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«Assessing Chinese Conflict Management Styles in Joint Ventures Shuang Liu Heilongjiang University Guo-Ming Chen University of Rhode Island Abstract ...»

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Intercultural Communication Studies IX-2 2000 Liu and Chen

Assessing Chinese Conflict Management Styles in Joint Ventures

Shuang Liu

Heilongjiang University

Guo-Ming Chen

University of Rhode Island


The nationwide economic reform in China has increased the

opportunities for the study of intercultural understanding. However, currently

very few studies examine the issue from conflict management perspective. It

was the purpose of this study to apply existing literature on conflict management to assess Chinese conflict behaviors in joint ventures. The results indicated that Chinese managers and employees tended to adopt collaboration strategy more frequently than control strategy, and control strategy more frequently than non-confrontation strategies. The findings as well revealed that status and gender have a significant impact on the choice of conflict strategies. Implications and limitations were also discussed.

Introduction During the past two decades of the nationwide economic reform, China has succeeded in attracting foreign investments. Joint ventures accounted for approximately one-third of the country's total direct foreign investment (Chen, 1995). By the end of 1993, more than 140,000 joint ventures contracts had been signed with a total committed investment exceeding US$160 billion.

Given the intercultural business setting, intercultural communication has become a must. The growth in intercultural communication increases the opportunities for both understanding and conflicts (Yu, 1995). The pervasiveness of conflicts and the importance of managing them constructively make the study of conflict management in intercultural business settings of great significance.

Intercultural Communication Studies IX-2 2000 Liu and Chen Conflict refers to disagreements that arise from or can lead to incompatible goals, values, and behaviors (Putnam & Wilson, 1982).

Communication is the means by which conflicts get socially defined and the instrument through which influence is exercised (Simons, 1974). Thus, conflict styles are actually communication behaviors. As culture acts as guides and predictors of communication behaviors, conflict in intercultural settings need to be viewed in terms of culture and communication. Previous research on conflict management indicates that culture has its impact on the way conflicts are perceived and resolved (Ting-Toomey, 1994). A lack of cultural awareness and proper ways to address cultural differences will result in unrealistic expectations, frustrations, and failure in establishing friendly interpersonal relationships (Dodd, 1998). However, very few studies have been devoted to intercultural issues in organizational settings, especially from the conflict management and resolution perspective. It is then the purpose of this study to explore Chinese conflict management styles in joint ventures in China.

Cultural Context The operation of joint ventures in China affects and is affected by the larger cultural milieu. Chinese culture places emphasis on family. The Chinese word for family is jia. A group is a big family (da jia). The country is referred to as national family (guo jia). One slogan for people working in China is to regard whatever organization one works for as a symbolic family.

Co-workers address each other as Brother Zhang or Sister Li. One implication of the family metaphor is group-orientation. The Confucian teachings maintain that a human being is not primarily an individual, but rather a member of a family (Tsen, 1986). The individual per se is less important compared with the family. Through the family, Chinese children learn to restrain their individuality and maintain harmony (Lockett, 1988). Thus, a strong sense of group identification is fostered from an early age. The social order of the family then serves as the prototype for conduct in Chinese organizations (Chen & Chung, 1994).

Group orientation is an important aspect of the Chinese culture which attempts to cultivate an interconnected sense of self (Krone, Chen, & Xia, 1997). Over time, individuals continue to subordinate themselves to the group to sustain a social order and stability. Success for Chinese tends to be a group enterprise rather than a striking out on an individual path of self-discovery (Lockett, 1988). Hence, individual achievement is a source of group honor whereas individual misconduct is a source of group shame. The espoused Intercultural Communication Studies IX-2 2000 Liu and Chen Chinese political ideology also reinforces the cultural value of grouporientation. A good citizen is supposed to be concerned with the welfare of the whole country, not with personal loss or gain (Krone, Garrett, & Chen, 1992).

