Following up on the blog Culture at Work: a Collabyrinth, I have started a series of five mini-blogs in which I reveal five pieces of advice that emerged from my Ph.D. study (Smits 2013). The five P’s, as I like to abbreviate them, capture my key recommendations for working in a cross-cultural environment. I want to stress that this list is not exhaustive, nor does it give tools; it rather offers advice supporting cross-cultural work in project management.
Today I’d like to discuss the P for Patience. Meaning, don’t panic when conflicts arise.
Because they will. Conflicts are inevitable in the collaborative environment. Avoiding conflicts, or ignoring disagreements and frustration among project participants is impossible. Or yes, it’s possible, but not if you aim to build a collaborative relationship. In fact, sometimes conflicts are needed to strengthen collaboration. They often contribute to the articulation of misinterpretations and more vital issues such as differing goals for participation in the project.
If well managed, conflicts stimulate openness about the underlying causes of tensions in the relationship and, therefore, act as a valuable ingredient in the process of collaboration. Adopting a more relaxed view about the role of conflict in collaborative relationships is fruitful. Recognize conflicts as a natural aspect of people working together, accept they are there, and bring them to the table.
Conflicts can either diminish or amplify the collaborative relationship. They diminish collaboration when they are bogged down in emotions and lead to distrust. In this situation, a collaborative relationship is unlikely to be fixed. On the other hand, conflicts enhance collaboration when they motivate project members to discuss their ideas, perceptions and expectations about how collaboration among them should come about. In this case, the conflict can remain separate from the daily work and its presence can amplify a collaborative relationship in the organization.
Furthermore, conflicts are the motivation for changing (work) practices. It is at this moment in time that actors switch from an un-reflexive mode towards a reflective mode of communication (Geiger 2009). During this ‘reflection-in-action’, actors reflect upon their practices and are able to change their routine practices into new practices (Yanow and Tsoukas 2009). As such, conflicts seize an opportunity to change embedded practices and initiate new practices.
Hence, my advice: have patience when conflicts arise. Listen carefully and deduct where frustration comes from: what values or ideas clash, and why? Then together decide what a best practice will be for future collaboration, and how this can be achieved. Embrace the principle of cultural clashes and use the tensions to enhance the collaborative relationship among project participants. After all, collaboration on the work floor prevents cost overruns and delays in the project outcome.
Geiger, D. (2009). “Revisiting the Concept of Practice: Towards an Argumentative Understanding of Practising.” Management Learning 40(2): 129-144.
Smits, K. (2013). Cross Culture Work: Practices of Collaboration in the Panama Canal Expansion Program. Delft, Next Generation Infrastructures Foundation.
Yanow, D. and H. Tsoukas (2009). “What is reflection-in-action? A phenomenological account.” Journal of Management Studies.