Developing a shared understanding of conflict: foundations for Sino-Western mediation.
This article argues that a clear understanding of conflict and how it can be approached is vital to productive collaboration. Thus, we first clarify the definition of conflict and propose the conflict management approach based on the theory of cooperation and competition. Moreover, previous studies indicate that culture plays an important role in conflict attributing and categorizing process (Choi, Nisbett, & Norenzayan, 1999, Gudykunst, 1994), and then leads to diverse conflict management approached (Gudykunst, 1996; Leung, Brew, Zhang, & Zhang, 2011). This article also discusses how traditional Chinese values affect conflict dynamics and outcome. Finally, we draw implications from this research to show how cooperative conflict can be a basis for effective collaboration between Chinese and Western partners.
Conflict has traditionally been defined in terms of opposing interests involving scarce resources and goal divergence and frustration (e.g. Pondy, 1967). From this definition's view, people are in conflict because their goals are incompatible (Korsgaard, Jeong, Mahony, & Pitariu, 2008), that is, the ends protagonists are pursuing cannot both be achieved. However, this definition obscures the reality that people with completely compatible interests not only can but often have conflict. In the workplace, it is common to see that people are in conflict but have no opposing interests. For instance, project team members may all be committed to a high quality solution, but have much different ideas about what makes a solution high quality and how they should divide the burdens and benefits of their collaboration (Poon, Pike, & Tjosvold, 2001; Tjosvold & Poon, 1998). Thus, defining conflict as opposing interests is too restrictive.
In addition, defining conflict as opposing interests confounds conflict with competition defined as incompatible goals and reinforces the popular view that conflict is win-lose. The assumption that conflict is win-lose further reinforces the idea that conflict is negative; one person may win but only with a tough fight making the other a loser. Thus, this definition also enhances the practice of lumping conflict and its management together so that conflict is characterized by a particular approach to its management (LePine, Piccolo, Jackson, Mathieu, & Saul, 2008). For instance, the Interpersonal Conflict at Work Scale (Spector & Bruk-Lee, 2008) measures conflict with such items as "people do nasty things to me at work". This item is not just measuring conflict but also a particular way of dealing with conflict. Moreover, assuming conflict would be managed in win-lose ways tends to assume that it will generate at least some negative feelings as well.
In addition to defining conflict as opposing interests which narrows the range of conflict in workplace, some studies propose broad definitions of conflict (Pondy, 1967; Thomas, 1990). Pondy (1967) suggested conflict should be best considered as dynamic process, including antecedent conditions, individual awareness, affective states, overt behavior and aftermath. In a similar way, Thomas (1990) defined conflict as a process which begins when the protagonist feels the other party has negatively influenced or is going to negatively influence the things they care about. Nonetheless, defining conflict through a process perspective almost includes everything that might happen during a conflict episode, so it significantly increases our difficulty to understand and analyze conflict, especially the conditions and approaches to how we can make constructive conflict.
Deutsch's (1973) theory of cooperation and competition defines conflict as incompatible activities; one person's actions interfere, obstruct or in some way get in the way of another's action. This definition can address the flaws in defining conflict as opposing interests or dynamic process. It clearly differentiates conflict from competition, helping people realize the potential value of conflict. Incompatible activities can occur in both compatible and incompatible goal contexts. Thus, we should not assume that win-lose is inevitable or conflict is a negative experience. Studies to be reviewed underline that Chinese and Western protagonists can approach their conflicts cooperatively and this management results in constructive outcomes, including positive emotions.
In conclusion, traditional ideas that conflict develops from opposing interests reinforce rather than challenge popular misconceptions and attitudes about conflict. Definitions should clearly and explicitly reject that conflicts necessary involve competitive, negatively related goals. Thus, based on the theory of cooperation and competition, defining conflict as incompatible activities can help develop more realistic and useful understanding and attitudes toward conflict.
