Cross-cultural studies on conflict management styles indicate that a competing style is most widely favored by members of individualistic cultures (i.e. the United States) and an avoiding style is most widely preferred by members of collectivistic cultures (i.e. China). Although there is strong support for these findings, previous research on collectivism and individualism has concentrated on documenting differences in preferences for conflict approaches without collecting evidence on what leads to these preferences.
Tjosvold, Wu and Chen (2010) propose that the theory of cooperation and competition is an important mediator between cultural values and conflict outcomes. In cooperation, people believe that others’ goal attainment helps them; they can be successful together. In competition, people believe that one’s successful goal attainment makes others less likely to reach their goals, so they conclude that they are better off when others act ineffectively.
The results indicated that participants in the collectivistic values condition, compared to the individualistic values ones, perceive that they have cooperative goals between themselves and the other discussant. They were also more confident that they could work together and make decisions; sought to understand the opposing position by asking questions; indicated that they understood the opposing arguments; accepted these arguments as reasonable; were confident that they could work with the other in the future; and combined positions to create an integrated decision. In other words, the participants in the collectivistic values condition engaged in a more cooperative and integrative style in resolving conflicts compared to the participants in the individualistic values condition. These results suggest that collectivistic values help people see common goals and thus encourage the use of integrative conflict style.
Although this specific study was conducted in China, the results can be generalized to other countries as well. By experimentally relating collectivism and individualism and the theory of cooperation and competition, the authors show that these value orientations can be elicited. The findings have important practical implications for promoting productive conflict and decision making. Collectivism and engaging in an integrative or collaborative conflict management style is not only culturally compatible, they can be reinforcing. In organizations, managers can help their organizations create a vision and mission that incorporate collectivistic values and advocate a work climate where collectivistic values are encouraged. This may allow employees of the organizations to engage in more cooperative behaviors and promote more productive conflicts.
Tjosvold, D., Wu, P. & Chen, Y.F. (2010). The effects of collectivistic and individualistic values on conflict and decision making: an experiment in China. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40, 2904-2926.