Confronting Ethical Conflicts Across Cultures

Sánchez-Runde calls for common principles for collective action

23/09/2014 Barcelona

Carlos J. Sánchez Runde
Carlos J. Sánchez-Runde, IESE Professor of Managing People in Organizations and SEAT Chair of Labor Relations

Does an overreliance on Western viewpoints hamper our understanding of ethical conflict in business? To what extent do personal experiences or random examples become cross-cultural generalizations that can escalate tensions? And what are the main sources of conflict in the global business environment?

These big questions are asked by IESE Prof. Carlos Sánchez-Runde, Luciarn Nardon and Richard M Steers in their article, The Cultural Roots of Ethical Conflict in Global Business, published in the Journal of Business Ethics.

The article looks at worldviews on ethics in general, and cites numerous scenarios that illustrate how the lack of a systematic understanding of cultural values can lead to conflict. Three main causes of conflict based on culture are identified.

Three Main Sources of Conflict

1. Different tastes and preferences. Co-workers can agree to disagree on matters of personal taste, but in the business context, it may fall to managers to decide which preferences prevail. Promoting a vegan employee to sales representative may not work for a meat processing business, for instance.

2. The relative importance of moral imperatives compared to legal requirements. Lying to authorities in their home countries might be unthinkable to most travellers. But gaining access to Iran, say, might entail bluffing about ever having visited Israel. In the global context, managers often have to negotiate a delicate balance between following their conscience and following the letter of the law in different countries.

3. Levels of tolerance for different values in others. According to the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Study, “Altruism” is ranked higher in the Middle East than “Character and Integrity.” The opposite is true in Nordic European countries. When conflict arises, the challenge for managers is to find the right level of tolerance, and prioritize values. When is helping others more important than acting with integrity, for instance?

Different concepts of truth

The authors discuss how different cultures deal with the search for and communication of truth can facilitate conflict. When a Chinese manager in a Latin American multinational tells Latin American employees they will think about a request for leave, but don’t get back to them, two things happen. From the managers perspective the answer is “no” because the Chinese practice is to avoid rudeness with a direct refusal.

But the workers, taking the answer on face value, feel cheated and believe the managers have lied. To avoid escalating tensions and conflicts in their organizations, global managers would benefit from a fuller understanding of the cultural contexts of truth.

Building Fundamentals for a Universal Business Ethics

While more research on cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary ethics is necessary, it is clear that managers need to hold some set of common basic principles across their organization to guide collective action in consistent ways.

For more information, see IESE Insight