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Book Of The Week: A smooth guide to success in Asia

Conflict Management in the Asia Pacific - Assumptions and Approaches in Diverse Cultures
Conflict Management in the Asia Pacific - Assumptions and Approaches in Diverse Cultures

Edited by Kwok Leung and Dean Tjosvold

(John Wiley & Sons)

SINCE THE first books on international management appeared, we have the impression of Asian business cultures as oriented towards harmony, saving face, and prizing dignified, non- emotional behaviour. The concept of conflict does not really fit into this stereotype.

But no culture or organisation is free from conflict. Kwok Leung and Dean Tjosvold's volume provides a research-based and action-oriented approach to conflict management. It also outlines practical guidelines to situations in the Asia Pacific region, from Korea to Japan, covering 10 countries. Failures in handling cultural differences in conflict resolution can result in business failures: international business negotiations break down and many Western managers are unable to motivate Asian employees.

A classic conflict is the rigid application of Western management techniques in Asian settings, such as management-by-objective in Thailand. Conflicts in many Asian countries do not flare in a confrontational way and Western managers often notice longstanding conflicts only by a fall in productivity or increased absenteeism.

The authors are academics in business schools and psychology departments. They cite an interesting scenario from Indonesia: "I have two employees, one from central Java and the other from Tapanuli (North Sumatra). Given an assignment which demands a tight schedule, they give different responses. The person from Java will say, `Yes' without argument. Often, the assignment is not completed on time. The person from Tapanuli will argue the schedule is too tight and try to negotiate for an adjustment. Given a new timetable he is happy with, he usually meets the deadline."

The chapters on China, Thailand and Indonesia are excellent, outlining historical and social context, with a framework of social psychological studies and cases from multinational companies.

So, to improve business and reduce conflict in China, you must build friendships, show a positive attitude, take a long-range view and understand that the Chinese believe their bargaining position can be improved by keeping their partners uncomfortable.

The chapter on Thailand analyses the social structure and explains the effect on management. The contrast to Western business values is stark. "Maintaining good relationships is more important than completing tasks; inequality is natural and `right', criticising superiors publicly is unnatural and evil."

If an American executive was pushed into a Thai operation to produce fast results, his best bet is to set up informal, out-of-office discussions and use mediators in highly formalised processes of solving conflicts.

Conflict resolution in Korea involves context building (sharing information and building an emotional bond), smoothing (compromising), forcing (using a neutral person in a higher position to mediate) and tension releasing. This last process includes drinking and karaoke sessions to reduce the anger and frustration associated with conflicts.

This book is not a fast read for a flight, but executives who want a deeper understanding of Asian cultures will find the insights rewarding.

Elisabeth Marx

The writer is a director at the executive search consultancy Norman Broadbent International and author of the recent book `Breaking through Culture Shock'.