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Cultural Norms and Conflict

The culture of a family, community, or organization partially determines whether a given conflict mode (particularly collaborating) can be used effectively. In this discussion, I will briefly outline how the actual cultural norms can first be identified and then changed into desired norms — so that all conflict modes can be used effectively.

In the case of a work group (but the same can be applied to a family or community), members are introduced to the concept of behavioral norms: the unwritten, unspoken rules of the road…how to get by or ”how things are done around here.” Several examples are given: “Don’t disagree with the boss (no matter if he/she asks for input); don’t share information with other groups; don’t rock the boat; don’t make waves; don’t try anything new; and don’t trust anyone who seems sincere.” With this background and these examples, most people have little difficulty in sharing the unique actual norms that are flourishing in THEIR work group or organization — what constitutes the ACTUAL NORMS. By the way, it usually helps to have this discussion in peer groups, without the immediate boss present, otherwise the actual norms will prevent anyone from voicing their true opinions!

Then the work group is asked to generate a different list: What are the DESIRED NORMS that would promote satisfaction, high performance, and the capacity to address all important conflicts out in the open (with the collaborating mode, for example). Usually, the members develop a list of desired norms that are 180 degrees different: “Take the chance to state your true opinions in public; trust that others have good intentions; even if you were hurt or disappointed before, try new ways of doing things; be willing to learn new ways of interacting with others; we are all on the same team, so let’s work together by sharing all that we know about a problem or conflict.”

The difference between actual and desired norm is a CULTURE-GAP. The focus then shifts on how to close all the identified gaps using the steps of problem management (sensing problems, defining problems, deriving solutions, implementing solutions, and evaluating outcomes).

Essentially, once the members have sensed a significant problem (a gap between what is and what could or should be that breaks a threshold of acceptability), they then proceed to determine the root cause of the gap (often, the FEAR of being hurt, disappointed, ridiculed, and devalued).

Next, solutions are suggested that would close the gap (which is ironically facilitated just by having an open discussion about culture-gaps).

Then one or more solutions are implemented (for example, developing an informal reward system whereby people remind one another of the desired norms whenever it seems that the actual norms have crept back into the workplace).

Finally, in a few weeks, the members evaluate whether they have succeeded in closing their largest culture-gaps…typically by developing lists of actual and desired norms once again and then taking note of any remaining gaps…and the cycle of problem management continues.

Unless a family, community, or work group consciously — and deliberately — identifies and closes its culture-gaps, cultural norms tend to stay negative…if only because people are naturally compelled to protect themselves from further harm (whether feared or imagined or projected from past experiences). But if the culture is managed explicitly (as suggested above), then the trust, candor, openness, and willingness to change, which are the key attributes needed to support the collaborating mode, will enable members to fully satisfy their most important needs and wants.


Ralph Kilmann

Ralph H. Kilmann, Ph.D., is CEO and Senior Consultant at Kilmann Diagnostics in Newport Coast, California. Formerly, he was the George H. Love Professor of Organization and Management at the Katz School of Business, University of Pittsburgh—which was his professional home for thirty years. He earned both his B.S. and M.S.… MORE

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