Cooperative conflict management as a basis for training students in China

Cooperative conflict management as a basis for training students in China

Dean Tjosvold

Chinese educators recognize that for their students to take advantage of new opportunities, as well as handle emerging threats in their rapidly changing society, they must learn to manage many conflicts. But Chinese collectivism and valuing harmony may seem to make Western approaches to conflict resolution culturally inappropriate. This article reviews recent research that provides a theoretical foundation for the training of conflict skills among Chinese students. Contrary to common assumptions, studies indicate that Chinese people not only can manage their conflicts openly but they can do so productively and enjoyably. Chinese values need not work against managing conflict. Indeed, when appropriately expressed, Chinese values have been found to promote open, constructive conflict management. These recent studies suggest how Western-based training on cooperative conflict can be modified for effective, culturally acceptable conflict management training in China.


The gentleman agrees with others without being an

echo. The small man echoes without being in agreement.


CHINESE EDUCATORS RECOGNIZE that their students must be particularly resourceful to participate in China’s political and economic reform. They realize that educational methods should also be updated to prepare their students to take advantage of opportunities and cope with the many challenges they’ll face as China rapidly changes from a centrally controlled to an open, market-oriented society. This more open society requires, among other capabilities, that students be able to work in teams and effectively manage conflict as they participate in modern organizations and negotiate their own careers.

Chinese educators, as well as politicians and managers, are considering Western ideas and methods to aid the reform. There is a willingness to apply modern, Western ways but also a commitment to make these methods fit Chinese culture. This can be challenging when educating students to manage conflict. Training students to manage conflict has been thought to contradict basic Confucian values of harmony and relationship enhancement. Shouldn’t Chinese students learn to suppress their individuality and conform to the collective? Isn’t harmony a central virtue of Chinese society? Indeed, shouldn’t students resolve conflict by learning to passively accept authority rather than through structuring controversy in the classroom?

The Hong Kong Cooperative Learning Center is training educators and developing the knowledge base for cooperative learning and conflict management training in Chinese classrooms. Educators in mainland China have been particularly open to experimenting with cooperative learning and training their students in the social skills necessary to learn and work in teams.

This article reviews recent research that provides a theoretical foundation for the training of conflict skills among Chinese students. Contrary to common assumptions, studies indicate that Chinese people not only can manage their conflicts openly, but they can do so productively and enjoyably. Chinese values need not work against managing conflict. Indeed, when appropriately expressed, they have been found to promote open, constructive conflict management. These recent studies suggest how Western-based conflict resolution training can be modified for effective, culturally acceptable conflict management training in China.

The Need for Conflict Management Training in China

Although research in the West suggests the value of conflict and the need to manage it, the utility of open approaches to conflict, as well as the theories to analyze it, cannot be assumed to apply to a collectivist society like China (Hofstede, 1993). Although avoiding conflict may traditionally be preferred, educators recognize that the reform and opening up of the Chinese economy have made avoiding an impractical general approach to conflict resolution in today’s China.

The traditional value of avoiding

Researchers have documented that Asians prefer to avoid dealing with conflict, whereas Westerners tend to confront conflict directly (Kirkbride, Tang, & Westwood, 1991; Tse, Francis, & Walls, 1994). They have drawn upon considerable research in cross-cultural management and psychology to conclude that a sense of interdependence explains these differences. Chinese scholars have argued that their culture is highly relational and its first virtue is human heartedness or humanity (Liu, 1986). Imbued with a strong sense of duty and hierarchy, Chinese people are expected to see themselves in the context of others and understand the need for reciprocity and obligations. Consequently, they are highly sensitive to the possibility of losing social face in public; they avoid conflict so they and their conflict partners need not fear disrespect and alienation (Cocroft & Ting-Toomey, 1994).

The reality of conflict

Although Chinese people may wish for relationships without conflict, conflict is part of family life and comes with working in organizations in China as well as in the West. Conflict occurs as China transforms itself to its own version of an open, modern, market-oriented society–a change that ranks as one of the world’s great adventures with risks to match. Members of Chinese organizations may face even more conflicts and barriers than their Western counterparts as they examine and update state-owned enterprises, build a full range of market-oriented companies, reform their planned economy, and work with Japanese, American, Southeast Asian, Hong Kong, European, and other international partners.