The deep cultural forces that cultivate the interdependent sense of self also construct a social order based on hierarchy (Kim, 1991). Hierarchy can also be traced to the family value. Being a member of the family, one has one's assigned place in the hierarchical structure. Confucianism believes that human relationships should be regulated by five cardinal relationships (wu lun) based on differentiated order among individuals (Chen & Chung, 1994). Specifically, they are sincerity between father and son, righteousness between ruler and subjects, separate functions between husband and wife, order between elder brothers and younger brothers, and faithfulness among friends. The application of wu lun to organizational life requires supervisors and subordinates behave in accordance with distinctive roles they hold respectively. Leadership has authority the same way the father of the family has power. Provided that both subordinates and supervisors stick to their respective roles and abide by the explicit and implicit rules of proper behavior, order and stability is assured in this hierarchical structure. The Chinese emphasis of particularistic relationships, i.e., inter-relation (guanxi) leads to an establishment of a clear boundary between ingroup and outgroup members (Chen & Starosta, 1997-8). Guanxi, in Chinese society, is the acquisition of a set of specific communication rules and patterns that guide Chinese to avoid embarrassing conflicts in social interactions on the one hand. On the other hand, Guangxi is used as a tool of persuasion, influence, and control in the process of conflict management (Chang & Holt, 1991; Hwang, 1988; Jocobs, 1979; Shenkar & Ronen, 1987) Chinese people attach great importance to maintaining harmony among group members. They believe that only harmony among group members can produce fortune (Chen, 1998; Chen & Chung, 1994). Therefore, it is to the advantage of the worker to foster a good interpersonal relationship with his or her immediate supervisor as well as with a co-worker. Whenever conflicts occur, harmony is the guiding principle to resolve problems because the Chinese saying is that harmony is valuable (yi he wei gui). The belief is that harmony makes the family prosper (jia he wan shi xing) (Huang, forthcoming).

Social harmony depends not only on the maintenance of correct relationships among individuals but also on the protection of an individual's face or one's dignity, self-respect, and prestige. Therefore, social interactions Intercultural Communication Studies IX-2 2000 Liu and Chen should be conducted in a way that nobody's face is lost. Face can also be given, when due respect is paid to someone else (Hofstede & Bond, 1988; Hu, 1944; Hwang, 1997-8). The concept of face is tied closely to the need people have to a claimed sense of self-respect in any social interactive situations (Ting-Toomey, 1985). However, how we manage face and how we negotiate face loss and face gain in a conflict situation varies from culture to culture (Chen & Starosta, 1998).

In addition to harmony, face saving, and inter-relation, Chen and Starosta (1997-8) as well specified power as another factor greatly influencing Chinese conflict management and resolution. In the Chinese society power is embedded in seniority and authority. In other words, those who are male, elders, higher ranked employees, and having longer working experience tend to be considered as being more knowledgeable and powerful in the process of conflict (Bond & Hwang, 1986; Cai & Gonzales, 1997-8; Chung, 1996). In sum, harmony, facing saving, inter-relation, and power represent the main cultural factors that form the framework of Chinese conflict management and resolution.

Conceptual Framework Literature has indicated that conceptualizations of conflict management have evolved from Blake and Mouton’s (1964) two-dimensional managerial grid, including concern for self and concern for others. When the two dimensions were graphed onto a matrix, they yielded five conflict resolution styles: avoidance, competition, accommodation, compromise, and collaboration (Miller, 1995). Avoidance is physical withdrawal or refusal to discuss the conflict. Competition, resulted from production-oriented managers, is linked to the use of power in satisfying one's position, even if it means ignoring the needs of the opponent. Accommodation refers to behaviors that conceal or play down differences by emphasizing common interests.

Compromising behaviors aim at finding a midpoint between the opposing viewpoints. Collaboration consists of facing a conflict directly and examining possible solutions.

