Leadership and Conflict Management in Small and Medium Enterprises in China

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Abstract

The purpose of this research study was to investigate leadership and conflict management solutions implemented by small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in China. The narrative review method was used to analyse the findings of 30 research articles that were obtained from three databases: International Labour Review Journal, Journal of Management, and Business & Society. These sources of data provided select peer-reviewed journal articles that were examined for their ability to address the research issue. Three main themes emerged from the assessment: culture, work-life balance, leadership and management. Leadership and management was the most dominant theme because several authors mentioned them in their reviews more than the other two themes highlighted. This outcome highlighted the importance of understanding the context of implementing conflict resolution mechanisms as a framework for executing dispute-management solutions because what works in one location may fail to succeed in another setting. Therefore, the Chinese context of assessing the research variables in the present study was instrumental in defining the kind of conflict management solutions to be adopted. The findings of this study will be instrumental in expanding the body of knowledge regarding leadership and conflict management in non-western countries. It should also inform policy solutions to perennials issues creating conflict in the workplace.

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Introduction

Background

In the past three decades, China has emerged from the ruins of communism to be a formidable powerhouse in the global economy. It now accounts for most of the world’s manufacturing capabilities as many multinational companies set up their manufacturing bases in the Asian country because of its low cost of labour and high productivity (Wu and Parkvithee, 2017; Zhang et al., 2016). At the same time, China’s economic growth and rising middle-class population mean that there are endless opportunities for investments in different economic sectors.

Having enjoyed a decade of rapid economic growth, China has reported improved standards of living for its workers and population. However, growing inconsistencies regarding the economic performance of the populous nation relative to others in Asia have caused a decline in returns on investment for institutional and private investors who have interests in the economy (Wong et al., 2017). Uncertainties in the global economy and concerns about the future of foreign investments in a country largely characterised by intense government scrutiny have further exacerbated the problem. The ongoing trade wars between the United States (US) and China have also complicated matters because investors are unsure of the kind of impact that these disputes would have on their businesses in the short and long term.

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in China have been hardest hit by the above-mentioned economic uncertainties because they are more vulnerable to economic shocks than larger corporations or multinationals are. However, SMEs still account for a majority of the economic activity in China and still take a leadership position in employing the highest number of people in the country (Hou and Li, 2019; Kazlauskaitė et al., 2015; Manzoor et al., 2019). Similarly, Chinese SMEs are largely responsible for most of the innovation witnessed in the country’s economy that has propelled the nation into taking a dominant position in global commerce (Deng and Zhang, 2018; Shapiro et al., 2015; Tajasom et al., 2015; Tang, Tang and Cowden, 2017). The contribution of Chinese SMEs to the economic sustainability of the country means that their managers should run these firms smoothly to protect the wellbeing of the Chinese people. However, like most organisations, SMEs are still learning to adopt appropriate human resource management policies to maintain harmony among workers with mixed results. Relative to this assertion, some organisations have made more strides than others by identifying conflict management resolutions that work for them. Those that have been unsuccessful have blamed different issues for this outcome.

Research suggests that interpersonal problems manifest within different cadres of an organisation in varied ways (Lewicki, Barry and Saunders, 2016). At an interpersonal level, they may lead to conflicts among employees, a higher incidence of error reporting in an organisation and a diminished ability of managers to address internal and external issues affecting a business (Caputo and Zarone, 2019). Underproduction and the promotion of uncertainties are also common problems associated with interpersonal conflicts in the workplace (Chin and Liu, 2015; Einarsen et al., 2018). In this regard, it is imperative to know which conflict resolution mechanisms work for SMEs.

In this study, the conflict management strategies adopted by Chinese SMEs will be evaluated to understand how they could be improved to enhance organisational efficiency. The main research objective that will guide this review is to examine extant literature to identify the main types of conflict resolution approaches adopted by Chinese SMEs and the role of leadership in minimising their occurrence. This objective is premised on the works of several researchers, such as Mohiuddin (2017), Rawat (2015), Zou et al. (2016), Khan et al. (2015), Karadakal, Goud and Thomas (2015), who highlight the need to focus on conflict resolution and leadership as means to achieve organisational goals.