China has historically been diverse and divided, with provinces skeptical of each other and central authority and enjoying their distinct dialects. Contrary to Western assumptions, there is also great ideological diversity. Traditional ideas of Confucius, Dao, and Buddhism contend with free market, Leftist, Communist, Socialist, Gang of Four, and Maoist thinking.

In China, the reality of conflict combined with the values of avoiding can make developing relationships complicated. Chinese educators, students, and managers increasingly recognize that to capitalize on their considerable opportunities, they must update their conflict management models.

Conflict Management Research in China

We have used Deutsch’s (1973) theory of cooperation and competition and our North American research on conflict in decision making as a basis for understanding conflict management among Chinese people (Tjosvold, 1998). Our research indicates that cooperative goals lead to an open-minded discussion of the incompatible activities (labeled cooperative conflict). Recognizing that the goals of one promote the goals of the other, protagonists open-mindedly discuss their views. Doubting their own position is fully adequate, they ask questions and demonstrate understanding of the other position. Through defending and understanding opposing views, they begin to integrate ideas to create new, useful solutions they accept and implement.

In competitive conflict, protagonists emphasize that as one succeeds, the other is less likely to reach his or her goals. They tend to avoid a direct discussion or, alternatively, discuss in a way to coerce the other to do their bidding. Competitive conflict frustrates communication and results in a deadlock or imposed solutions that undermine problem solving and relationships, leaving protagonists feeling they have been harmed by the conflict.

Tests of the theory among Chinese people

Colleagues based in Hong Kong, Mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore have helped us develop our research in China and other Chinese societies. The research has been conducted largely in mainland China and Hong Kong; however, studies in other Chinese societies have tested the generalizability of the theory (Tjosvold & Chia, 1989; Tjosvold & Tsao, 1989; Tjosvold, et al., 2001).

The variety of methods used in our studies also confirm the theory’s generalizability. A number of studies have used interviews with the critical incident methodology. Typically, 40-80 organizational members have described concrete experiences and then answered specific questions designed to test the hypotheses about these incidents. Surveys complement the interview studies. They allow for the sampling of more people and the use of independent sources for outcome measures. Recent studies have used samples of more than 100 matched pairs to provide independent sources of outcome measures and reduce the possibilities of same source method error. Experiments with about 80 college students in Hong Kong or Guanzhou serving as participants have directly tested hypothesized causal relationships and provide findings with high internal validity.

Key hypotheses

In an experiment, protagonists who had cooperative rather than competitive goals were more open toward the opposing position and negotiator (Tjosvold & Sun, 2001). Chinese participants in cooperation were committed to mutual benefit, were interested in learning more about the opposing views, considered these views useful, had come to agree with them, and tended to integrate them into their own decisions. They were more attracted to the other protagonist, and had greater confidence in working together in the future than participants in the competitive condition.

More surprisingly, the Chinese participants were able to use and responded favorably to the open discussion itself. Direct disagreement, compared to smoothing over the opposing views, strengthened relationships and induced curiosity. Chinese people asked questions, explored opposing views, demonstrated knowledge, and worked to integrate views (Tjosvold & Sun, in press). Indicating that they found open discussion valuable, participants characterized protagonists who disagreed directly and openly as strong persons and competent negotiators, whereas avoiding protagonists was considered weak and ineffectual. Chinese participants were found to choose disagreement when they felt confident in their own abilities (Tjosvold, Nibler, & Wan, 2001). Protagonists used direct controversy to build a cooperative relationship and open-mindedly explored and understood the opposing view; avoiders were competitive and unaware (Tjosvold & Sun, in press).

Field studies show that managers and employees in China engage in open-minded productive discussion of opposing views when they have cooperative goals. In a study of 39 groups and their supervisors in Hanzhou work teams that used open-minded, constructive discussion of their differences promoted product quality and cost reduction; these discussions were more likely with cooperative than competitive goals (Tjosvold & Wang, 1998). Earlier studies found that cooperative conflict was useful for Singaporean Chinese managers and employees to resolve issues and work productively together (Tjosvold & Chia, 1989; Tjosvold & Tsao, 1989).

