From Star Wars to Trade Wars and Conflict Management

Professor Lorna Doucet of School of Management Fudan University shares research into how US and Chinese business people manage conflict

Based on the paper Cross-cultural differences in conflict management: An inductive study of Chinese and American managers by Lorna Doucet, Karen A. Jehn, Elizabeth Weldon, Xiangming Chen, Zhongming Wang, published in the International Journal of Conflict Management

Take me to the stars

From steel, aluminum and soya beans to automotive parts, halibut and, heavens forbid, a long list of necessities that also includes loo paper. After imposing billions of dollars’ worth of tariffs on each other’s goods, US and Chinese delegations met on 7th January in Beijing to hold talks aimed at resolving the damaging trade dispute that has seen Chinese consumers shun Apple iPhones and moved US manufacturers to choke software supplies to Chinese chip makers.

What’s more, the trade war has exacerbated the ‘publicity’ war. Recently, China successfully tested an anti-satellite missile, as well as stealing the stage with their close-to-home landing on the dark side of the moon – while all the US had to offer was the mere feat of filming Ultima Thule up close, the farthest and oldest space object ever visited by a spacecraft.

The internationalisation of business activity has long since demonstrated the importance of understanding cross-cultural differences in negotiation and conflict management behaviour. The trade war standoff in progress since early 2018 seems to call more than ever for an urgent return to the classroom. The bottom line is this: as many business people have discovered, ineffective negotiations and poor conflict management often contribute to problematic international operations. This is where several stars from the academic world come in.

Search and understand

Research undertaken by Prof. Lorna Doucet, School of Management Fudan, and colleagues Karen A. Jehn, Elizabeth Weldon, Xiangming Chen, and Zhongming Wang set out to compare the behaviours of American and Chinese managers in a bid to uncover differences in how they approach conflict. The findings might just offer insight to the negotiators in Beijing.

Using inductive research to get behind how US and Chinese managers actually perceive conflict management, Prof. Doucet and her colleagues surveyed 66 American and 52 Chinese managers working in China to describe a conflict they had experienced involving a manager from the same culture. The interview questions were translated from English to Chinese, then translated back to English to ensure equivalence. The data obtained from both groups was analysed separately – to avoid transferring preconceived conceptions across cultures and the risk that certain words might have different meanings for the two.

No punches pulled

What came out of the research was that American and Chinese business people go about handling conflict differently. Chinese managers described the use of embarrassment and teaching a moral lesson as important when dealing with underperforming or askew team members. Their American counterparts, however, generally omitted this aspect when describing critical incidents occurring in work-related situations.

The results confirm analyses showing that shaming peers and moral education are more important means of social control in Asian societies than in Western ones. Embarrassing or shaming a ‘wrongdoer’ involves public exposure with the risk of rejection from the group plus a hefty exhortation to reform. Given the traditional collectivism in China where the group has priority over the individual, such tactics are considered effective punishment. The other glove – packing a moral message – finds its roots in traditional Confucianism that puts the accent on moral development to produce socially responsible behaviour. Such a tactic reached a height in the so-called ‘struggle sessions’ of the cultural revolution back in the 1960s when people accused of counter-revolutionary behaviour were forced to announce their alleged misdeeds in public and declare their intentions to reform. After admitting their mistakes, the accused were often sentenced to political and moral re-education to promote personal reform. Of course, that may translate in today’s working world as receiving a dressing down in front of the colleagues and having to fill in a daily performance sheet for a month or two, but this historical emphasis on public exposure and moral reform still influences current day responses to conflict at work in a Chinese context.

Kid gloves

In contrast, the results for American managers showed a belief in harnessing their emotions, separating behaviour – or ‘wrongdoing’ – from the person and personal characteristics when disciplining. The Harvard experts on negotiating Fischer and Ury indeed summon their manager-readers to ‘separate people from the problem’. Whether this behaviour among the US managers surveyed is a result from their reading Getting to Yes or not may be a question to ask. Managers are also advised to tick off and advise their team members in private when discussing performance, away from other team members, and this is consistent with the notion that Americans do not focus on shaming (although in other contexts such as family it might be true) as a means of social control in the workplace.

Altogether, the results for US managers show that hostility and vengefulness – wanting to harm the other’s interests – are considered to be in direct opposition to cooperative or collaborative approaches to conflict management and problem-solving that run deep in Western modern management. As such, the conflicts described by the managers during the surveys featured low levels of hostility, quite distinct from previous research which honed in on indifference towards the other party’s interests. It’s important to note here, that the Chinese managers did not find hostility or vengefulness to be important elements of conflict management.

No, thanks – not today

What if there was a third way to manage conflict? Namely – the simple fact of avoiding it? Previous research has pointed to avoiding conflict as either the result of a lack of concern for one’s own wants and needs among Western managers, or, for Asians, as a way in which to maintain relationships. In Prof. Doucet’s research, something new cropped up, with American managers, importantly, identifying a key motive for avoiding conflict as being a lack of confidence. Given the cultural stereotype of the big, brash and over-confident American (i.e. Donald Trump), this is surprising. What is even more surprising is that the data analysed from the Chinese surveys indicated that Chinese managers gave no mention of confidence, or the lack of it, when speaking about conflict behaviour. This element, it seems, is out the Chinese agenda.

So after a year of costly trade war, jostling for the media spotlight and threatening the world with a lack of loo paper, it might just be time for the US and Chinese delegations to read their books before returning to the negotiating table. Pulling no punches does not necessarily mean an outright call for a fight. And wearing kid gloves in your talks does not necessarily invite an easy push over.

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