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The Role of Upbringing, Culture and Instincts in Conflict Management

Different Views of Conflict

Everyone has a slightly different view on conflict. Some people believe conflict should be avoided at all costs, while others relish conflict and do everything they can to foster it. Most people’s view lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

Two forces govern a person’s attitude to conflict: upbringing and national culture. These two forces are explored over the coming paragraphs.


As you experience conflict throughout your life, you may moderate and perhaps control your instinctive childhood responses. But the power of instinct should not be underestimated. At times of stress, most people will still react without thinking. This is when your ingrained responses will emerge most powerfully.

Experiences before the age of seven are particularly influential on attitudes later in life. People experience a huge range of conflict in childhood, from disagreements about television to acrimonious divorce. Young children soak all this up, and this may have profound impacts on how they deal with conflict as adults.

For example, a man who as a child witnessed his parents constantly argue before they eventually divorced, may now, in adult life, want to avoid all types of conflict because he feels it always results in unhappiness.

On the other hand, a man who grew up with several feisty brothers may have become accustomed to intense competition and so, as an adult, may be quite eager to engage in conflict.

National culture

Researcher Geert Hofstede investigated the way that national culture influences behavior. One aspect of his analysis, which is relevant to conflict in the workplace, is the extent to which cultures are collectivist or individualistic.

  • Collectivism — these are cultures in which the interests of the group prevail over the interests of the individual. These cultures believe that harmony should always be maintained, and direct confrontations should always be avoided. The word no is seldom used, because it is confrontational. Instead, they say: You may be right.
  • Individualism — in these cultures, speaking your mind is a virtue. People believe that a clash of opinions leads to a higher truth. Telling the truth, even if it hurts other people, is considered to be the right thing to do.

According to Hofstede, the US epitomizes the individualistic type of culture, and Far East countries are examples of collectivist cultures.

If you want to be effective in handling conflict, then you have to be able to move beyond your instinctive responses. That means you need to pinpoint where they come from — your childhood or your national culture — and establish how powerful a factor they are.