Findings from 107 teams in Chinese organizations suggest that cooperative conflict can help them deal with biases and engage in effective risk-taking (Tjosvold & Yu, 2002). These risk-taking groups were able to innovate and also recover from their mistakes. Cooperative conflict was found to help 100 work teams in Shanghai reflect on their work effectively so they could adjust and strengthen their procedures (Tjosvold, Hui, & Yu, 2002). Teams that rated themselves as high on cooperative conflict and reflexivity were also rated by their managers as being productive and good organizational citizens. Cooperative conflict was found to develop a sense of fairness in teams that helped them be productive (Chen & Tjosvold, 2002a).

Cooperative, open-minded discussions of service problems helped restaurant employees work together to serve their customers. Conflicts over scarce resources have been thought to be particularly divisive. However, an open-minded discussion helped Hong Kong accountants and managers dig into and resolve budget issues, strengthen their relationships, and improve budget quality so limited financial resources were used wisely (Poon, Pike, & Tjosvold, 2001). These discussions were much more likely with cooperative than competitive goals.

Cooperative conflict, but not competitive or avoiding conflict, helped Hong Kong, Korean, Taiwanese, and Japanese building contractors work successfully with their sub-contractors (Tjosvold, et al., 2001). Manufacturing managers in Hong Kong who handled conflict cooperatively used their frustrations with suppliers in mainland China to improve product quality. Cooperative, constructive controversy interactions were also found to be critical for Chinese staff to work productively and develop relationships with Japanese managers, outcomes that in turn built commitment to their Japanese companies (Tjosvold, Sasaki, & Moy, 1998).

Cross-cultural studies

A few studies have directly suggested that the theory is useful in cross-cultural settings. Hong Kong senior accounting managers were found to be able to lead employees working in mainland China when they had cooperative goals, but not when their goals were competitive or independent (Tjosvold & Moy, 1998). They were able to discuss their views open-mindedly, leading to stronger relationships and productivity, consequences that in turn resulted in future internal motivation.

Chinese employees described specific examples of working with their American or Japanese managers (Su, Chen,& Tjosvold, 2003). Results indicated that cooperative goals contributed to an open-minded discussion of views that led to productive collaborative work and strengthened relationships. Similarly, managers in a Hong Kong parent company and new product specialists in Canada who developed cooperative links and engaged in constructive controversy were able to develop strong, trusting relationships despite their cultural differences and geographic separation (Tjosvold, 1999).

Field and experimental studies in North America and Asia provide strong internal and external validity to central hypotheses of cooperative and competitive conflict. Whether protagonists emphasize cooperative or competitive goals drastically affects the dynamics and outcomes of their conflict management. Surprisingly, Chinese participants appear to appreciate others who speak their minds directly and cooperatively.

Chinese Values for Conflict Management

Chinese values may not be as adverse to open approaches to conflict management as traditionally portrayed. Leung (Leung, Koch, & Lu, 2002) has recently proposed that harmony has two distinct motives in Chinese society. Disintegration avoidance is instrumental in nature in that the maintenance of harmony is a means to other ends. With this motive, people avoid conflict as a way to further their self-interest and avoid potential interpersonal problems. Harmony can also refer to the desire to engage in behaviors that strengthen relationships, a motive called harmony enhancement. This motivation represents a genuine concern for harmony as a value in and of itself and involves feelings of intimacy, closeness, trust, and compatible and mutually beneficial behaviors. Valuing collectivist relationships, then, can lead to open conflict management, not conflict avoidance.

Consistent with Leung’s argument, a study of 194 teams in three regions of China suggests the positive role of collectivist values on conflict (Tjosvold, Law, & Sun, 2003). Teams that had developed collectivist rather than individualistic values were found to have cooperative goals. The analysis also indicated that these cooperative goals helped the teams discuss their opposing views openly and constructively, which in turn resulted in strong relationships and productivity as rated by their managers.

Social face concerns, when expressed by confirming the face of protagonists, can promote cooperative conflict (Tjosvold, Hui, & Sun, 2000; Tjosvold & Sun, 2001). Emphasizing their cooperative goals, protagonists demonstrated more curiosity-they explored the opposing views and were interested in hearing more of the other’s arguments. Confirm protagonists were prepared to pressure the other and, when they disagreed, experienced more collaborative influence. They also indicated that they learned through the discussion, considered the opposing views useful, and worked to integrate and accept them. A field study indicated that confirmation helped Chinese people discuss their frustrations cooperatively and productively.

