Publication: Project Management Institute

Author: Jamie B. Gelbtuch and Conrado Morlan

Organizations can find and select the best talent from anywhere in the world. So even if their teams are co-located, project managers must work with multicultural teams now more than ever.

Multicultural environments can amplify the levels of conflict that already exist in some organizations. In any conflict, by definition, two or more parties disagree.

However, cross-culturally, there is a greater likelihood of a project team starting off with some level of disagreement. This is because people come to the table with different sets of ingrained values, beliefs and assumptions.

Regardless of the reason for the conflict, applying one or a combination of these classic conflict management techniques can prove especially effective with multicultural teams.

Narrative Mediation

During narrative mediation, the conflicting parties share their versions of events through descriptive accounts that build greater context around issues.

When different viewpoints are integrated into a larger framework, parties are often able to better understand the underlying and often invisible reasons surrounding actions, behaviors and decisions.

The Five A’s Technique

This problem-solving technique allows conflicts to be resolved through an exploratory process. The process includes:

  • Assessment: identify problems; collect information; define ideal outcomes
  • Acknowledgement: encourage mutual understanding; build empathy; listen actively
  • Attitude: discover stereotypes, including cultural ones; accept and understand differences and their root causes
  • Action: select best resolution alternative based on shared information; be aware of potential new sources of conflict
  • Analysis: summarize actions to be taken; ensure everyone’s concerns have been addressed; monitor the process on an ongoing basis

Insider-Partial or Outsider-Neutral Mediation

If you cannot resolve the conflict on your own, use a third-party mediator. Whether the mediator is a project team “insider” or “outsider” usually depends on cultural factors.

More collectivist, relationship-based cultures, such as those in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, may choose to use an insider. For example, someone who has a trusted relationship established with both parties, and is therefore credible.

Alternatively, in more individualistic cultures such as many countries in North America and Western Europe, where trustworthiness to resolve a conflict stems from neutrality, an outsider would be chosen to mediate between the two parties.

When parties from individualistic and collectivist cultures come into conflict, the Project Manager should assess the situation and act as the mediator. It’s important to take into account the need to empathize with both sides of the cultural differences outlined above. Practically speaking, when time and resources are limited, the Project Manager is ultimately responsible for selecting the best path to resolution that has the least impact on the project.

The ultimate selection of one of these techniques will depend on a host of factors. For example, personality, management style, communication style (including language levels), and the comfort level that one party or another is willing to yield in the process.

When managing conflicts, particularly those that occur among cross-cultural team members, it’s important to keep in mind the range of choices at your disposal.

While making a choice about the technique you use, determine how much of a comfort level you are willing to yield in order to resolve a conflict and attain a project goal. Learning to be at ease with these often-unnatural decisions is one way you can begin to build effective cross-cultural and conflict management skills.