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Bruce Post

Yes, there are inter-national cultural differences, but I also believe, within the same national culture, there are organizational cultural differences. Depending on the organization, you can either be front stage or back stage.

Years ago, I asked the then-trade minister for Indonesia if he found any differences in negotiating with different nationalities. He indicated that with the Dutch or the British, former colonialists, you had to do your share of bowing and scraping to show your inferiority; Americans were pretty straight forward in their dealings, pretty up front; Russians had to call back to Moscow every fifteen minutes for "instructions"; and negotiating with the Japanese was akin to Sumo wrestling, constant circling, circling, throwing down some small pebbles, kicking them, and ... finally, after the incessant feints, everything was over in an instant.

My view of corporate and political settings I have been in, particularly corporate, make me believe that there is constantly a "play within the play." On the surface, there are group discussions among directors or top managers with the "Boss", but these are largely ritualistic, Potemkin-like discussions. The real negotiations are done back stage, where the Boss can control the outcome with more predictability.

I think a great predictor of whether corporate leadership can tolerate effective front stage discussions is the ability of the CEO to be truly vulnerable. Peter Senge has said that a leader with true individual security or self-esteem is never afraid to admit that he/she does not have all the answers. In that case, they are willing to ask advice, to be open. And, I believe, those exchanges can take place in front-stage settings.

Of course, Robert Hare's research posits that there is a high percentage of sociopaths in corporate leadership positions (you might call them "assholes"). In those circumstances, I would imagine -- actually I have experienced -- that true decision-making processes are done in the dark, unlit corners of the back stage, where the sociopath/senior manager can control the discussion and debate.

It may be sad, but in my view, it is true. (I once worked in a setting where I did a database of the primary points of your book "Hard Facts" and presented it to my upper management. It was not well-received. Where do you think those leaders prefer to operate?)


I don't feel it's a matter of behind the scenes or center stage. I'm sure there are conflicts everywhere but most aren't constructive. I feel that having and using a constructive conflict requires pre-acceptance of the fact that conflicts will happen but the parties involved will try to use them to their advantage. This acceptance is a must for parties to not give in to their instinct to feel offended but rather to use the conflict to see the bigger picture, generate more options, and identify a better solution.( I bet usually conflicts at best reach the agree-to-disagree state.) The acceptance i feel will mostly have to come from some form of training/conditioning. With this training one should be able to have constructive conflicts anywhere. I know we have a LOT at my little games startup in Pakistan.

Wally Bock

I'd agree with that hypothesis, Bob. I always test this kind of observation against my understanding of Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions. We Americans value individualism and standing out. Asian cultures, especially the Chinese, value the opposite. The result is that conversations that happen here on center stage with full lighting, happen backstage in private rooms there.


I suspect that there's more face-saving 'backstage conflict' in North America than we might think. And in fact, that most of the truly productive conflict happens this way.

After all, the meta-analytic review of conflict research (Carsten De Dreu, I think?) shows that task conflict and relational conflict are very highly correlated: 'Productive' task conflict often isn't.

There are places where the culture is such that people can argue publicly without egos, without slights and without hurt feelings and injured relationships. But I think in most places, productive conflict remains a delicate backstage dance.

Ali Ahmadian

In my opinion, you're absolutely right. I am an Iranian and even though I moved to the US before I had a chance to work in Iran, I'm certain that the types of discussions that occur in a business place here are different than most countries.
The root cause of this is a respect factor. In many cultures you are required to respect authority and your elders and a conflict, in those cultures, are viewed as lack of respect for your authority. I think what you will also notice to be different is the management's age and gender in those cultures as opposed to here.
I don't know which works better. All I know is that I'm glad to be able to work in an environment where constructive conflict is seen as a way to increase performance and creativity rather than lack of respect.

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