Using cultural differences to resolve conflicts
Mark Kass, University of Phoenix faculty member and author of Intercultural Cooperation Between Israelis and Palestinians: A guide to conflict resolution facilitation recently sat down with University of Phoenix to explore the underlying causes of conflict, specifically cultural-based differences, and the steps that can be taken to create resolutions. The principles discussed apply to conflicts between nations, organizational cultures and ethnic differences in the workplace.
Why did you choose the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the backdrop for your book?
My interest began with my doctoral dissertation, which was about understanding cultural backgrounds to resolve disputes. I chose this topic because this conflict has been going on all of my life. I believe there should be an equitable resolution—and it cannot be arrived at by preponderance of power from one side to another.
These were two nations who were promised one geographic region, so there is a natural dispute between them. But when we examine the underlying cause of this ongoing dispute, a lot of it comes down to cultural differences. There are four to five major cultural differences that don’t help the resolution process. Many of these are related to how each side makes decisions.
How do cultural differences contribute to ongoing conflicts?
Geert Hofstede, a Dutch sociologist, documented how values in the workplace were affected by the cultural differences of the employees. I looked at a number of cultural values, including the differences in the Palestinians’ and Israelis’ approaches to decision-making in terms of vertical hierarchies. This is important, because when an Israeli is looking for an answer to something, he or she can go directly to the source. But in the Arab culture, it’s more vertical, which means they have a hierarchy they must follow in order to get an answer to a question. This means their process is more formal, and from a Western point of view it’s less flexible with respect to changing circumstances.
Are there other differences that interfere with conflict resolution?
Yes, there are five major differences that I studied. In addition to the decision making process, there are differences in how both parties view themselves and their world. Israelis are very individualistically-oriented, but Arabs have a more collective view of the world. This can complicate communication between the two groups and lead to misunderstandings.
There’s also a wide gap in the two groups’ willingness to take risks. Israelis are more willing; but Arabs in general would prefer to take a more traditional approach, which often requires greater assurances because of their tendency not to take risks. Language must be adjusted for the Arab world—you can’t rush or prod them.
Another element is how a society views time. Israeli culture is a lot like the culture—it had to be done yesterday; they are present- to future- focused. In the Arab world, it’s much more of a historical reference emphasizing the past as a consideration in today’s decision making.
What can we gain by knowing this information?
It gives us a more complete picture of what is really behind misunderstandings and conflicts, whether they’re international disagreements or the result of ethnic diversity or clashes of organizational cultures. The key is there are proven ways to resolve these disputes amicably and with equity.
Can you give an example?
Imagine being a human resources manager when a supervisor approaches you with a dilemma. One of his or her staff members is a devout Muslim and must pray five times daily. The supervisor wants to support the employee, but is concerned that the rest of the staff may be resentful because the Muslim employee appears to get more breaks than they do. How do you approach it to minimize employee resentment? Start with the cultural differences that exist between the two and then bridge the gap with communication to build understanding.
Or, on a larger scale—your company is looking to acquire one of your competitors. Besides looking at a number of financial and operational factors, you should also look at corporate culture if you want to integrate the acquired company’s employees into your business.
What if you do end up with two companies with completely different corporate cultures? How do you resolve their differences?
Form hybrid teams of merger leaders in each company and create a new corporate culture—a playbook, based upon strategy and cultural resonance. This hybrid culture becomes a new culture. While you’re building this new corporate culture, you must make the process transparent to all employees.
How would you propose to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
There has to be a change from the present economic circumstances to encourage economic development and a consumer awakening in the West Bank and .
There also must be a continued meeting of the minds. Encourage the moderates in both societies to get along better from a cultural perspective. There are now joint schools where Arabic and Hebrew are taught. These schools teach Israeli and Arab/Palestinian history and employ Israeli and Palestinian teachers. This builds a connection between the two cultures in the younger generation.
Another sign of progress are the summer camps modeled after Seeds for Peace, an organization that empowers young people with tools to advance conflict resolution. These summer camps bring Palestinian and Israeli children together so they can relax, play games and develop lifelong friendships that may alter the status quo and begin moving the region toward permanent conflict resolution.
The opinions and statements made in these articles are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or representations of University of Phoenix.