Q&A with Dr. Alison Thirlwall: “Organisations can turn cultural mix into an advantage”

Author: Criselda Diala-McBride | Date: 21 Sep 2016

The assistant professor of the University of Wollongong in Dubai discusses how to manage office conflict in a cosmopolitan work environment

Dr Alison ThirlwallCultural diversity can enrich a workplace. It promotes innovation, creativity and problem-solving, but it could also lead to a breakdown in communication, according to Dr Alison Thirlwall, assistant professor in the Faculty of Business at the University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD). She has researched extensively on management of workplace conflict and its implications in a range of international settings. Thirlwall, who is also a member of the International Association on Workplace Bullying and Harassment, spoke to People Management about the common causes of workplace discord and what organisations can do to handle them effectively.
What would you say are the most common causes of workplace conflict?
We have started collecting data on the people management challenges faced by organisations in Dubai and found that the major cause revolves around cross-cultural issues. The private sector in particular tends to have a broad range of nationalities and with these come widely differing behaviours and expectations. Language differences, gestures and attitudes to space – something as simple as how close to stand to a colleague – all have the potential to lead to conflict if the behaviour is misunderstood. And having large national, regional and religious groups – particularly when one group is in the majority – may result in other employees feeling mistreated because they are left out of conversations and events.
What steps can HR take to effectively manage office discord?
There are several approaches that can help reduce conflict and even turn the cultural mix into an advantage. Setting out required behaviour standards in an employee code of conduct provides an opportunity to rise above individual differences and set out how the organisation wishes to conduct business. Codes are also useful when recruiting, as only employing those with the potential to fit the firm’s culture should lead to reduced conflict in the future. Obviously, simply having a code is insufficient. Buy-in from the management team and role modelling appropriate behaviours is vital, as is training for all staff to draw attention to cultural differences. Organising something as simple as a multicultural lunch may be a good way to start employees talking about individual differences and provide a way of promoting the advantages of everyone all getting along together.
When developing their conflict resolution policy, what must organisations take into consideration?
Recognising differing cultural approaches of employees is vital. Not everyone will speak up, so be alert to the need to provide a supportive environment in order to fully investigate any complaints and check for facts carefully. Be clear that the organisation’s culture takes priority, but also be aware of the importance of not stereotyping groups or individuals. Ensure that the policy will be used and is not simply be there for show, so that employees know the organisation is serious in its aims and feel supported. Finally, conflicts will still occur, but trust, fairness, and transparency will help reduce the negative impact on the organisation.