Chew 1995 Confucian Perspective on Conflict Resolution
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The International Journal of Human Resource Management 6:1 February 1995
A Confucian perspective on conflictresolution
Irene K.H. Chew and Christopher Lim
Chinese business managers, in general, have been portrayed as valuing har-mony and peace and having a tendency to avoid confrontation for fear of dis-turbing relationships involving mutual dependence. This is held to be areflection of traditional Confucian cultural values.
This paper is an exploratory study which attempts to establish the relation-ship between the traditional, C o^nfucian cultural values and the modes of con-flict resolution preferred by Chinese business managers. The Thomas-KilmannConflict Mode Instrument was employed in this study to describe the preferredconflict resolution modes of Chinese business managers. The results show thatcompromising tend to be the most preferred conflict resolution mode ofChinese business managers because of the latter's predominantly humanistic,Confucian self-concept.
However, other modes, that is, collaborating, competing, avoiding andaccommodating, are also being employed by Chinese business managers as astrategic and political variation of that Confucian self-concept.
Confucian perspective, collectivism, conflict resolution, behaviour, harmony,business managers
Confiict has been viewed by Cosier and Ruble (1981) as an overtbehaviour arising out of a process in which one party seeks theadvancement of its own interests in its relationship with the other. Insomewhat similar terms, Thomas (1975, 1977) has defined confiict as adynamic process which goes through a chain of behaviour, namely thelatest, perceived, affective/felt, manifest and aftermath stages of
0958-5192 Routledge 1995
Irene K.H. Chew and Christopher Lim
psychosomatic behaviour. As a result, perceptions of competing objec-tives emerge in the dynamic process. A conflict situation becomesmanifest and the competing parties engage in various forms of conflictbehaviour.
Conflict can be addressed through non-attention, suppression orattempt at resolution. Non-attention involves what it implies: there isno direct attempt to deal with manifest conflict. The conflict is left onits own to emerge as a constructive or destructive force. Suppressiondecreases the negative consequences of a conflict, but it does notaddress or eliminate root causes. It is a surface solution that allowsthe antecedent conditions constituting the original reasons for conflictto remain in place. Conflict resolution only occurs when the underly-ing reasons for a conflict are removed and no lingering conditions orantagonism are left to rekindle conflict in the future.
While there are obviously numerous potential determinants of con-flict behaviour, including non-cultural factors such as personality,organizational culture and the legal environment, our focus in thispaper is on the influence of culture.
This paper is an exploratory study which attempts to establish howcertain traditional values may affect preferred Chinese conflict-handling and resolution styles. The term 'Chinese' has ethnic connota-tions in this paper. It embraces the ethnic Chinese in Singapore andabroad.
The research context
There exists a large body of work on Chinese values in the philosoph-ical, scientiflc and psychological literature, including Needham's (1954to date) monumental work on the science and artefacts of the ancientcivilization of China. There has been a variety of empirical studiesincluding those by Lin (1911), Morris (1956), Robb (1959), Tseng(1973), Bond (1986), Frankenstein (1986), Garratt (1981), Pye (1986)and Lockett (1987). This paper focuses on those values and orienta-tions which seem to have signiflcance for conflict handling and resolu-tion. These values include certain Confucian values like (1)conformity, (2) collectivism, (3) large power distance, (4) harmony ininterpersonal relationships and (5) trustworthiness, which are stronglyemphasized in the Analects (see Lau's 1979 translation) within theChinese communities of the world.
Conformity is a central value in Chinese societies. It is related tothe key humanistic Confucian values of // and jen. Li refers to therules of propriety which structure interpersonal relationships into hier-
A Confucian perspective on conflict resolutionarchical dualities. Individuals have to orient their behaviour to thoseinterpersonal relations and not change their role system in the envi-ronment. This role system is based on the concept of wu-lun whereroles and loyalties are prioritized in terms of the five basic social rela-tionships: the love and respect between father and son, the loyalty andduty between sovereign and subject, the affection between husbandand wife, the seniority of the old over the young and good faithbetween friends. Jen, the core Confucian concept, indicates the virtueof attaining a benevolent relationship between man and his followers,and it emphasizes the idea of a proactive, holistic man or humanbeing who is not isolated or divorced from the world (Redding, 1980).It is this value of human being that distinguishes Chinese society ascollectivist in comparison to the individualist Western societies(Hofstede, 1980).