The Theory of Cooperation and Competition
The theory of cooperation and competition not only changes our systematic understanding of conflict, but also provides us a practical perspective to make conflict effective. Deutsch (1949) theorized that how group members believe their own goals are related very much affects the nature of relationships and interaction that they develop. Specifically, beliefs about how goals are related have been found to very much affect how conflicts are approached (Deutsch, 1973). People reach much different conclusions about their interdependence, specifically, how their goals and self-interests are related to each other (Deutsch, 1949, 1962; Johnson, 1970; Johnson & Johnson, 1989, 2005; Johnson, Johnson, & Tjosvold, 2012; Tjosvold, Wong, Chen, & Li, 2012).
In cooperation, they believe that they can reach their goals if and only if the other individuals with whom they are cooperatively linked also reach their goals, that is, there is a positive relationship among goal attainments. Group members promote each other's efforts to achieve the goals because, as they promote another's goals, they also help themselves achieve their goals.
Competition occurs when people perceive that they can obtain their goals if and only if the other individuals with whom they are competitively linked fail to obtain their goals, that is, there is a perceived negative inter-relationship among goal attainments. Therefore, they obstruct each other's efforts to achieve their goals because such obstruction makes it more likely that the obstructer will achieve his or her goals. Research has shown that these understandings of goal interdependence very much affect how people manage their conflicts and whether these conflicts are constructive or destructive (Deutsch, 1973; Tjosvold, Leung, & Johnson, in press; Tjosvold, Wong, & Chen, in press).
Approaches to Manage Conflict
With cooperative goals, protagonists negotiate for mutual benefit; they develop the belief that conflict is a mutual problem that needs common consideration and an integrative solution so that each participant moves toward his or her goals. People take a "we are in it together" attitude toward conflict and seek solutions that will benefit all. With these positive expectations, they are more likely to discuss issues directly and open-mindedly where they consider and integrate each other's views as they seek to develop mutually beneficial solutions. Protagonists have high concerns for others as well as their own interests, so that they engage in mutual problem solving (De Dreu, Evers, Beersma, Kluwer, & Nauta, 2001). The interaction induced by cooperative goals is labeled the cooperative approach to conflict management (e.g. Alper, Tjosvold, & Law, 2000; Chen, Liu, & Tjosvold, 2005; Tjosvold, 2008a; Tjosvold, Law, & Sun, 2006).
Protagonists may also believe that their goals are competitive, concluding that one's successful goal attainment makes others less likely to reach their goals. To the extent that they assume competitive goals, they treat conflict as a win-lose contest and engage in such actions as overstating their own position to get their way and demanding that others agree with their position. They communicate that they want solutions good for themselves, even at the expense of the other's interests. Because of expectations that others will not reciprocate openness and concessions and may even obstruct their efforts, protagonists are often inflexible, resulting in deadlocks or the imposing of a solution by the more powerful. The interaction process induced by competitive goals is called the competitive approach to conflict (Alper et al., 2000; Chen et al., 2005; Tjosvold, 2008a).
Research on conflict management has also recognized that protagonists may work to avoid conflict by trying to smooth over conflict and minimize direct discussion (Chen et al., 2005). They expressed the intention that opposing ideas should be minimized rather than discussed openly (Peng & Tjosvold, 2011). Thus, in order to avoid conflict, people discourage each other from voicing their concerns and ideas. Although avoiding conflict can be useful in some circumstance, it has proved ineffectual as a general approach to managing conflict (Friedman, Chi, & Liu, 2006; Tjosvold & Sun, 2002). For instance, Edmondson (1999) reported that health care team members avoided discussing medication errors when they did not feel psychological safety, and they did not get innovations to reduce recurrence. Similarly, avoiding managers were found to decrease employee commitment (Barker, Tjosvold, & Andrews, 1988).