Although much research has aimed to identify which ones were most effective, most constructive, and most important to an organization, the framework of this five conflict resolution styles also generated debates about how organizational conflicts should best be studied (Miller, 1995; Putnam & Wilson, 1982). Two major problems that limit the usefulness of the "grid" approach to organizational conflicts are relevant to this study. First, the assumption of the grid approach that individuals have a characteristic mode of Intercultural Communication Studies IX-2 2000 Liu and Chen conflict management behavior downplays the extent to which individuals change their tactics across a variety of conflict situations. Second, the tools used to measure conflict resolution styles are not sufficient. For example, issues other than concern for others, such as political implications and cultural norms, might also influence conflict interaction.

In order to deal with the shortcomings of the grid model, Putnam and Wilson (1982) developed the Organizational Communication Conflict Instrument (OCCI) to assess conflict resolution styles and assumed that "conflict strategies are those communicative behaviors, both verbal and nonverbal, that provide a means for handling conflict" (p. 633). In this sense, conflict strategies represent the behavioral choices that people make based on their goals, rather than a person's personality style. The decision to use a particular conflict strategy is, then, largely governed by situational rather than personal constraints, particularly by such variables as the nature of the conflict, the relationship between participants, organizational structure, and environmental factors (Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967). Putnam and Wilson (1982) argued that there is no major formula or best way to handle a conflict.

Collaboration, for instance, while deemed constructive and effective in previous studies, may not be a beneficial strategy when the conflict is less significant.

Putnam and Wilson (1982) found that OCCI is comprised of three factors: non-confrontation (avoidance and accommodation), solutionorientation (direct confrontation, open discussion of alternatives, and acceptance of compromise and collaboration), and control (direct confrontation that leads to persistent argument and nonverbal forcing). The authors aimed to identify factors that affect decisions to use particular strategies and to test the evaluation of these strategies across conflict episodes.

The OCCI has generated a great deal of research on organizational conflict that examines the impact of person and situation on conflict strategies, and in programs involving conflict management skills (Chua & Gudykunst, 1987;

Putnam, & Wilson, 1982; Temkin & Cummings, 1985; Ting-Toomey, 1986).

Unfortunately, the OCCI was seldom applied to assess conflict management styles in intercultural business settings.

As a number of studies have suggested that culture has a significant impact on perception of conflict and potential ways of resolving conflicts (e.g., Ting-Toomey, 1985, 1986), and as cultural specific studies examining cultural variations on conflict management styles have demonstrated that the probable cause of conflict is intercultural rather than individual personality differences, it is important to test the OCCI model in different cultural contexts. The first Intercultural Communication Studies IX-2 2000 Liu and Chen task of this study is then to test the feasibility of the OCCI model in an intercultural context, i.e., in the Chinese join-ventured companies. Thus, a

research question can be generated:

R1: Is OOCI valid in the Chinese join-ventured context?

In addition to testing the feasibility the validity of OOCI in different cultural context, based on the OOCI model and cultural factors that influence Chinese conflict management and resolution, three hypotheses about Chinese

conflict behaviors are proposed in this study:

H1: Non-confrontation strategies would be used more frequently than solutionoriented strategies.

H2: Solution-oriented strategies would be used more frequently than control strategies.

H3: The frequency of applying control strategies would increase with the increase in age, status, education and the years of working experience.

Method Participants Participants were from four large joint venture companies in northern China. As the purpose of this study was to examine conflict management styles in conflict situation with foreign employees, staff and managers who had experience in interpersonal communication with foreigners were selected.

One hundred and ten questionnaires were distributed and 82 were filled and returned, making a response rate of approximately 75 percent. The 82 participants ranged in age from 20 to 55, and 84 percent of them were below 40 years of age. Forty-eight subjects were male and 34 were female.

Approximately 65 percent of the subjects were with university education. As the majority of joint ventures in China were established during and after the 1980s, employees working in joint ventures have relatively fewer years of working experience than those working in state-owned enterprises. In this study, about 79 percent of the subjects had a working experience of nine years or less.

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