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Overcoming the fear of conflict in Asian companies

Submitted by on Saturday, 9 January 2010No Comment


Do you live and work in a collectivist culture?

If so, you probably have noticed that there is a strong tendency to avoid conflict in these cultures. This tendency can often have a remarkably negative impact in organisations.

Our experience is that in most cases managers ignore the fear of conflict and try to ‘work around it’ or ‘get on with the work in hand’. Yet the reality is that the ‘work in hand’ is often paralysed by the unwillingness of team members to engage in healthy communication out of the same fear of conflict.

Typical  problems arising from a fear of conflict include:

  • Misunderstandings and miscommunications (due to a lack of communication in the first case!) leading to mistakes usually costing time and money
  • A lack of understanding and trust
  • Ambiguity and role confusion
  • Poor accountability and an uncertainty as to who is responsible for what
  • Low levels of commitment and employee engagement, and…
  • Inevitably, a failure to meet targets through an inattention to results

Teambuilding ThailandManagers’ usual response when faced with conflict avoidance is to make compromises, but is this really the best way? So often in these cases, we have seen that as conflict avoidance becomes the accepted norm, many of the problems highlighted above arise and the end result is usually the compromise you can least afford: the impact on customer service and, ultimately, company sales and profitability.

The Cost of Conflict Avoidance

Often we think that a conflict avoidance is similar to a problem solved, but so many times that is not the case – it is more usually a bigger problem stored up for tomorrow. Take the following examples:

Sony gives the Walkman franchise to Apple – for nothing!

One of the more spectacular examples of conflict avoidance happened in Sony in the nineties, when the senior engineer preferred minidisc technology over digital. A number of his employees (and other colleagues in the company) had grave doubts, yet because of the culture few raised any questions. The result? Sony missed the boat on digital technology, allowing Apple to claim the market formerly owned by Sony’s Walkman with the iPOD – using digital technology.

The cost of this collective acquiescence and conflict avoidance is still being paid by Sony today. It has amounted to at least $40bn in lost profits.

A Global Engineering Contractor picks up fines of over $1m – for failing to meet contract deadlines

A recent case here in Thailand involved a global engineering contractor with, on the face of things, no major team problems.

But that was exactly the problem, because there was a passive agreement to avoid conflict, through not communicating!

The result? Project mismanagement and general ineptitude leading to company fines as the delays mounted and deadlines were missed.

When we met the ‘team’, we discovered they were all very capable individuals. Yet they were clearly not a ‘team’. The members could by no means be called ‘incompetent’. They were just uncommunicative.

They hardly communicated in meetings and, when they did, they tended to cover only the most superficial matters. When discussion went anywhere close to an area of potential ‘conflict’, the communication either died or went back to the superficial.

But conflict was absolutely where this group of individuals needed to be ready to go! They needed to find out urgently:

– Why the subcontractors were not able to co-ordinate their schedules and who was responsible for making sure they did and what that involved

– Why contingencies were not in place when equipment failed and who was responsible for that

– How the company could get around procurement red tape when emergencies arose so that the project could be completed and,

– Why problems when they arose needed to be communicated, not swept under the carpet in the hope that that way they might disappear!

Why we avoid Conflict and the positive difference it can make when harnessed

Given the costs of conflict avoidance, the question needs to be asked why managers and team constituents try to avoid conflict instead of embracing it.

There are several reasons for this, but here are the main ones:

  • Conflict is seen as being the first step on a road from conflict, to confrontation, to fight – and all the pain and uncertainty that brings
  • Evolution (and legacy events from childhood and our past) has hardwired us with a ‘conflict style’ that we feel unable to break the mould of, or of which we are unaware
  • Our technical knowledge often does not teach us about ‘conflict’ or ‘team development’. Therefore it is either unimportant (otherwise it would have been taught, right?) or something we should already know about. Either way, a serious focus on it does not merit time spent in a meeting.

It is surprising, in the face of all the costs that the fear of conflict creates – most notably in Asia with its collective culture and unwritten rule that ‘silence is golden’ (yet where conflict so often bubbles away beneath the surface infectiously) – how few executive boards decide to tackle the problem head on.

‘Building a strong team is both possible and remarkably simple. But it is painfully difficult.’

Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team


There are processes for doing so, which in turn lead to the development of high-performing teams. In fact, one of the characteristic of high-performing teams is that they operate with ‘creative tension’, which is essentially just the right amount of conflict.

In other words, high-performing teams learn to harness conflict, rather than avoiding it.

This removes the fear of communicating and ensures the flow of good ideas (and ‘not so good’ ideas – part of the process!), newsflow (including ‘bad news’ – exactly the type of news management needs to know if it is to do its job effectively) and a way to ‘challenge the process’ to ensure an upward spiral of continuous improvement.

Harnessing conflict means giving permission to ‘speak out’ and creating a safe environment for contribution in meetings without fear of reprisal, whether social / below the surface or explicit.

A Process for harnessing conflict and creating your high-performing team

When considering developing a team, it’s natural for managers to focus on the pain involved – the pain usually of a change in behaviours.

The pain of resistance, the pain of the fear that the attempt to take a team to a higher level may fail, the fear of the pain of conflict that may arise.

The fear, again, paralyses action.

Yet there is at least one solution that gives managers an easy-to-use process to develop their group into a team and learn to harness conflict rather than avoiding it.

Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of Teams is offered exclusively by Talent Technologies in Thailand and gives managers a facilitated way of tackling conflict avoidance in Thai companies and organisations in Thailand in order to achieve results.

If you would like to overcome the fear of conflict in your company, feel free to email us here for more details!


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Talent Technologies, Management training Thailand

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