Complex Made Simple

Tackling cultural conflicts in the workplace

Poor leadership and high stress levels listed as top reasons for disagreements

We’ve all seen employee tiffs get out of hand – rumours being circulated around the water cooler, secret emails being drafted to HR or even a full-out spat in the hallway. Conflict occurs when there is some disagreement – either with the way someone thinks or behaves or with their belief systems, explains Latifa Soobedar, founder and CEO of Corporate Wellness. It can also be the result of misunderstanding that stems from using idiomatic language that has different meanings across cultures.

In the UAE, direct confrontation is not as prevalent as a passive aggressive approach, she says. “It’s very covert, as there is the issue that people don’t feel as secure as they do in other countries. The lack of security in terms of their jobs makes it less likely that people will get into a severe conflict, especially with their seniors.” However, this does not mean that they don’t struggle with the conflict or that there aren’t ego or personality clashes.

It can be easy to dismiss these signs of conflict as unprofessional attitudes, but office squabbles are generally a sign of an underlying issue.

  1. Poor leadership style: Soobedar explains that, in a lot of cases, staff members perceive their leaders or line managers as not as competent as they could be in their roles. “Quite frequently, the manager may put a lot of pressure on their subordinates because they didn’t organise their time properly.” When it comes to the UAE, many times people might get promoted because they are good in a particular position, but not necessarily a good leader. Also, there is a lack of leadership training, although companies are now starting to realise the broader impact good leadership has on the overall wellness of a workforce
  2. High stress levels: As a result of poor time management (either from the part of leaders or employees), there is low frustration tolerance and a high degree of irritability among staff and this can lead to increased aggressiveness with others
  3. Personality differences: With so many different cultures in the UAE, it’s only natural that different approaches to work will clash. “People approach tasks differently. We have drivers that look at results and are driven towards that.” While some may be focused on results, others might care more about details or building relationships
  4. Lack of openness/transparency: Different companies have different cultures and, overall, there is a varying degree of transparency in the UAE. However, Soobedar notes that employees often perceive that they are not getting the full picture. “Decisions are made and it is not made clear as to why this decision was made”
  5. Clash of values/worldviews: Not only are there different cultures and sub-cultures, but also each individual is a culture of their own. “People need to understand that beliefs create values, which, in turn, create attitudes that develop behaviours. It can change the dynamics of relationships”


The key to tackling these problems is for people to understand that they have different belief systems and to cultivate an attitude of respectfulness, says Soobedar. It’s also important to practice effective communication techniques by focusing on whether you are looking to ‘build or break’ a relationship.

Meanwhile, employers need to make sure that there is an effective human capital management system in place, says Naveen Martis, general manager at Profiles International UAE, operating in the field of psychometric assessments. According to him, managers should work on building trust through effective and transparent communication, while also ensuring they carry out personality assessments to become aware of conflicting personalities and information on how to deal with these differences.

It is crucial that employers address these issues, adds Mansour. “The demands of quality talent have increased over the years. This, combined with the fact that there is an increase in the number of millennials whose focus on quality work/life is high on their priority list, means that such conflicts result in high employee turnover and decreased engagement and productivity.” He notes that, with competition increasing in the UAE market, it’s crucial that companies focus their efforts on the “engagement of personnel”.