Conflict: address or escalate

This article appeared in Handelsblatt Today on December 1, 2018. See all articles here.

Americans and Germans have very different expectations about how to manage interpersonal conflicts when they arise, which can lead to huge misunderstandings. As part of an ongoing series of articles, an American consultant living in Germany offers some advice.

When Germans and American collaborate, there will be conflict. This is normal. However, their respective approaches to conflict resolution differ. These differences, if not understood and properly balanced, can hinder just and lasting conflict resolution. And unresolved conflict threatens collaboration and success.

Germans view conflicts as fundamentally negative and discomforting. Escalating conflict should be an option of last resort. And since effective leadership is expected to anticipate and prevent conflicts within their organization, those conflicts which have been escalated — which have “become public” — are signs of leadership failure.

Americans view conflicts of interest as a fact of life. Escalation is often considered necessary, because the individual has a fundamental right to seek resolution, to “have his day in court.” A third party — almost without exception the next management level — is called upon to adjudicate. In fact, effective leadership is defined, among other things, by its ability to resolve conflicts which have “become public.”

Germans are therefore surprised, irritated, at times shocked, at how often and quickly their Americans colleagues raise a conflict to the next management level. Escalation is a sign of their own failure. Competent, professional, rational people are expected to resolve their differences among themselves.

Clearing the air is of the essence

Americans, meanwhile, see conflicts among and with German colleagues go unresolved, or unresolved for too long. They feel that the air needs to be cleared. Colleagues should seek resolution openly, confidently, and most importantly with the assistance and under the guidance of management. “Isn’t that what management is paid for?”

If you are a German manager leading Americans, get ready to resolve conflicts on a regular basis. If you try to avoid them or to push them back down to the working level, you run the danger of being perceived as a weak leader who a) avoids conflict or b) is unsure about how to resolve conflict. Either way, your legitimacy as a leader will be undermined.

If you are a German member in a trans-Atlantic team, and come into conflict situations with your American colleagues, be prepared for those conflicts to be escalated rather quickly. Your American colleagues will be less inclined to go the extra mile with you in order to resolve the conflict at your working level.

If you are an American leading Germans, you may sense, hear about or even witness conflict among team members. Don’t be surprised if they don’t ask for your assistance in resolving that conflict. This is neither a challenge to your leadership nor an indication that Germans like long, drawn-out internal battles. Chances are, they are trying to resolve the conflict themselves. They don’t want to bother or embarrass you.

If you are an American in a transatlantic team and have a conflict of interest with a German colleague, don’t be surprised if he or she discourages you from escalating the issue to the next level. The German attempt to resolve the problem with you personally should be taken at face value. Give it a chance. If you have a German manager, be very careful about escalating the issue too early. In the German logic, you will be perceived by all — German boss, German colleague, German observers — as uncooperative, rash, possibly hot-headed.

For in the German context, to escalate a conflict within the team to the next management level is considered to be a sign of failure — failure of the conflict parties to resolve their problem. Escalation is the equivalent of going to court, of one party suing the other. For Germans, the severity of such a step just about rules out any chance that the two parties will be able to work together again. And regardless of how their German manager assists in the resolution, regardless of the outcome, she will view her two team members as having failed her, and the team.

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