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A workplace conflict often results from a lack of interest in the other

On March 12th, Felix Merks told in the Dutch newspaper 'Nederlands Dagblad' about conflicts in the (international) workplace. On this page you read the interview which was taken by Rimme Mastebroek, a journalist of Nederlands Dagblad.

Felix Merks travels all through Europe, even to the European Space Agency, to resolve quarrels and conflicts. The core of the problem is almost always the same: a lack of interest in the other.

Result Mediation, founded by Felix Merks in 2004, is now the biggest mediator organization in the Netherlands. Annually, they resolve roughly 1.200 conflicts, primarily at large multinationals. ‘Conflicts are a growing market’, notes Merks (48). “Back in the day, people would stay at a company for 25 years until they received a gold watch. Nowadays people are more flexible. They also expect a more flexible attitude from their employer and if employers don’t deliver on that expectation, then they will let them know. Workers have become more empowered and this leads to conflicts.”

You are however not hired at the first sign of a disagreement, right?
“No, only after it truly gets out of hand. Often, this is due to a manager’s inability to deal with conflicts. Preferably, they would like to sweep any disagreement under the carpet and act as if all is well. This might work temporarily but sooner rather than later, it will blow up in your face. People will then start pointing fingers and look for someone to blame: also not a very constructive way forward. Why is this a problem? Because typically the work atmosphere combined with the context within an organization is the root cause of a conflict, not the individual that the finger is pointed at. But it almost always happens: The blame game. This leads to misunderstandings and escalation and before you know it, a legal fight. “

What do you typically see go wrong?
“Very basic communication. Essentially it comes down to a lack of interest in the views and the underlying way of thinking of one another. Let me provide an example: two weeks ago, I led a discussion in which an employee claimed that something was ‘untrue’. His manager, someone with 500 employees under his control, responded with: ‘So, you’re saying that I’m a liar? That I come to work to lie?’ You will understand that this kind of response, which unfortunately is not an uncommon way to deal with disagreements for managers, will result in quickly escalating conflicts. A better response would have been: ‘What makes you say that ?’. But in reality we see that it is very difficult to focus on the content and truly listen to the other party. If this effort to focus on content and truly listen is made you will most likely find that the other party has a different perspective than you. Together you have to make the effort to create understanding and resolve this.”

You also find yourself at organizations with employees from various nationalities. What happens there?
“Pretty much the same and more. People believe they are culturally competent because they went backpacking once or they’ve done an international internship which has resulted in having international friends on social media. So called ‘citizens of the world’ are a myth. A woman once told me ‘I am culturally sensitive and have an eye for mutual differences.’ When I pushed for a more complete answer, it came to light that she respected differences as long as foreign workers did exactly what she asked of them. This is a clear case of overconfidence. Once, there was a South American lawyer, who worked in Mexico for a large company located in the Netherlands. If you would ask this lawyer a question, you would receive a 15-minute-long answer, due to the fact that she would elaborate on the context before getting to the point. For her this elaboration is relevant. Moreover, this is the norm in her culture but it drove her Dutch manager so crazy that he wanted to fire her.  Working with her was impossible according to him. The lawyer kept receiving bad reviews from her manager, even though the Mexican clients were extremely satisfied with her work.

Are there also cultural hurdles within the European context?
“Broadly speaking you can divide Europe in two areas: “the Netherlands and Scandinavia use a consultation model: There is equality, little hierarchy and communication is direct. Starting in Belgium and moving south and east communication becomes more indirect and hierarchy becomes more important. Especially under pressure differences become clear and people fall back on their cultural blueprint which is learned in the first seven years of life. With a project deadline at an international organization approaching rapidly the Italian manager assigned tasks to the Norwegian physics professor. The Italian manager expected the Norwegian professor to start the tasks immediately:  Wasn’t he the boss? But she really wanted to first understand why she had to do this. That resulted in frustration and conflict.”

How can you prevent these frustrations?
“A culture competent organization has clearly laid out how it works: we do it this way because that, for us, is the most effective way. This helps prevent conflicts. And if this doesn’t work, at least it makes them more open for discussion. In Dutch organizational culture meetings are primarily used for sharing ideas or making collective decisions. At the end of the meeting, the outcomes and action points are usually listed in an overview and e-mailed to all meeting attendees. A Frenchman would find something like this unimaginable and feel as if he was being treated as a child. This makes him rebellious, because apparently you don’t think he can pay attention? But, if you clearly illustrate that this is the way in which your organization works, you can prevent such conflicts. Doing this is very important as it does not happen by itself. “

You advise organizations to have ‘equal structures’, with a ‘direct and explicit way of communicating internally’. Coincidentally, that I s what the Dutch are known for. Is that not chauvinistic?
“No, because this is the only way it works successfully in an international environment. Many research papers show this to be the case. If not at least one party communicates in this direct and explicit manner cooperation is destined to fail. The French see us as blunt and we think of the French as sneaky because they don’t call a spade a spade. Ultimately, we will come to an agreement even if takes some grumbling along the way. But a Frenchman with a Russian? Or, an Italian and a Chinese? That would become a clutter of implicit, indirect communication that in the end no one can unravel”

Christian charities often work internationally, but have an important common denominator: religion. Does that make a difference?
“Interesting question. If the Christian norms and values, on how you should treat each other, are clearly present within an organization this could very well make a difference. At the same time research shows that under pressure, people fall back on their cultural blueprint. For this reason, I believe that a Norwegian Christian and an Indian Christian will still have disagreements.  In an e-mail conversation with an Indian you will find the actual information in the fourth e-mail. The first three e-mails are just going through the motions. I have a Christian background myself yet I see myself as impatient. It is more meaningful to be aware of cultural differences and not to condemn these differences. I will quickly scan the first three e-mails and thoroughly read the fourth.”

Online training Cultural Awareness & Effectiveness

Managers often experience the difficulty of working with different cultures. That is why we developed the online training Intercultural Awareness & Effectiveness. Designed for managers working in multinational and intercultural organisations. By increasing cultural awareness and sensitivity this training helps organisations become conflict competent.