Chinese people have been expected to avoid conflict because they assume conflict requires coercion and they prefer persuasion. However, conflict can give rise to either. Persuasive influence was found to result in feelings of respect, cooperative relationships, and openness to the other person and position (Tjosvold & Sun, 2001). Persuasion, when compared to coercion, helped discussants seek mutual benefit, open-mindedly listen to each other, integrate their reasoning, and strengthen their relationship.

Chinese culture has been characterized as a high-context society where implicit communication is influential (Gudykunst, Ting-Toomey, & Chua, 1988). Conflict is thought to be avoided because open conflict communicates interpersonal hostility. However, nonverbal communication can help develop a cooperative context for conflict discussion. Expressing warmth compared to coldness developed a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship with the opposing discussant (Tjosvold & Sun, 2003). Protagonists who experienced warmth incorporated the opposing view and reasoning into their decision and thinking, and were confident they could work with the other in the future. Employees in Hong Kong were even able to use expressed anger to manage conflict when the issues were discussed open-mindedly and cooperatively (Tjosvold, 2002).

The proclivity to have collectivist values, show face, use persuasive influence attempts, and communicate interpersonal warmth in Chinese culture have been found to facilitate a cooperative, open-minded, and productive discussion of opposing views.


Our studies indicate that learning how to resolve conflicts constructively is essential for individuals to operate effectively in the emerging market economy of China. They need cooperative conflict skills so they can contribute significantly to the successful teamwork needed for their organizations to improve product and service quality. In training students for the Chinese economy, a number of schools and universities in Hong Kong and China are teaching the competencies needed to manage conflicts in task forces and self-managing teams.

Educators are turning to the research being conducted in Hong Kong and China on cooperative conflict for guidance in how Chinese students can strengthen their conflict competencies (Tjosvold, 1993; Tjosvold & Ding, 2001). On the basis of this research, faculty in a number of Chinese schools and universities are training students to (a) express their ideas, positions, and feelings directly without accusations; (b) seek out the information and reasoning of others before defending their own views; (c) view the problem from other perspectives; (d) work to resolve the conflict so everyone benefits, not just themselves; and (e) combine the best ideas from all sources to create new solutions.

Chinese educators can confidently use cooperative conflict as a basis for training their students and preparing them to participate in the rapidly changing Chinese society. Considerable experimental research, as well as studies conducted in various organizations, indicates that Chinese people can manage conflicts openly, and can make these conflicts productive, especially when they have underlying cooperative goals. In addition, studies conducted in Chinese classrooms provide direct evidence that cooperative conflict training should be valuable as well as appropriate for students (Chen & Tjosvold, 2002b; Tjosvold, Wong, Nibler, & Pounder, 2002).

In addition to learning how to resolve conflicts constructively, students are being trained to strengthen cooperative efforts by taking responsibility for completing challenging tasks as a group and developing group bonuses and team recognition for success (Johnson & Johnson, this issue; Tjosvold & Tjosvold, 1995). They realize that their goal is to help each other learn, not try to win or outdo each other. Together they develop shared goals, integrated roles, common tasks, team identity, and personal relationships that reinforce cooperative goals and learning.

Educators, however, are seeking procedures and skills that are compatible with Chinese culture. Confucius (1979) emphasized intellectual honesty coupled with respectful, humane treatment of others. He believed that every person is engaged in a lifelong striving to improve (known as ren) and, therefore, should be open and ready to learn from anyone, even an opponent. He advised listening attentively and responding only after one understands others. He was fond of saying that if a person is in a group of three, one of the other members knows something that person does not. Thus, acknowledging a conflict, seeking to learn from one’s opponent, and striving to resolve the conflict in a way that creates respect and benefit for all parties can be compatible with Chinese culture. As collectivists, Chinese people want strong relationships, but these must be maintained through conflict management. Cooperative conflict is a way they can develop genuine harmony by resolving interpersonal frustrations and differences directly and effectively. Proponents of constructive conflict resolution in the West may have much to learn from Chinese approaches to doing so.


The authors wish to thank David W. Johnson for his very helpful advice. They also appreciate the Hong Kong University Grants Council for its support of this paper, Grant Project No: TDG199/LC-3.


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Dean Tjosvold is Chair Professor of Management, Lingnan University, Hong Kong; Sofia Su Fang is an associate professor in the finance school, Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.

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