Managing Conflict Constructively in Organizations
Organizational researchers typically divide their work into areas of studies such as teams and performance management. But conflict occurs in all these areas. In addition to leadership, conflict occurs in teams and between departments and its management is vital for their effectiveness. Conflict spills out across organizations as well. Marketing specialists must deal with conflicts within their firm but also with their customers (Tjosvold & Wong, 1994). Supply chain partners who are able to manage conflicts improved product quality and reduced costs as well as strengthened their relationships (Tjosvold et al., 2001; Wong, Tjosvold, Wong, & Liu, 1999). Therefore, conflict offers a way to understand organizations as a whole and their dependence on other organizations.
Organizational researchers also divide their work according to outcomes, such as innovation and citizenship behavior. Conflict management gets diverse things done. It promotes team performance and citizenship behavior (Alper et al., 2000; Tjosvold, Poon, & Yu, 2005). When employees discuss their views openly and constructively, they reduce costs and improve quality (Tjosvold, 1998; Tjosvold & MacPherson, 1996), use new technology advantageously (Tjosvold, Meredith, & Wong, 1998), and make restructuring effective (Tjosvold, 1990). Top management teams who managed their conflicts cooperatively developed their company's strategic advantages (Chen et al., 2005). Conflict management helps entrepreneurs strengthen their networks so that they can develop their business (Tjosvold, 1997; Tjosvold & Weicker, 1993).
Numerous studies have demonstrated that cooperative approaches to conflict significantly benefits both organizations and individuals across a wide range of situations (Coetzer & Trimble, 2010; Wang, Chen, Tjosvold, & Shi, 2010; Tjosvold, 1998). The dynamics aroused by cooperative goals and leading to positive outcomes are characterized as constructive controversy (Johnson, Johnson, Smith, & Tjosvold, 1990; Johnson & Johnson, 1989, 1985). Constructive controversy suggests that discussing opposing views open-mindedly is crucial for making cooperative situations productive and enhancing (Tjosvold, 2008b). The value of open-minded discussion is not limited to decisions and differences of opinions but is also useful for conflicts involving interests. Conflict protagonists pursue their self-interests but this does not mean, though, that they cannot manage conflict constructively. Indeed, when the firms understand that their self-interests are positively related, it can contribute powerfully to constructive conflict management (Wong, Tjosvold, & Yu, 2005). Here is an example from our previous field study: management and union representatives with cooperative goals expressed their opposing views directly to each other, listened open-mindedly, conveyed an intention to work for mutual benefit, and combined their ideas. With this kind of discussion, they developed creative, quality solutions and used their resources efficiently (Tjosvold, Morishima, & Belsheim, 1999; Tjosvold & Morishima, 1999). They resolved their grievances with positive feelings, satisfied both union and management, and improved procedures that would help them resolve future grievances.
Moreover, developmental psychologists have long argued that controversy induces perspective taking that in turn promotes moral and cognitive development (Kohlberg, 1969). A recent study provides direct evidence of the value of cooperative conflict for psychological development and health. Employees in China predisposed to manage conflict open-mindedly and integratively were psychologically healthy both in terms of general and work-specific measures (Tjosvold et al., 2006). Results also indicated that employees predisposed to resolve conflicts in win-lose ways had some benefits for long-term psychological health.
Scarce resources are often proposed as a fundamental reason not just for conflict but for win-lose conflict that must be resolved through dictates by the powerful. However, studies in North America and China found that managers could approach their conflicts over the allocation of resources cooperatively and to the extent that they did, they developed high quality budgets and strong work relationships (Poon et al., 2001; Tjosvold & Etherington, 1998; Tjosvold & Poon, 1998). Moreover, a cooperative conflict discussion helped Hong Kong accountants and managers dig into and resolve budget issues, strengthen their relationships, and improve budget quality so that limited financial resources were used wisely (Poon et al., 2001).
Cultural Values in Conflict Management
In conflict, culture plays a vital role in shaping protagonists' perception, attitude and management approaches (Leung et al., 2011; Leung & Tjosvold, 1998). Culture works as a frame in which protagonists focus on some characteristics of a conflict situation, and then invokes certain psychological process to judge the situation (Mather & Yngvesson, 1981; Zhang, Cao, & Tjosvold, 2011).
