How to Resolve Conflict: Navigating the Culture Map

by Bernie Anderson

Navigating conflict in any setting can be treacherous. I hate it. But it’s an absolutely essential skill.

One of my favorite books on the subject of cross-cultural work is The Culture Map by Erin Meyers which should be required reading for anyone even thinking about working cross-culturally. The conflict strategy grid that I created below is derived from her research.

Even if you’re not in a cross-cultural situation, The Culture Map is a wonderful GPS for navigating conflict.

It’s important to remember, while cultures lean a certain direction, each person has a different perspective. There are over 8 Billion ways to see the world. Boxes like this are not intended as a way of slapping labels on people on calling it a say. They are helpful for understanding ourselves — as well as others. This article is my distillation (Shall we say, FeetNotes?) of Meyer’s research and my experience.

I’m passing this article along to you this week because I think there’s help here, even if you’re not working cross-culturally. Two things to note:

  • Where are you on the conflict strategy grid?
  • How do you build culture on a team?

Conflict. Avoid at all costs?

That’s how I managed conflict in my early years.

Don’t compete. Avoid the bully. Let everyone else win.

My early-in-life strategy of complete conflict avoidance doesn’t work in adulthood.

Marriage, ministry, and missions made sure of that. Every leader faces unavoidable conflict. Avoiding conflict is a strategy that won’t work. We all must learn how to manage conflict in the family and workplace in life-giving ways.

Then I moved to Mongolia, and conflict got complicated.

One would assume Asia to be a great place for default conflict-avoiders, like me. Many Asian cultures also avoid direct confrontation. This was not true of the culture I was learning.

I was living in conflict-forward Asian culture.

While learning Mongolian language and culture, I kept to my avoidance strategy. If there was ever an issue with a government official, police officer, or even a shopkeeper, I went back to my childhood ways of “letting them win.” A fight was not worth the stress. It seemed like the “Christian” thing to do.

As I became more familiar with my host culture, I discovered this was not always the best approach. While no one should go around picking fights, Mongolian culture gives more respect to those who stand their ground. I discovered this one day when a police officer threatened to take away my driver’s license at a routine traffic stop. Rather than giving up and giving in, I refused. It’s probably risky to deny the request of a police officer, but I knew well enough he didn’t need my license—and I did not want to go through the hassle (and expense) of going to the police station later to retrieve it. After a few minutes of argument, the officer handed me back my license, with a smirk and complimented my use of the language.

What I discovered that day, is this: Mongolian culture leans into the aggressor quadrant for conflict. Perhaps it’s why the Mongolian empire once dominated most of Asia.

Everybody deals with conflict differently. Contributing factors exist, for sure. Upbringing, personality, culture, or treatment by a disgruntled math teacher. There are over 8 billion ways to experience the world.

With conflict, this framework is helpful. Conflict culture works at two levels:

1. Emotional expression: People are on a spectrum of expression, from stoic (no emotional expression) to spirited (emotions worn externally like a button on a coat pocket).

2. Level of directness: Directness runs on a spectrum from avoiders (do not engage in this fight at all costs) to aggressors (I will find something to fight with you about).


It’s helpful to place these two on an XY grid*


*The idea for this framework is from Erin Meyer’s excellent and highly recommended book called The Culture Map

For starters, it’s helpful to understand where you fall.

I am a spirited-avoider.

Now think about your home culture. Americans, as a culture, are in the spirited aggressor quadrant, while UK culture is stoic-avoider. Japanese culture takes stoic-avoidance and moves it all the way to the right. German and Dutch cultures are stoic-aggressors, while Greeks, Italians, and Israelis are spirited-aggressors (Much more than the US!). Philippine culture is on the far edge of spirited-avoiders.

You can see the obvious challenge for cross-cultural teams!

Most of you already know how to navigate cross-cultural living. We adjust to our host culture. I had to learn to be a little more stoic — and a little more aggressive when dealing with the Mongolian public. We can adjust. It is a skill that takes practice. But is entirely doable.

Now things get complicated.

What if you’re on a multi-national team, with people from Germany, the US, the Philippines, and Korea?

Individual team members on this sort of team spread wide across our conflict grid. What do you do, now?

The best way to prevent and resolve current and potential conflict is to create and cultivate a transcendent team culture.

Since coming off the field and working as a Growability® Consultant, I’ve found that helping teams to establish a team communication playbook is a great way to build this transcendent culture that navigates conflict in healthy ways. Begin with understanding where each team member falls on this grid. Then, no matter the cultures involved, every team can implement communication and conflict ground rules.

I recommend beginning with these three:

1. No Strife.

This is primarily for team members who land on the aggressor and/or spirited side of the grid. Strife is when you try to win by being the loudest, most confrontational person in the room. If I can drown out every other voice, my voice wins. Our team culture doesn’t do strife. It’s simply not allowed.

2. No Silence.

This is when the people who are stoics or avoiders assert their power by simply being silent, to the point of discomfort. I will say nothing. I’ll stew in my silence and let you win — all while harboring bitterness and resentment for the rest of the team that brought me to this miserable place. Silence is not allowed! Everyone has a voice and is, in fact, required to use their voice.

3. No Sarcasm.

This is a tendency for the spirited avoider (Ahem. I’m looking in the mirror here). But it is available for everyone. Humor is wonderful until used as a weapon. Sarcasm is a way to engage, while remaining “the likable one”. Sarcasm (humor as a weapon) destroys team culture. Sarcasm is forbidden (At least, with team disagreements).

