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Business Across Cultures: Conflict Resolution Strategies In Indonesia

When expatriate and Indonesian managers of differing levels of status interact on a daily basis in an office, factory, or other organization in Indonesia, disputes or conflicts arise as easily in Indonesia as they do in any other country.

Conflict Resolution is a management skill in of itself. There are five common conflict resolution strategies available to professional managers. These are:

  • Direct communication
  • Third-party intermediaries
  • Appeal to the group
  • Appeal to authority
  • Denial

Each of these conflict resolution strategies has advantages and disadvantages, some of which I will describe below.

Direct Communication, or discussing the problem or conflict with the person or persons involved, is the primary, ingrained method for most Western managers. In this case, if there is a problem or misunderstanding between a superior and a subordinate, one or the other party would approach the other to discuss clearly what the problem or misunderstanding may be and how to resolve it. The advantages are clear in that it allows the parties directly involved to address the situation. In Indonesia, however, cultural barriers like Asal Bapak Senang come into play. Because of the importance of status differences, subordinates may feel obliged to report good information about a situation that could actually be bad, from a Western point of view.

Using a Third-party Intermediary is a tried and true method of conflict resolution in Indonesia. There are many advantages to this option including the avoidance of direct communication which could possibly lead to a confrontation between the parties involved; it allows information to be passed between the parties while saving face. One of the main goals of Indonesian business culture is to maintain the appearance of harmony in the office. Direct communication, or worse, confrontation, disrupts that harmony and should therefore be avoided.

When these first two options are not available or desirable, a subordinate will often Appeal To The Group as a source of information or guidance. This could be same level managers or others of approximately the same status. If the subordinate is successful in obtaining the required information to solve the problem or conflict, it avoids direct communication and that ever-present possibility of confrontation. In this case, there is also the possible fallback position of shared responsibility for a decision made with which a superior is unhappy.

Perhaps the most objectionable for Western managers is the conflict resolution strategy of Appeal To Authority. In this case, a clear subordinate would go over-the-head of a supervisor and talk to the country manager, president director, or other person senior to his supervisor. Accusations that the supervisor is unfair, arbitrary, intolerant of the concerns of the subordinates (especially because of religion or family), or other grounds for dissatisfaction, are common. This is perhaps the fastest way to have a senior expatriate transferred out of Indonesia. If the company will not take action, other authorities, like GOI Manpower or Immigration, will - albeit for their own reasons.

Finally, Denial. This is perhaps the most common of the conflict resolution strategies for Indonesian managers. It is also, perhaps, the most frustrating to Western managers. It must be said, however, it is also the style most easily learned by those self-same Western managers. Denial has many advantages. It avoids confrontation. It maintains the appearance of harmony in the office. It allows time to monitor a situation and see if, indeed, it becomes a serious problem or not. An option not to be underestimated.

All of these conflict resolution strategies have validity. One can see them in operation every day in every office in Indonesia. For Indonesian managers, Denial, Third-party Intermediaries, and Appeal To Authority, are the most common. For Western managers, Direct Communication, followed by Appeal To The Group decisions like meetings, are the most common.

Because of this difference in perception of the proper way to address a problem or conflict in the office, Indonesian and Western managers often create misunderstandings and frustrations for each other. The very concept that there is a “Proper Way” of doing things is one of the most dangerous misconceptions and preexisting prejudices for managers in cross cultural situations.

Cross-cultural assimilation, either for expatriates working in Indonesia, or for Indonesians working in international companies in Indonesia, requires adaptation and understanding that the “normal” way of interacting between colleagues in an office may be misunderstood by different cultural groups. All sides must get out of the “Well, they must at least understand that!” attitude and formally sit down and work out the terms and understanding that will govern their interactions for developing their own Third Corporate Culture.

What can you do?

Learn the language and culture. The more you understand the way each culture thinks and the importance of behaviors and interactions and relationships, the easier it will be to understand the others point of view and approach to problems.

An essential skill to deal with the inevitable conflicts that come up in an office would be conflict resolution training. Not everyone has the time to follow a formal program, but short courses, workshops, and seminars are also available from a variety of reputable training sources. In many cases, the assistance of a professional mediator or expert in conflict resolution will be helpful to resolve the issues, before they escalate and cause additional problems in the company.

In addition, taking the time to adequately screen your employees and do background checks on them before hiring, both expatriate and Indonesian, will help you determine whether or not there have been problems in this potential employee's past that may raise a red flag in the hiring process.

This article was generously contributed by George B. Whitfield, III when he was a Technical Advisor with Executive Orientation Services.