When doing business internationally, at some point you will encounter an issue with your supplier, partner, or client that needs resolution. This is challenging because every culture operates under a different set of Values, Assumptions, Beliefs and Expectations[1], leading to plenty of misunderstandings. On top of that, every culture handles conflict in a different way. Does this mean that you should avoid international markets altogether in order to stay clear of cross-cultural conflict? Actually, it’s the opposite. Here’s what I mean:

Conflict Can Be Healthy and Beneficial to Both Sides

Conflict is normally a reflection of real issues in the relationship. If your software development team in India is having trouble understanding the product definition, then this issue will manifest itself as coding issues, testing issues, and basic communication issues between the Indian and product marketing teams. Ignoring real issues just prolongs them. Issues often worsen over time. Especially when teams are virtually located across thousands of kilometers (miles), a basic misunderstanding can lead to trust issues. The Swedish product marketing staff may stop trusting the Indian development team to write software code because they mistakenly think that the team is incompetent. The Indian team may feel that the home office is remote and does not care about their efforts because in the same situation an Indian executive would likely and very openly scold the team’s manager for a poor effort. The best scenario is to work through the issues. As long as conflict leads to a deeper understanding of the issue on both sides with a plan to move forward to solve the issues, then the conflict has served a very useful purpose.

What’s It REALLY About?

The first objective is to figure out the real issues. These may be a mix of cultural issues, business issues and individual motivations. I think it’s best to start with questions to better understand the situation. If possible, meet with the person or team face to face. The next best way is to conference call with Skype or another tool. When something does not make sense, ask even seemingly simple questions. For instance, in Sweden teams are very egalitarian and everyone generally has a right to speak. In India, this is less likely to be the case. An Indian subordinate would not question the decision of a manager above them in rank sometimes even if that manager was making a big mistake.

Individual motivations can play a crucial role. A common motivational challenge is when someone is concerned about losing their job. This can cause a person to be motivated by fear and not out of the best interest necessarily of the company stakeholders. Making choices that improve success for the whole team are optimal choices.

After clearly understanding the issues, you can then work to jointly solve the problems. If the cultural component is hard to understand or the issues complicated and difficult to unravel, you can also use the services of a cross-cultural specialist. Please contact me for a referral.

Please comment on this article. I would love to hear reader perspectives on your experiences!

Onwards and Upwards,

Becky Park


[1] James Clawson, Level Three Leadership.