In Defense Of Indirect Confrontation: Managing Cross-Culture Conflict

Darden Professor Kristin Behfar examines cross-culture conflicts in the workplace and discusses the nature of indirect vs. direct confrontation.


Professor Kristin Behfar tackles a major cultural difference between the West and the East in a defense of what’s commonly called “indirect” forms of confrontation. In the United States, one of the most “direct” nations in the world, directness during conflict resolution is a cardinal virtue signifying efficiency, egalitarianism and professionalism. But in East Asian nations like Japan, South Korea and parts of China, some of the more “indirect” nations in the world, direct action can be taken as fatally disrespectful because it does not allow the offender to recognize the problem and decide how to fix it. Her research offers key lessons for becoming what Darden Professor Ming-Jer Chen calls culturally ambidextrous.

Behfar and her co-authors argue that indirect conflict resolution is fundamentally misunderstood in the West — and the stakes are high, because research suggests that direct communicators who square off against an indirect conflict management style, for example in a negotiation, almost always claim less value in a disagreement.

Fundamentally different priorities in Eastern and Western cultures underpin the difference — and relative strength — of an indirect approach. Whereas Westerners prioritize being impersonal during direct conflict resolution (i.e., “don’t take it so personally”), Eastern cultures prioritize the interpersonal relationship as much, if not more, as the issue at hand. In “East Asian cultures, people and work are viewed as elements of a whole,” while “in the West — particularly in the U.S. — the very notion of professionalism is to put aside personal issues and focus on the task.” Relationships remain paramount in indirect confrontation.

Top Three Myths About Indirect Confrontation

  1. Indirect Confrontation Is Avoidance

While Behfar acknowledges substantial research showing that avoidance is more socially normative in Asia than the West, she counters that these measurements are “too blunt” to recognize finer distinctions between literal avoidance — that is, doing nothing — and “a more subtle approach that nonetheless deals with the conflict at hand.” To wit, she cites a recent study, “Cultural Folk Wisdom About Relationship Conflict,” showing that when a conflict is interpersonal “Koreans were significantly more likely than Americans to believe the conflict should be resolved.”[i]

However, perhaps due to this high prioritization of interpersonal harmony, this study showed that East Asians are also more likely to opt out of participating in groups with known interpersonal conflict. Behfar notes that this is only rational: East Asians’ belief that conflict is highly detrimental to collaboration has been corroborated by empirical studies. Westerners, on the other hand, “remain surprisingly optimistic that relational conflict can be finessed,” as suggested in the Cultural Folk Wisdom study.

  1. Indirect Approaches Are Not Confrontational

Indirect confrontation focuses on signals and direct confrontation relies on action. But while it is easy to understand how an action can be confrontational, signaling can be, too. Because predominately indirect cultures also prize controlling emotional expressions, “initially, it is appropriate to hide emotion and signal privately to indicate the underlying claim.”

If the other party does not respond, however, indirect conflict resolution escalates into public shaming, which is a very confrontational way to signal discontent. As an extremely public example, in 2012, the Shanghai Exchange Index fell on opening by exactly 64.89 points, a number aligned with the date of the crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square — June 4, 1989 — on the 23rd anniversary of the event. This may have been an attempt to publicly shame the Chinese government, which doesn’t allow discussion of the demonstrations. The government seemed to see the Shanghai Exchange Index incident as a signal and began blocking searches with the keywords “Shanghai exchange” in order to cut off the flurry of commentary.

An interesting side note: In indirect confrontation cultures, apologies are understood to be general expressions of remorse that do not signal blame or responsibility, thus they occur frequently in order to restore social harmony. In direct confrontation cultures where apologies are taken as admissions of guilt, they are used much less frequently.

  1. Third Party Intervention Is Different in Indirect and Direct Conflict Management

In indirect confrontation cultures, the offended party is very likely to ask a hierarchical third party to resolve a conflict. However, mediation is a global phenomenon. Disputants ask third parties to intervene and resolve conflicts in both indirect and direct confrontational cultures, and the role these mediators play is identical in all cultures.

Yet there is a difference in timing for when a third party is asked to intervene: In East Asian cultures, it happens at the very beginning, while in direct cultures like the United States, this happens only after all other options have been exhausted. Intervening at the beginning allows the parties to avoid interpersonal conflict, since neither party is responsible for any potential loss of face — the third party carries the weight of the decision. Successful intervention at the end, after direct confrontation has failed, is a harder task because the third party has to establish the face-saving, respectful relationship the disputants could not figure out for themselves.

Indirect Confrontation in Action

Consider this story:

The leader of a multicultural software development team was frustrated. The team was based in multiple countries, and while the American and European members of the team were delivering on time, he was getting nothing from the Japanese members. Multiple meetings with the Japanese members generated seeming commitment but no follow-up.

The team leader, who was Indian and located in Singapore, considered two alternative strategic approaches to resolve this problem. The first was to contact the head of IT in Japan to find out why the work was not being done. He went with the second approach instead. He asked the European team members to prepare a presentation of their progress on the project. He then went to Japan and invited the entire Japanese IT division of the company to attend the Europeans’ presentation. After the presentation, he went back to Singapore without holding substantive meetings with the Japanese team members. Within a week, he had a request from the Japanese team members to have the Japanese team’s completed work featured in the next corporate presentation.

This leader was successful because he chose an indirect confrontation approach compatible with the culture of his Japanese colleagues. He had to infer that the problem — the lack of producing any deliverables — signaled indirectly that the head of Japanese IT lacked buy-in for the project. Instead of creating additional conflict between himself and the head of Japanese IT by directly confronting him, the team leader provided an opportunity for the whole Japanese IT division to buy in to the larger project and their part in it.

While interpreting signals comes naturally to those who are attuned to them, Behfar has advice for newbies to indirect confrontation:

  • Listen for verbal cues like asking questions, telling a story or sharing an experience.
  • Also look for nonverbal signals like emotional expressions (e.g., withdrawal) and behavioral cues (crossed arms), which convey disagreement.
  • Be aware of other signals, such as putting up posters, postponing meetings and missing deadlines without warning.
  • Above all, be patient and make sure the other party can always save face.

Kristin J. Behfar co-authored “Managing Cross-Culture Conflicts: A Close Look at the Implication of Direct Versus Indirect Confrontation,” which appeared in the Handbook of Research in Conflict Management, with Jeanne Brett of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. This article originally appeared on Darden Ideas to Action.

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[i] Sanchez-Burks, J., Neuman, E., Ybarra, O., Kopelman, S., Goh, K., and Park, H. 2008. Cultural Folk Wisdom About Relationship Conflict. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 1(1): 55–78.