Research Aim and Objectives

In line with the above statement, the main research question that will be explored in this study is “What are the leadership styles that contribute to conflict management in the context of Chinese SMEs?” When formulating this research question, the role of leadership in addressing interpersonal conflict will be explored based on the works of Derecskei (2016) and Ng, Kee and Ramayah (2016), who emphasised the need for investigating its role in creating organisational harmony. The implication of this research question on this study is to find out possible ways of managing team conflict through a review of ways to improve interpersonal relationships, minimise team disputes and eliminate incidences of task conflicts.

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Importance of Study

The findings of this study will be instrumental in promoting synergy in the Chinese SME sector because conflicts create divisions within teams. Therefore, by examining dispute management solutions adopted in China, managers in this sector would be better able to build productive teams and reorganise their organisational processes to exploit advantages that may exist if they enhance their synergies in the workplace. This outcome could improve the competitiveness of the sector compared to giant multinationals that have more resources in accessing the best leadership and conflict management solutions. By extension, doing so would enhance the attractiveness of the SME sector to investors and contribute to cementing its role as a formidable industry responsible for creating employment millions of employment opportunities for Chinese workers.

Literature Review

Introduction

Three key themes were developed from this study, and they included management practices, culture and work-life balance. The theme of management practices refers to the context of implementing conflict resolution mechanisms in the workplace. Its scope of analysis includes, but is not limited to, flexibility in formulating workplace schedules, the role of gender differences in defining management roles, conflict-resolution mechanisms for promoting team cohesion and improving the quality of stakeholder relationships. The culture was the second theme that emerged in the investigation. It encompassed different aspects of social interactions, such as gender-based relationships, the role of national cultures in influencing societal expectations, institutional norms governing conflict-management practices and all aspects of consumer behaviour affecting dispute resolution in the workplace. The last theme investigated in this chapter was work-life balance. It emerged in several studies that mentioned the need to balance work and personal obligations as a tool for fostering peace and harmony in the workplace. These themes are further interrogated in subsequent sections of this paper.

Work-Life balance

The need to strike a perfect work-life balance emerged as the core area of study from this investigation. It refers to the importance of employees balancing their personal and workplace needs by having their work and personal obligations met at the same time. It is believed that in the absence of this balance, conflicts are likely to simmer in the workplace because employees would be largely discontented with their work (Wong et al., 2017). Low levels of job satisfaction, high levels of employee absenteeism and overreaction to conflicts are some common outcomes associated with this theme as well (Lewicki, Barry and Saunders, 2016). Table 1 below summarises the research articles that explored this theme.

Table 1. Work-Life Balance

No. Journal/ Source Author Year Focus/ Aims Methods Country Key Findings (relevant to my project) Theme
1. Munkejord (2017) To find out the lived experiences of migrant workers regarding work-life balance and how it enables them to work productively. Qualitative Norway Gender relations play a pivotal role in improving work-life balance, hence promoting cohesion and understanding in the workplace. These findings mean that a work-life balance should be promoted as a tool for promoting cohesion among employees in the workplace Work-Life balance
2. Lyonette and Crompton (2015) To find out the extent to which gender pay imbalance and sharing of household duties contribute to employee dissatisfaction and workplace conflict. Qualitative United Kingdom It is important to consider the role of pay differences and gender-based duties when solving disputes between men and women, as both are affected by the same factors in different ways Work-Life Balance
3. Hughes, Dobbins and Murphy (2019) To understand the experience of workers at the front line of control in London’s Railway sector. Qualitative United Kingdom There needs to be a perfect balance between managerial control and worker autonomy to enable both parties to co-exist harmoniously. Work-Life Balance

Culture

The culture was the second theme that emerged in this study. It referred to the subjective aspects of interpersonal relationships that influenced how people co-existed with one another and developed social bonds. Most of the research articles that mentioned this aspect of human interaction in their reviews did so by highlighting it as a moderating variable for people’s perception of conflict management. Nonetheless, culture is a broad concept that underlies different norms, values, beliefs and sets of norms that influence employee actions. In this regard, it not only influences how people react to their reflective impulses during the conflict but also determines the impact of such management issues on workplace performance.