The evidence documenting the usefulness of the theory of cooperation and competition for understanding conflict management in Asia challenges the traditional cultural theorizing that open, constructive conflict management was largely appropriate only in the West whereas in China, people accept that avoiding conflict is the culturally desirable approach (Leung, 1997, 1996; Leung, Koch, & Lu, 2002). Collectivist and other relationship values have long been thought to account for why Chinese people tend to avoid conflict (Lituchy, 1997; Ma, 2007).
The reasoning that Chinese values lead to conflict avoidance not only assumes that these values are conflict-negative but also that there is one way to express these values. But values are general guides and people develop their own ways to interpret and apply them. Collectivist values A study of 194 teams in three regions of China indicates the positive role of collectivist values on conflict (Tjosvold, Law, & Sun, 2003). Teams that had developed collectivist rather than individualistic values were found to have cooperative goals. The analysis also indicated that these cooperative goals helped the teams discuss their opposing views openly and constructively that in turn resulted in strong relationships and productivity as rated by their managers.
Moreover, a recent experiment supported the causal relationships that collectivist values can heighten cooperative goals and open-minded discussion. Chinese protagonists with opposing views in organizations that valued collectivism, comparing to individualism, were found to feel cooperatively interdependent (Tjosvold, Wu, & Chen, 2010). They were also confident that they could work together and make decisions, sought to understand the opposing position by asking questions, demonstrated that they understood the opposing arguments, accepted these arguments as reasonable, and combined positions to create an integrated decision.
Harmony Harmony is an important, general Chinese traditional value, but it may not be expressed simply as avoiding conflict. Chinese people have choices about how they can apply the value of harmony and these approaches to harmony may affect goal interdependence in China (Leung, 1997; Leung et al., 2011; Leung et al., 2002).
Leung and his colleagues (Leung et al., 2011; Leung et al., 2002) have recently proposed that harmony has two distinct motives in Chinese society. Disintegration avoidance is instrumental in nature in that the maintenance of harmony is a means to other ends. With this motive, people avoid conflict as a way to further their self-interests and avoid potential interpersonal problems. Harmony can though also refer to the desire to engage in behaviors that strengthen relationships, a motive called harmony enhancement. This motivation represents a genuine concern for harmony as a value in and of itself and involves feelings of intimacy, closeness, trust, and compatible and mutually beneficial behaviors. Leung et al. (2011) found that this harmony value, which has a long tradition in the collectivist Chinese culture, is related to problem solving in conflict management, whereas disintegration avoidance is related to conflict avoidance. Harmony values can be expressed in ways that promote open, cooperative conflict management.
Social Face Social face concerns need not result in conflict avoidance and indeed can be a foundation upon which to develop constructive, cooperative conflict. Experimental studies indicate that social face concerns, when expressed by confirming the face of protagonists, promote cooperative conflict (Tjosvold, 1977; Tjosvold, Hui, & Sun, 2000; Tjosvold & Sun, 2001). Emphasizing their cooperative goals, protagonists whose face was confirmed compared to affronted demonstrated more curiosity in that they explored the opposing views and were interested in hearing more of the other's arguments. They were prepared to pressure the other and experienced more collaborative influence. They also learned from the discussion, considered the opposing views useful, and worked to integrate and accept them. Results from a field study also indicate that confirmation of social face helped Chinese people discuss their frustrations cooperatively and productively (Tjosvold et al., 2003).
Cooperative Conflict for Sino-Western Teamwork
Sino-Western teams confront many challenges in working together productively. Although research supports the theory of cooperation and competition in China, results do not imply that goal interdependence is operationalized in a highly similar way in the East as in the West (Tjosvold & Hu, 2005). While the
"geneotype," the underlying conceptual structure of the theory, appears to be similar, the "phenotypes," how the theory is manifested in particular situations, often are not (Leung & Tjosvold, 1998). In particular, the actions that develop cooperative goals or communicate an attempt to discuss conflicts open-mindedly may be quite different in China than in North America, as may the general levels of goal interdependence and cooperative conflict. Even if they have common goals and objectives, people from China and the West may have different views of right and wrong, the best ways to accomplish goals, the value of a long-term versus a short-term perspective, appropriate etiquette, and the value of the contributions people make to a joint venture.
