The Influence of Culture on Strategy Selection

By Cindy T. Christen, Ph.D.

Dr. Cindy T. Christen

Negotiation researchers have identified a number of factors that can influence selection of cooperative or noncooperative strategies. These can include objective factors, such as overlapping preferences, interests or goals, and subjective factors, such as perceptions of the power and trustworthiness of contending parties and the nature of the relationship between parties (see, for example, Fisher, 1989).

It is worth noting, however, that much of the research on strategy selection in conflict situations has been conducted in Western cultural contexts. In today’s world of interconnected economies, ecologies, and communication technologies, the conflicts that arise often span political boundaries and involve multiple cultures. In selecting strategies for managing a conflict, and anticipating the likely strategies of other parties to the conflict, it is important to know if factors such as power, trustworthiness, and type of relationship have similar effects on strategic choice in different cultures.

Hofstede (1980, 1991) identifies five dimensions that characterize cultural differences, with Western countries tending to be more individualistic and short-term oriented and Eastern countries more collectivistic and long-term oriented. Yum (1988) further distinguishes between the cultures of East Asian countries such as Korea (being affected by Confucianism) and Southeast Asian countries (being influenced by Buddhism).  In countries and cultures influenced by Confucianism, Yum explains, family and other group affiliations are more important than the self, maintenance of proper relationships takes priority over individual interests, and relationships are typically based on long-term, asymmetrical reciprocity and trust. In line with these cultural distinctions, one can predict that negotiators in countries influenced by Confucianism will place greater value on relationship maintenance, be more likely to trust a powerful external group, and more willing to accept negotiation outcomes that are distributively unfair to resolve the conflicts than will their counterparts from Western countries.

Two recent studies by Lee, Christen and Kim demonstrate that distinctions between Eastern and Western cultures can indeed moderate the effects of power, trustworthiness, and relationship type on selection of cooperative and noncooperative strategies. Survey questionnaires were administered concurrently to members of professional communication associations in Seoul, Korea and Denver, Colorado. Each questionnaire contained one of six manipulated conflict scenarios involving a major automobile manufacturer and a consumer advocacy organization. Scenarios addressed either an ethical concern regarding automobile pollution or an economic concern regarding an automobile defect. A personal relationship, professional relationship, or no relationship existed between managers representing the two organizations.

As predicted, Korean professionals were more likely than U.S. professionals to prefer cooperative strategies such as mediation and avoidance (Lee, Christen & Kim, 2011). Contrary to expectations, Korean professionals were also more inclined to choose contention, perhaps as a power balancing technique. The influence of culture on preference for mediation, avoidance, and contention strategies was observed for both ethical and economic conflicts, and across the three types of relationships. However, relationship type emerged as the strongest predictor that both Korean and U.S. professionals would choose the compromise as an option for resolving the dispute. Korean professionals were more likely than their U.S. counterparts to exercise power if the relationship between managers at the two organizations was professional in nature, more inclined to deny that a conflict existed if a personal relationship existed between the two managers, and more likely to choose mediation if there was no relationship between managers.

Although power and trustworthiness were not explicitly manipulated in the conflict scenarios, secondary analysis revealed distinctions in the way Korean and U.S. professionals responded to perceptions of the power and trustworthiness of the two parties when selecting strategies for managing the dispute (Christen, Lee & Kim, 2011). Professionals in the U.S. were more likely to view their own organization (the automobile manufacturer) as powerful, while Korean professionals attributed greater power to the external group (the consumer advocacy organization). Among Korean professionals, perceptions that the consumer advocacy organization was powerful and trustworthy were positively related as expected. Also as expected, Korean professionals were more likely than U.S. professionals to select cooperative strategies in dealing with an external organization they viewed as powerful and trustworthy. Unexpectedly, a negative association was found between perceived trustworthiness and the likelihood that U.S. professionals would select a compromise strategy, perhaps because they perceived trustworthiness to be an indicator of weakness.

While culture emerged as the strongest predictor of three out of the four conflict management strategies examined, it should be noted that the studies conducted by Lee, Christen and Kim were experimental and limited in focus. To provide negotiators with practical guidance regarding strategy selection in different cultural contexts, it will be important to extend this line of research to other countries and cultures.

Cindy Christen is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Technical Communication at Colorado State University. Cindy conducts research on factors influencing willingness to negotiate solutions to inter-group conflicts, and the effects of group membership on perceptions of news coverage and public opinion about conflicts.

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