The value of conformity and collective orientation make individualsconsider the relationship between themselves and other parties a cru-cial factor in a conflict situation. Thus, it is thought that the Chinesetend to avoid confrontation for fear of disturbing their relationshipsand mutual dependence. When the dispute is with a superior, it fol-lows, the person's natural deference to authority may lead the Chineseindividual to accommodate the superior's wishes. Also, as mostOriental societies are characterized by larger power distance betweenmanagers and their subordinates (Hofstede, 1980), it is natural forone to rationalize that the relative status and authority of the partiescan become a key issue in determining conflict behaviour. Here, it isthought that subordination is a result of power distance, hierarchicalrelationship and face. Because of the respect accorded to seniors andsocial etiquette, it is thought that the Chinese individual is bound togive 'face' to seniors and deference to the wishes of seniors may result(Hwang, 1987; Yang, 1987; Redding and Ng, 1982). In fact, one couldbe exposed to shame if respect for seniors is not practised. ButConfucius (see Lau, 1979: 85 Analects VI, 30 reinterpreted) thoughtotherwise, since he sees that there is always not much of a conflictbetween the ambition of the superior man of jen and those who areprovided assistance by the superior man:
Now a man ofjen or benevolence, wishing to be established himself, seeks alsoto establish others; wishing to turn his own merits to account, helps others toturn theirs to account as well . . .
In other words, the hierarchical level of relationship between superiorand subordinate is accepted as natural law.
The maintenance of proper relationships is not the only emphasisof Confucianist thought as Confucianism stresses the necessity of
Irene K.H. Chew and Christopher Lim
keeping relationships in harmony and peace. Often, Chinese individu-als are asked to adapt themselves to collective society, control theirown emotions and avoid dissension, competition and conflict. TheConfucian terminology for peace, namely ho-ping, is a compound oftwo ideographs - harmony and equilibrium. As a result, Mencius (seeLau, 1970: 53, Mencius, Book 1, Part A:6 interpreted) recommendsthe use of empathy rather than physical force in order to bring unityamong the conflicting parties: 'Only he who abhors the taking of aman's life may bring about unification, harmony and progress.'
The willingness to develop a trust, hsin-yi, for others depends onsuch values as good faith and reciprocation. Confucius (see Lau,1979, Analects XII, 10) does not know how a man or human beingwithout good faith can get on in life. In terms of a whole society,Confucius (see Lau, 1979, Analects XII, 77) found that it is the trustthe people have in their government rather than the provision of foodto the people that formed the basis of good government. The govern-ment which strives to be people or yew-centred, according to Mencius'(see Lau, 1970, Mencius, Book VII: B14) contention, is not one thatbetrays the confidence the people have in the government. Otherwise,the people have the right to confront and overthrow a governmentwhich breaks the contract of good faith when it ceases to promotewelfare and good relationship among people.
In order to explore the influence of possible Confucian values and dif-ferentiation in conflict-handling styles among the Chinese, a samplegroup was used in this study. This sample comprises thirty-threeCEOs (Chief Executive Officers) in private business organizationswhich cover a wide variety of industries: manufacturing, services,trading, construction, etc. These subjects are of the Chinese ethnicgroup and they reside in China, Taiwan, Indonesia and Singapore.They all completed their primary and secondary school education inMandarin. All subjects were participants in a management trainingcourse conducted by an institution of higher learning in Singapore.
A questionnaire consisting of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict ModeInstrument and a Confucian Value Questionnaire in Mandarin to bedescribed later were administered to respondents who participated in
A Confucian perspective on conflict resolutionthe management course that was conducted for three sessions. Themanagement course had a total enrolment of 100 participants, that is,thirty participants in two sessions and forty participants in the lastsession. Out of the 100 participants, only thirty-three CEOsresponded