Chinese and Western team members then are likely to confront a great deal of conflict. But this paper has reviewed research showing that Chinese people as well as Westerners can understand cooperative conflict, agree that this approach is useful, and manage their conflicts cooperatively and constructively. Cooperative conflict is not an imposition of Western culture on Chinese but offers a common approach that they all can use to manage their many conflicts.
Researchers have called for direct tests of cross-cultural interaction to identify conditions that facilitate how diverse people can work together productively to supplement the traditional focus on documenting differences between cultures (Bond, 2003; Smith, 2003). People from the East and West who rely on cooperative conflict were found to collaborate effectively compared to those who approach conflict competitively or avoid conflict (Chen & Tjosvold, in press, 2008, 2007, 2005; Chen et al., 2010; Chen, Tjosvold, & Su, 2005a, 2005b; Chen, Tjosvold, & Wu, 2008a, 2008b; Tjosvold, 1996; Wong, Tjosvold, & Lee, 1992). These findings directly support that Sino-Western teams can approach their conflicts cooperatively and productively.
If studies can demonstrate the value of cooperative conflict in Africa and the Middle East as well as continued to be successfully demonstrated in Europe and East Asia (Desivilya, Somech, & Lidgoster, 2010; Tjosvold & De Dreu, 1997; Vollmer & Seyr, 2012) as well as India (Bhatnagar & Tjosvold, 2012), Japan and Korea (Chen, Tjosvold, & Pan, 2010; Tjosvold et al., 2001; Tjosvold & Sasaki, 1994; Tjosvold, Sasaki, & Moy, 1998), the framework of cooperative conflict has the potential of acting as a common guide for how people from different cultures can develop their own ways of managing conflict.
Without a common framework, organizations are apt to impose the procedures of one culture on another by, for example, insisting that everyone conform to the head office's ways. With cooperative conflict as a common framework, people from several cultures can structure ways of managing conflict cooperatively that are appropriate and effective for them and then express their diversity and use their conflicts to solve problems and strengthen their relationships.
Misunderstanding conflict as opposing goals (competitive, win-lose) has frustrated research and the practice of managing conflict. Defining conflict as incompatible actions helps understand that conflict is not necessarily a war of one against another in a fight to win. Common language also tends to confound cooperation with conflict avoidance. But as we have seen, people with cooperative goals are likely to express their views openly, listen and understand each other, consider and integrate their best ideas into mutually beneficial solutions. Cooperative relationships and the skills to discuss diverse views open-mindedly are foundations for using conflict to solve problems, create innovative solutions, learn from experience, and strengthen relationships.
Recent studies challenge stereotypes that Chinese culture and leadership are highly conflict-negative. Chinese people are not rigidly committed to conflict avoidance but were found to manage conflict cooperatively and openly. They further demonstrate that such central Chinese values as collectivism and social face, when properly understood and skillfully expressed, contribute to making conflict constructive.
Cooperative conflict can be a common platform by which Chinese and Westerners and maybe those from other cultures can use to strengthen their teamwork. They study cooperative conflict together and decide how they can strengthen their cooperative goals and open-minded discussion skills. They then they are prepared to manage conflicts that emerge cooperatively.
Research like that reported in this article adds to our knowledge on how to manage conflict. We need though much more collective effort by individuals in organizations and researchers to develop and apply our conflict management knowledge effectively.
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Lingnan University, Hong Kong
Lingnan University, Hong Kong
Department of Management
Lingnan University, Hong Kong
Tel: (852) 2616-8324
Fax: (852) 2467-0982
Department of Management
Lingnan University, Hong Kong
Tel: (852) 9795-6056
Fax: (852) 2467-0982
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|Author:||Tjosvold, Dean; Wang, Lin|
|Publication:||China Media Research|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2013|
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