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Working With Foreign Managers

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The International Journal of Conflict Management 2005, Vol. 16, No. 3, pp. 265-286


Dean TjosvoldLingnan University, Hong Kong

Sofia Su FangShanghai University of Finance and Economics Given the susceptibility of cross-cultural interaction to misunderstandings and disagreements, conflict management may be especially useful for helping employees develop quality leader relationships with their foreign managers. One hundred and eleven Chinese employees from various industries in Shanghai were interviewed on specific incidents where they had a conflict, defined as incompatible actions, with their Japanese manager or American manager. A qualitative analysis of the incidents and statistical tests of the data supported the hypotheses that a cooperative approach to conflict, rather than competitive or avoidance approaches, help Chinese employees and their foreign managers strengthen their relationship and improve their productivity. Cooperative conflict management may be an important way to overcome obstacles and develop an effective leader relationship across cultural boundaries. Keywords: Conflict management, Foreign managers, Effective leadership

Note: This work has been supported by the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China, (Project No: LU3013/01H) to the second author. Correspondence concerning this paper should be addressed to Dean Tjosvold, Department of Management, Lingnan University, Hong Kong, (852)2616-8324, Fax (852)2467-0982-. ([email protected])



The relationship between managers and employees has been considered critical for effective leadership, especially in collectivist Asia (Brower, Schoorman, & Tan, 2000; Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995; House, Wright, & Aditya, 1997; Setton, Bennett, & Liden, 1996; Schriesheim, Neider, & Scandura, 1998). For example, high quality relationships have been found to facilitate extra-role performance where employees complete useful tasks not prescribed by their own roles (Gerstner & Day, 1997; Howell & Hall-Merenda, 1999). However, cross-cultural interaction appears to have considerable potential for misunderstandings and other kinds of conflicts (Earley & Gibson, 2002; Earley & Mosakowski, 2000). Developing quality relationships may be particularly difficult when managers and employees have diverse cultural and national backgrounds. This study proposes that a cooperative conflict management approach can strengthen the relationship and work productivity in cross-cultural leadership. Specifically, it hypothesizes that, compared to competitive and avoidance, a cooperative approach to managing conflict strengthens the relationship and productivity of foreign managers and their Chinese employees. This study makes several contributions to the research literature. It directly connects conflict management and leadership research by showing the value of conflict management for developing quality leader relationships. In response to suggestions by cross-cultural researchers (Bond, 2003; Smith, 2003), the study directly tests theory on specific interactions between culturally diverse people in order to develop knowledge that can help diverse people work together. It also demonstrates the use of critical incident methodology to study cross-cultural interaction. The study builds upon considerable research on cooperative and competitive approaches to conflict by showing that the theory, despite its Western origin and development, is useful for understanding cross-cultural leader relationships in China. It also identifies major barriers to managing conflict cooperatively between Chinese employees and foreign managers. The study develops evidence that challenges the widely held assumption that conflict avoidance is, not only culturally appropriate, but useful in Chinese and other collectivist settings. Leader Relationship Researchers in the West and Asia have recognized that leader relationships contribute to organizations by facilitating such issues as decision-making, teamwork, and leadership (Gersick, Bartunek, & Dutton, 2000; Gerstner & Day, 1997; Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995; House & Aditya, 1997; Howell & Hall-Merenda, 1999; Kramer & Messick, 1995). Quality leader relationships appear to be so constructive because they foster interaction that helps employees feel committed and motivated to contribute to the organization. Employees perform well to the extent that managers and employees develop a high quality relationship and interact effectively. Considerable research has shown that high quality relationships result in organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) where employees perform useful tasks even though they are not prescribed by their roles (Bauer & Green, 1996; Boyd & Taylor, 1998; Delugua, 1998; Duarte, Goodson, & Klich, 1994; Gerstner & Day, 1997). Research has indicated that strong relationships helped managers and employees in HongThe International Journal of Conflict Management, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2005



Kong believe that they were powerful, productive, and democratic (Tjosvold, Hui, & Law, 1998). Researchers have argued that open, mutually supportive interaction is the foundation for effective leader relationship (Argyris & Schon 1978, 1996; Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995; Howell & Hall-Merenda, 1999; Setton, Bennett, & Liden, 1996). However, given their power and status differences, managers and employees often find it challenging to develop constructive leader relationships (Hogan, Curphy, & Hogan, 1994). In today's global economy, many managers and employees have the additional complexity of diverse cultural backgrounds (Earley & Gibson, 2002; Earley & Mosakowski, 2000). Diverse managers and employees confront a great deal of conflict as they learn and respond to each other's values, sensitivities, and interests as they try to develop their work relationship (Adair, Okumura, & Brett, 2001; Ratiu, 1983). Researchers have concentrated on documenting cultural differences that may disrupt the relationships that cross cultural boundaries (Hofstede, 2001). Recently though, cross-cultural researchers have suggested the limitations of this approach; knowing how individuals are apt to differ in their values only provides general assistance in facilitating productive collaboration between culturally diverse individuals (Tjosvold & Leung, 2003). Indeed, stereotypically accepting cultural differences can frustrate cross-cultural interaction (Ratiu, 1983). Research is needed to clarify the nature of the effective interaction between foreign managers and local employees and identify the conditions that foster it (Smith, 2003). Proposing that a cooperative approach to managing conflict strengthens the relationship between foreign managers and their Chinese employees, the present research contributes to the literature by empirically investigating the conflict management approaches that facilitate leader relationship between foreign managers and Chinese employees in China. Conflict Management for Effective Leader Relationships This study uses Deutsch's (1980, 1973) theory of cooperation and competition to identify major approaches to managing conflict: cooperative, competitive and avoidance. People tend to use a cooperative approach when they recognize their common goals and view conflict as a mutual problem that needs common consideration and solution. They have high concern for others, so that they can reach solutions of problem solving (De Dreu, Evers, Beersma, Kluwer, & Nauta, 2001). Emphasizing the shared rewards that they can receive through cooperative conflict management, people exchange their ideas, combine their positions, and develop mutually beneficial solutions. Protagonists may also use a competitive approach as they focus on their own goal attainment and regard conflict as a win-lose struggle. With the emphasis on competitive interests, people attempt to coerce each other to do one's bidding but do not want to compromise themselves. Frustrating exchange and integration of different ideas, a competitive approach often results in a deadlock or imposed solution. Avoidance is a third alternative to dealing with conflict. The attempt to

The International Joumal of Conflict Management, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2006



smooth over conflicts and minimize information exchange communicates the intention that issues should not be openly discussed. Research has documented that its how conflicts are managed, not conflict itself, that contributes to effective collaboration and relationships (Edmondson, Roberto, & Watkins, 2001; Pelled, Eisenhardt, & Xin, 1999). It is the approach used to manage the conflict that determines the outcomes. Although conflict has traditionally been considered disruptive, well-managed conflict can contribute substantially to relationship and organizational effectiveness (De Dreu & Van de Vliert, 1997). When conflict is managed cooperatively, it can help managers and employees to confront reality and create new solutions to tough problems (De Dreu & Van de Vliert, 1997). In managing conflict cooperatively, people have an opportunity to form and express their needs, opinions and positions, and also to understand the perspectives of others and become less egocentric (Leung & Tjosvold, 1998). Researchers have found that giving voice to heterogeneous perspectives can improve leader and group effectiveness (De Dreu & Van de Vliert, 1997; Maier, 1970; Peterson & Nemeth, 1996). Although research has demonstrated the positive impact of cooperative conflict management

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