While conflict is inevitable, it is possible to disagree in healthy ways. On our cross-cultural teams, disagreements can edify, rather than destroy when we take the time to build a transcendent team culture.

Begin building your team’s communication and conflict playbook.

Here are three steps for getting started.

1. Know your default conflict strategy. Are you a:
  • Stoic-Avoider?
  • Stoic-Aggressor? 
  • Spirited-Avoider? 
  • Spirited-Aggressor? 
2. Understand each team member’s conflict strategy.

Having a conversation about conflict strategies with your team will help everyone recognize differences in personalities and cultures. Acceptance is the first step to resolution. While many contributing factors exist, culture remains an enormous part of this.

3. Create common ground rules.

I always start with these three:

  • No Strife
  • No Silence
  • No Sarcasm

This is the beginning to negotiating conflict healthily. Best practice is to establish this playbook as early as possible, well before conflict’s inception.

Cross-cultural teams can be life-giving. Labor to establish a team culture that brings together the unique internal wiring of each person to form a working, beautiful whole.


This article was first published by my gracious friends over at Global Trellis, one of the best resources for people who work cross-culturally on the internet (in my opinion).

If you want more help to develop your team culture, Growability® provides a variety of team building resources and tools. Visit for more information about working with a coach.


First published on Global Trellis, a resource for cross-cultural workers, and Furry FeetNotes weekly newsletter by Bernie Anderson and reposted on The BAM Review with kind permission of the author.

Bernie Anderson is a consultant, coach, and trainer with Growability® Consulting, specializing in non-profit and cross-cultural business and leadership. Check out the Growability® Podcast at all your favorite podcast places. He currently lives in Greenville, SC USA, with his wife of 34 years. Bernie’s career has certainly been a diverse one. He spent 13 years as a pastor and the better portion of 10 years living in Central Asia, while developing entrepreneurial, Christian leaders. Since returning to the US in 2014, he has been a major-gifts fundraiser for an international nonprofit and is currently a certified business and nonprofit consultant with Growability®, where the mission is to equip business and nonprofit leaders to enjoy meaningful work by creating scalable, effective, and generous organizations. For further help for your organization (or his exact sourdough process) feel free to email him


>> Read more from Bernie on The Culture Map here.


Photo by Kristina Litvjak on Unsplash

6 Ways BAM Practitioners Build Their Company Culture

We asked 12 BAM Practitioners how they have gone about developing their company culture and what values and behaviors they have intentionally tried to instill. Their responses showed six clear themes: 6 ways to build company culture.

1. Visible Values That Are Thoroughly Integrated into Operations

Having a set of clearly articulated values is a key to developing an intentionally-driven company culture. These values must then be woven through everything that happens in the company.

We try to integrate our core values into everything that we do. Our job applications are built with questions that try to assess these values in applicants. Our HR training is basically a series of lessons on these specific values. Most problems that arise can be answered by looking back at these core values and applying them to individual situations. However, it is sometimes tough to remember to take opportunities to teach values. Often our employees come to us with problems and we have tried to develop a habit of pointing them to the core values and asking them which ones apply to their particular problem. This means slowing down from the demands of the day and taking the time to walk through it with them. It is often tempting (because it is easier and faster) to just tell them what to do. However, we find that when we are intentional and take the time, it is a huge blessing to both parties and to the long-term effectiveness of our business. – Steven, Service Company, Thailand

The best opportunities to reinforce our values are the difficult ones, decisions that are made which cost the company contracts or money, but which we make because they are right. It’s easy to be honest when there’s lots of money being made, but much harder when the crunch comes! I have threatened to terminate employees for lying to customers and disciplined others for misleading suppliers. I’ve learned that my employees generally want me to treat them with honesty and integrity and to treat them with respect, but they don’t really want to have to treat others that way. Culturally they value strength over humility and consider a crafty deal to be good. I push them the other way and used to get push back from them for that. So difficult days do have their bright side; they test our commitment to our values and help us apply them. – Robert, Manufacturing and Consulting, Middle East  Read more

Fruitful Practices for a Healthy BAM Business Team

‘Team troubles’ were one of the top 4 reasons BAM mentors gave for practitioners giving up and going home. The ability to build effective teams and work through difficult team dynamics is therefore crucial for the sustainability of BAM companies. In this interview, we talk to Luke, a BAM business owner living in the Middle East, about his business story and what ingredients make for healthy business teams.


What general principles do you have for any company team for building healthy team relationships?

As soon as you want to build a scalable business the business team becomes super-important. The essence of a successful business is in the team, rather than the individual. To grow you need to be able to manage the business as a team, you need to be able to be on the same page.

I think at the heart of healthy team relationships there is good communication and honesty. These build trust, they reduce the sense of isolation, and they bring unity and agreement on strategy. This is particularly important for teams in multiple locations when there is a high risk of feeling isolated or misunderstood.

Honesty is crucial. Getting to the right level of honesty to enable the team to be most effective can be painful and humbling. Sometimes I don’t want to share when things go wrong, or it’s not looking as good as I hoped. Pride can lead us to partial honesty. I am talking about the temptation to overplay a lead or exaggerate about a potential client because you want to look good. However, partial honesty seriously reduces the ability of the team to manage the business, because they don’t have a clear enough picture of what’s going on.

To reach the kind of honesty required, there has to be trust and commitment in the relationship. It’s a bit like a marriage covenant: you say to someone, “It doesn’t matter what you do, we are going to stay married.” Although a business partnership is different, there has to be a degree of trust and security in the relationship, an appropriate level of commitment.

Read more