Intercultural conflicts in organizations: What to look out for

Picture of Monika Hüsgen

Monika Hüsgen

January 19, 2018

Globalization and international exchange make it necessary to deal with foreign cultures. Intercultural Cooperation always harbors potential for conflict. Misunderstandings or incompatibilities can arise; even attitudes to conflict can be very different. A basic understanding of the most important triggers for intercultural conflicts in organizations is the subject of this article: using examples, you will gain an insight into how you can create the conditions for successful cooperation across the "boundaries" of cultural groups.

Intercultural conflicts in organizations are no accident

People have a personal identity, but they also develop a social identity. They feel that they belong to social groups, often including groups of the same national or cultural origin. This feeling is underpinned by a sense of "we", which serves to strengthen cohesion. This gives rise to a demarcation from the "others". This enables cultural conflicts, which are not least about values, entitlements, status and limited resources.

There are various Cultural dimensionswhich can be used to highlight differences. These are examined in more detail below using examples.

Time management

There are different concepts of time: linear time and flexible time. People with a linear focus concentrate on one thing and work through it before moving on to the next task. Punctuality is a high value. On the continuum between linear and flexible time, Germany and Switzerland are at the extreme position of linear time.

On the other side of this continuum, there are people with a flexible view of time. Prime examples of this can be found in Kenya and Saudi Arabia. People there like to work on different tasks at the same time and attach more importance to social interactions than to adhering to deadlines.

Directness - Indirectness

Germans are known for their direct language, which they regard as honest and unambiguous. China and Japan stand in stark contrast to this. They do not like to confront, instead it is particularly important to save face. As a result, their language tends to be indirect.

Power distance

In simple terms, this is about whether people accept the use of power or are critical of it. Germany (also due to its history) is characterized by a low power distance, Russia by a high one.

Collectivism - Individualism

In collectivist cultures, the good of the community is placed above personal goals. These include Indonesia and West Africa, for example. In individualistic countries, on the other hand, such as the USA or Germany, independence and personal responsibility are highly valued.

Uncertainty avoidance

In cultures that place a high value on avoiding uncertainty, uncertain situations trigger stress. This is the case in Greece and Russia, for example. In China, on the other hand, uncertainty is accepted as part of everyday life.

Role orientation

Role orientation is about the division of values such as career, earnings and competition on the one hand (with male connotations) and cooperation, caring and warm-heartedness on the other (with female connotations). Some examples of this contrast: countries such as Slovakia and Japan have a pronounced masculine orientation, while Sweden and Norway have a feminine orientation.

Long term - short term

How future-oriented a society is can be seen in how provision is made for old age, financially and in terms of health, but also in how highly spiritual fulfillment is regarded. Germany and the USA stand for the long term, while Spain and the UK are more short-term oriented.

Understanding potential intercultural conflicts in organizations is an essential prerequisite

Of course, these cultural dimensions can only be used in a very rough and simplified way for an initial understanding of diversity. Cultures change, they overlap and carry many patterns of identity.

The task of intercultural conflict management is therefore above all to mediate between different cultural perceptions and concepts and to identify ways of defusing or resolving the potential for conflict in a way that is acceptable to both sides. The introduction of intercultural conflict management or the consideration of cultural influencing factors in an existing conflict management system minimizes the long-term and sustainable follow-up costs of conflicts.

(Cover image: © |

About the author

Picture of Monika Hüsgen

Monika Hüsgen

Monika Hüsgen works as a moderator and consultant. She helps to avoid conflicts, recognize them at an early stage and resolve them in such a way that there are no losers.

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