Resolving Conflict in a Diverse Work Environment

Conflict is a normal dimension of the workplace and can happen even in the most homogeneous organisations. However, it could become more complex and harder to manage in diverse work environments, where different cultures, ethnicities and genders work side by side every day.
Celine Chami
Jul 29, 2022

This article is available in Arabic.

One of the biggest traits of Middle Eastern countries is diversity. The United Arab Emirates alone are home to 200 nationalities. Saudi Arabia’s population is comprised of over 30% non-citizens. Qatar has a population of more than 100 nationalities, and Kuwait has over 70% of its residents that are non-citizens.

This diversity is naturally transposed to the workplace as different cultures, ethnicities and genders work side by side every day. Ideally this is a source of enrichment and greater innovation for the company. However, it does come with some substantial challenges.

According to Fiona Daniel, CEO and Founder of FD2I, the modern working environment in many cases still has dominant cultures where the outcome is a lot of difference in junior levels, as opposed to homogeneity in senior levels.

She states that working in these environments can be very challenging for groups/individuals “who look up and don’t see themselves. It can be difficult just simply trying to fit in, be able to speak up, be respected, valued and supported for who you are if your difference makes you feel like you don’t belong and can’t thrive.”

Tahmid Chowdhury, Joint-CEO, Co-Founder & Trustee at Here for Good, argues that increasing diversity is not all “sunshine and rainbows”. Without proper organisational planning, diversity can actually lead to a worse working environment. He explains that staff with different backgrounds and ideas are expected to conform with the majority, effectively eliminating any benefits of having them in the first place.

This can easily become the perfect setting for conflict to arise. While conflict is a normal dimension of the workplace and can happen even in the most homogeneous organisations, it could become more complex and harder to manage in diverse work environments.

The root causes of conflict

There are many causes of why conflict may occur in a diverse workplace, but the most prominent ones are deep-rooted in inequality, be it gender, racial, ethnic, generational or cultural-based.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) lists, among others, the following causes of workplace conflict:

  • Personality differences
  • Unmet needs in the workplace
  • Perceived inequities of resources
  • Unclarified roles in the workplace
  • Mismanagement of organisational change and transition
  • Poor communication

While the above could constitute starting points for conflict, what matters most is that, regardless of the reason, conflict is not allowed to escalate and is resolved quickly.

According to Aisha Suleiman, Founder of The Inclusive Culture, conflict is expected at work, and can sometimes be positive. One of the advantages of having a diverse workforce is having different ideas and approaches to solving a problem.

She states that when colleagues have different opinions on which strategy to use to solve a problem, they might experience conflict. This type of conflict can lead to a positive outcome if managed constructively.

“However, conflict is negative when employees experience unfair or unethical treatment that causes them distress. Negative conflict can be caused by many factors, such as poor management, unclear job roles, lack of equal opportunities, bullying, and harassment,” Aisha concludes.

The consequences of unresolved conflict

According to SHRM: “Unresolved issues of interpersonal tension and conflict can create emotional stress for employees, politicize the workplace and divert attention from the organization’s mission. If employers do not act, conflicts will escalate into larger problems, discrimination and harassment complaints may increase, and the employer’s reputation could be damaged.”

From an employee perspective, this will lead to lowered motivation and engagement, whether in the employees directly concerned in the conflict or the ones witnessing it. At the end of the day, unresolved conflict sends out a message to the entire organisation and reflects on how the company deals with such issues, and whether it has specific policies and procedures related to conflict in place.

Saad El Hage, Director of Business Development Middle East and Africa at Headspring, explains: “When organisations do not maintain a suitable cultural denomination, employee nurturing, training and inclusion, the consequences vary from low productivity to disloyalty, reckless teamwork, complacency, and a corporate culture that no one wants to be around.”

Effective conflict resolution

Resolving conflict does not always start at the leadership level. In fact, leadership should be the last resort in case everything else fails. Every company should strive to implement a culture where employees try, first and foremost, to resolve conflict between themselves. This instils a sense of ownership and accountability between employees, and pushes them to find their own solutions, as opposed to reverting back to management each time a conflict arises.

Leadership, however, has the responsibility to develop and put in place clear policies and procedures for conflict management. Employees should know that in when arbitration arises, decisions are based on a clear and transparent process that has been communicated previously to the entire workforce.

In the specific case of a diverse environment, employees will tend to assess each other based on cultural differences rather than on workplace behaviour. In this case, HR has a major role to play in training and educating employees on how to properly evaluate each other and what the appropriate behaviour should be.

According to Aisha Suleiman, people managers need adequate training on how to manage teams and conflict effectively. They need support from their HR and employee relations (ER) teams to tackle negative conflict before it escalates.

Moreover, communication guidelines must be based on mutual respect, acceptance, active listening and empathy at all times.

Saad El Hage states that there are six steps the organisation must follow to create a healthy, diverse and sustainable culture:

  1. Show support from the top
  2. Emphasise that everyone has a part to play
  3. Formalise and communicate the desired culture
  4. Provide training
  5. Celebrate success
  6. Maintain good relationships

Aisha believes that an inclusive workplace celebrates and accepts employees for their uniqueness. It creates positive relationships at work by having a collaborative culture, open and honest interactions, and respect for all. Having an inclusive culture can help to prevent conflict from becoming negative.

Towards stronger employee relations

Diversity in the workplace should be a continuous source of growth and constant learning, and the very differences that would otherwise trigger conflict should become a foundation for unity among employees.

To that end, leadership’s role is to build strong employee relations based on open communication, transparency, trust and empathy.

Aisha explains that having stronger employee relations can help to reduce and manage conflict. Companies need to have employee relations specialists in their HR team and embed them into each HR professional’s role, so they see ER as an essential part of their responsibilities.

Saad suggests that employee relations are vital and necessary to maintain a healthy, diverse culture. Corporate and organisational development is founded on an employee’s personal growth.. The result is the reduction of conflict in a diverse workplace and, in return, celebration of overall success.

He concludes that employee nurturing, group training, teamwork and engagement are fundamental for establishing stronger employee relations, especially in a diverse work environment. An additional pillar is removing the idea of complacency, in which the perception among employees is that cultural change is inevitable and unattainable. They should see that the contrary is true: change is a universal constant, and moving to a healthy culture of diversity and inclusion can be reached through proper engagement and training.

The more people communicate, understand and listen to each other, the more they accept each other, and the more their differences become a source of wealth for the entire organisation. This will not completely eliminate conflict, but it will pave the way for a healthy, mature and empathetic workplace culture, where each person feels they have their place and they’re properly heard.

Celine Chami

Marketing and communications consultant

Celine is a brand expert and university lecturer with over 20 years of experience. As well as working and training hundreds of companies in the MEA region, she is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Human Resources.