March 4, 2022 by Melinda Meszaros
What happens when your colleagues follow completely different rules than you do? You may get into a major conflict or you might turn thesituation to your shared advantage. This week's article dives into the understanding of rules in a multicultural environment and how to tackle them.
Mild panic at Jill's office when suddenly they couldn't continue working. One of their key software services stopped working because they forgot to extend a contract. It was a matter of minutes to renew the contract but the boss' signature was needed. The boss, however, was on holiday.
Rebecca, one of Jill's colleagues suggested using a pirated version of the software temporarily or to use an free software alternative until they can renew. However, Peter, another colleague, had a different idea. With the boss' consent, he forged his signature, renewed the contract and things returned to normal in an hour. This solution didn't sit well with everybody though.
Especially Jill felt really uncomfortable. She felt that she was forced into a solution that she didn't agree with. Jill wasn't directly afraid that the police would show up, but she didn't feel comfortable crossing the law. Also she felt that it was not the right solution. Why did this happen at the first place? How come that their license had expired and nobody knew? Would there be a more sustainable solution to make sure this won't happen again?
Peter and Rebecca, on the other hand, considered the problem solved and the case closed. When Jill confronted them, they were surprised why Jill was upset about something they considered solved.
Maybe the above case isn't particularly exceptional, but even from such smaller-scale conflicts, lessons about team dynamics can be learned. In the end the conflict comes down to rules and how we regard them. Rules are everywhere around us. Some of them are unwritten and some of them are law to be followed. Either way, how we think about them shapes our actions and relationships.
When you are thrown into a multicultural or international environment, you may notice that people think about rules differently, which often leads to immediate conflicts. Through cultural understanding we can move on from these conflicts towards effective solutions. This is how:
You need to see that rules can be thought of differently in every culture.
If you understand the root of the conflict, you have control over a possible solution. You need to see that rules can be thought of differently in every culture.
In Jill's point of view rules are something to keep to in practice. In Peter's opinion rules are guidelines to be used creatively. In Rebecca's case rules are to be sacrificed or ignored for a greater ideal. All thee alternatives make sense in their own way. Cultures think about rules differently based on the historical and socio-economic situation. It depends on several factors, such as the extent to which the environment can be trusted, or how people think about the meaning of truth.
We are very often unaware of how we think about rules. It's because as long as our environment thinks about them more or less the same way, we don't become aware of it. However, in a multicultural environment, our awareness is suddenly piqued, which leads to the second step.
When somebody comes with a totally different interpretation (of rules) our natural reaction might be to reject it and defend our own assumptions, because we see this as a threat to our core beliefs.
When we grew up, we were told about rules, which formed the very foundation of how are particular society lives together. It's part of our roots and upbringing. So when somebody comes with a totally different interpretation, our natural reaction might be to reject it and defend our own assumptions, because we see this as a threat to our core beliefs.
In a multicultural environment, you have to be able to understand your own and the other's point of view. Imagine that the other person might feel as shocked as you do. Through understanding and empathy we can start to listen to each other's reasoning and see how we can combine our thoughts into a potential solution.
You don't necessarily have to agree on each other's points of view, but a serious attempt at understanding the other's perspective goes a long way.
When you gain control and understanding on what's happening, you can start listing the options and ideas.
When you gain control and understanding on what's happening, you can start listing the options and ideas. For example, Peter's idea to sign on the boss' behalf can be translated (as Jill suggested) into an action point: have someone who can sign instead. Jill's idea to create a sustainable solution can be expressed by creating timely reminders. Rebecca's approach could trigger a fruitful discussion on how the company, within its own culture, thinks of rules and regulations.
Paying close attention on why your collegues feel differently about fundamential questions takes time and attention but it gives you the freedom to see the situation and the solutions in bite-sized bits which you can freely think about, combine, reorganise and use to build a new solution.
So next time when you find yourself in a conflict these three steps might give you an idea how to turn it to your shared advantage.