Three studies from the Stephen M Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan found that there was truth to the cultural stereotype that Asians preferred to avoid personal conflict with work colleagues, while Americans were less likely to see it as wholly negative.
In an October 2006 working paper, Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, assistant professor of management and organisations at Ross, led a study into 'task-based conflicts' among work groups and 'relationship conflicts' that were not primarily to do with business tasks. The study involved three groups of students - 136 were Americans, 80 Koreans and 56 Chinese - to see how their response to conflicts at work varied.
All appeared to agree that 'task conflict' - such as a disagreement over a marketing plan or budget - could be a drain on business performance. However the views of the different groups diverged when it came to relationship conflicts. Americans were more sanguine about it, and more optimistic that they could overcome personal conflicts with co-workers.
Research, however, finds again and again that personal conflicts at work are bad for performance. Task conflict, by contrast, is not necessarily bad. Companies that adopt a culture of challenge or frank debate to thrash out issues related to business tasks can help employees think through their proposals more fully. But if those disagreements become personal, performance of the group deteriorates.
Americans' belief that they can work through personal conflict may be part of the Anglo-Saxon culture of emphasizing professionalism over other concerns, including relationships. By contrast, Chinese and Korean culture emphasises consensus and harmony above other needs.
This generalisation does not imply uniformity within cultures, says Sanchez-Burns. "What we found were central tendencies. But there were overlapping distributions in the sample.". Some Americans avoided conflict, while some Asians were less consensual.
"The implication is that these things can influence who you want to do business with, and who you don't. And when you're doing business with someone, it can influence your ability to overcome conflict," adds Sanchez-Burks.
'Folk Wisdom About the Effects of Relationship Conflict'
Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, Eric J Neumann, Shirli Kopelman, Oscar Ybarra, Hyekyung Park and Karen Goh
University of Michigan Ross School of Business working paper
MIT Sloan Management Review Winter 2007
Review by Joe Gill