectivism is prevailing and where authority is well accepted (Hofstede, 1997).

2. Conflict avoidance in collectivist Asian societies

Chen and Tjosvold (2006) summarized that Chinese people are “typically characterized as conforming and respectful, if not submissive to those of higher status”. They prefer compromises, while avoiding “conflicts and aggressive ways of dealing with them” to preserve social relationships and keep one’s countenance. Furthermore, they avoid face-to-face disagreement and try to avert open discussions of controversies and conflicting views. These Chinese peculiarities in behavior make it rather difficult for a foreign manager to identify, let alone resolve, any conflicts in the team, if dissatisfaction and disagreements are withheld to maintain a superficial harmonious environment. However, it has been found that creating a genuinely harmonic atmosphere seems to be motivation enough for Chinese people to openly discuss and solve problems (Leung et al., 2002; Chen & Tjosvold, 2006). Generally, the maintenance of harmony is deeply embedded in Asian cultures and is said to be the primary interest in all social relationships (Westwood, 1997).

The dimension of collectivism and individualism also show to be linked to the way conflicts are resolved in a particular culture: Individualist participants in a conducted study preferred manners of conflict resolution that did not show as much concern for others than collectivists’ ways of conflict resolution did (Gabrielidis, Stephen, Ybarra, Dos Santos Pearson, & Villareal, 1997). Interestingly, it has been assumed that collectivists actually favor an adversarial resolution method, but avoid it because of the confrontation that might be involved (Leung & Lind, 1986). This behavior has been confirmed in a study, where individualists gave preference to confrontational resolution procedures, whereas collectivists favored mediation or open negotiations (Leung, 1987).

B. Miscommunication between Cultures

1. Language Challenges

In addition to cultural differences, linguistic challenges complicate the cross-cultural working atmosphere. Working in multinational companies gives rise to various challenges, one of the most important ones being cross-cultural communication. Leadership as well as followership is considerably more difficult when experienced in a second (foreign) language and in most multinational corporations this is the case on a daily basis. Speaking a foreign language is always challenging and exhausting (Smith & Bond, 1999), and even more stressful when having to communicate in it at work. When Western employees are sent to offices in Asia, English very often serves as a bridge language to make communication among colleagues, superiors and subordinates possible. As an example, Rakuten, Japan’s largest online retailer, announced in 2010 that English will be the official company language (Botting, 2010) and many global corporations have – independently from their national origin – adopted English as their working language as well (Zander et al., 2011).

These cultural nuances result in completely different expectations and reputations of leadership, which leaders (and followers) from foreign cultures should consider. Opposing or unsuitable leadership styles could create unwanted tensions and misunderstandings, leading to a demotivating and unproductive working environment. It is therefore important for leaders, who are working with culturally diverse followers or who are sent on an expatriate assignment to a foreign country, to acknowledge that elements of ideal leadership differ across cultures (Shaw, 1990).

2. Direct, indirect and non-verbal communication

Connected to the dimension of individualism is the style of direct or indirect communication, with collectivist cultures preferring indirect communication and individualist cultures using direct communication (Sanchez-Burks et al., 2003). German leaders can therefore be expected to give direct, clear answers and feedback, whereas Chinese would communicate in a more encrypted way. This could be especially noticeable in uncomfortable situations of failure, dissatisfaction and conflict. Research has also found that the use of “white lies”, i.e. intentionally false (but supposedly harmless) statements that are told to avoid conflicts, is probably more frequent in collectivist cultures than in individualistic societies (Smith & Bond, 1999).

Interestingly, praise is not well received in China and rather leads to embarrassment, because culturally it is desirable to be modest in order to stay in-group instead of sticking out as being special. Therefore, Hong Kong Chinese evade praise while British people politely accept it (Loh, 1993).

In terms of non-verbal communication it is highly relevant to know that long eye contact is interpreted as insubordination and therefore avoided in East Asia (Thomas & Peterson, 2014). In collectivist cultures like China, the expression of emotions in public is generally avoided in order to preserve harmony (Thomas & Peterson, 2014), making it challenging for leaders to assess the morale of their followers.


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Cross-Cultural Leadership and Conflict Management in the Asian Context
Direct Confrontation Versus Harmony
Hong Kong Polytechnic University
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Aus der Reihe: stipendiaten-wissen
Conflict Management, Asia, Germany, Collectivism, Individualism, Leadership, Cultural Challenges, Leadership Styles, Paternalism, Participative Leadership, Power Distance, Cooperative Leadership
Quote paper
Benjamin Chée (Author), 2017, Cross-Cultural Leadership and Conflict Management in the Asian Context, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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