Cultural norms and conflict modes

Posted 01 Aug 2012 by Ralph Kilmann
culture norms and conflict modes

The culture of a family, community, or organization partially determines whether the use of a given conflict mode – particularly collaborating – will be successful. In this discussion, I will briefly outline how the actual norms can first be identified and then be changed into desired norms, so that all conflict modes can be used effectively.

In the case of a work group (though the same could be applied to a family or community), members are introduced to the concept of cultural norms – the unwritten, unspoken rules of the road: how to get by or survive, or simply “how things are done around here.” There are several examples: “Don’t disagree with the boss, regardless of whether she asks for input; don’t share information with other groups; don’t rock the boat; don’t make waves; don’t try anything new; and don’t trust anyone who seems sincere.”

With these examples, most people have little difficulty in surfacing the cultural norms that are flourishing in their work group or organization – which constitutes the actual norms. By the way, it usually helps to have this discussion in peer groups, without the immediate boss present; otherwise, the actual norms might prevent members from voicing their true opinions!

Then the work group is asked to generate a different list. What are the desired norms that would promote satisfaction, high performance, and the capacity to address all important conflicts out in the open (with the collaborating mode, for example)? Usually, the members develop a list of desired norms that are 180 degrees different from their prior list: “Take the chance to state your true opinions in public; trust that others have good intentions; even if you were badly hurt or disappointed before, try new and better ways of doing things; be willing to learn new ways of interacting with others; and, since we are all on the same team, let’s work together by sharing all that we know about a problem or conflict.”

The difference between actual and desired norms is a culture-gap. The focus then shifts on how to close all the identified gaps using the steps of problem management – sensing problems, defining problems, deriving solutions, implementing solutions, and evaluating outcomes. Essentially, once the members have sensed a significant problem – a gap between what is and what could or should be that breaks a threshold of acceptability – they then proceed to determine the root cause of the gap, often the fear of again being hurt, disappointed, ridiculed, or devalued.

Next, solutions are suggested that would close the gap, which is, ironically, greatly facilitated by having an open discussion about culture-gaps. Then one or more solutions are implemented – for example, developing an informal reward system whereby people remind one another of the desired norms whenever it seems that the actual norms have crept back into the workplace.

Finally, in a few weeks, the members evaluate whether they have succeeded in closing their largest culture-gaps, again by developing lists of actual and desired norms and then taking note of any remaining gaps. And the cycle of problem management continues.

Unless a family, community or work group consciously and deliberately identifies and closes its culture-gaps, cultural norms tend to stay negative, if only because people are naturally compelled to protect themselves from further harm, whether feared or imagined or projected from past experiences. But if the culture is managed explicitly, as suggested above, then the trust, candour, openness, and willingness to change, which are the key attributes needed to support the collaborating mode, will enable members to fully satisfy their most important needs and wants.

For more information about uncovering dysfunctional cultural norms, see

Ralph H. Kilmann, PhD, is CEO and Senior Consultant at Kilmann Diagnostics in Newport Coast, California. Formerly, he was the George H. Love Professor of Organization and Management at the Katz School of Business, University of Pittsburgh – which was his professional home for 30 years. He earned both his BS degree and MS degree in industrial administration from Carnegie Mellon University (1970) and a PhD degree in management from the University of California, Los Angeles (1972). Kilmann is co-author of the TKI assessment and has published more than twenty books and one hundred articles on conflict management, problem management, organizational design, change management, and quantum organizations.

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