Research studies that focused on this theme of investigation highlighted culture as a new line of research that needs to be explored, especially in the context of moderating workplace relationships in a multicultural setting. Relative to this discussion, most of the articles linked to this theme focused on varying cultural differences among employees from different nationalities as a source of conflict in the workplace. However, it has been established that these conflicts are easy to manage if the workplace environment respects people’s diversity (Breslin and Wood 2016). Gender differences between male and female employees were specially mentioned in this area of analysis as a key sub-theme of the investigation. It alluded to the presence of gender biases in workplace relationships that influenced how male and female managers performed their tasks. Table 2 below summarises broader research articles that mentioned this theme of study.

Table 2. Culture Theme 

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No. Journal/ Source Author Year Focus/ Aims Methods Country Key Findings (relevant to my project) Theme
1. Journal of Management Gooderham et al. (2018) To understand the influence of culture on labour relations using the individual-for-pay performance as a metric for measuring success Quantitative Twenty countries were covered across North America, Europe and Asia. Cultural and institutional factors have a significant impact on the nature of workplace relationships. Culture
2. Kok, de Bakker and Groenewegen (2019) To investigate why there is a high level of tension and conflict when developing sustainability policies. Mixed Methods Netherlands There is an interplay between subcultures and institutional policies when determining the best kind of strategies to manage conflicts Culture
3. Elamer, Ntim and Abdou (2020) To examine the role of religious factors in addressing workplace conflicts Quantitative The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region: Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and UAE. Religion plays a moderating role in shaping how conflicts are addressed in the workplace context Culture
4. Loy and Rupertus (2020) To investigate the perception of investors regarding female-led companies Quantitative Australia, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States Gender does not play a big role in shaping how organisations are managed, or conflicts are addressed Culture
5. International Labour Review Journal Dulleck, Fooken and He 2020 To understand the impact that discrimination has in impacting management’s willingness to resolve conflicts. Mixed Methods China Discrimination between migrant and immigrant workers exists, and they are a major source of conflict. Culture
6. International Labour Review Journal Cech and Rothwell 2020 To understand the impact that social and economic differences have on employee treatment. Quantitative United States People’s social and economic differences play into their understanding of workplace conflicts. Culture
7. International Labour Review Journal Weichselbaumer 2020 To investigate the impact of religion on workplace behaviours and interpersonal relationships. Qualitative Germany Ethnicity and religion play integral roles in affecting management s’ actions towards employees and overall team performance. Culture
8. International Labour Review Journal Li 2020 To understand the impact that the labour reform movement has had on China’s labour practices. Quantitative China There is a movement countering hegemony in China, which implies that new labour management practices are likely to be formed independently of traditional cultural confines. Culture
9. International Labour Review Journal Bossler Mosthaf and Schank 2020 To investigate the role of gender biasness in management and hiring practices. Quantitative Germany Gender biases in management often spill over to influencing an organisation’s recruitment policies because each gender tends to favour one another. Culture

Leadership and Management Practices

The last theme that emerged in this literature review related to management practices adopted by different firms in preventing or abating conflict. This theme was supported by the highest number of research articles (12), meaning that it was the most commonly discussed issue in the wider body of works of literature sampled. The concept of management practice is broadly designed because it refers to most aspects of managerial competence, such as scheduling of employee tasks, the definition of reporting procedures, workplace remuneration procedures and the formulation of conflict-resolution tools in operations management. This theme draws attention to the need to address conflict management solutions using a top-down management structure where most decisions of the organisation are made by the company’s board and disseminated to lower-cadre employees without involving them in the decision-making process. Research articles that analysed this theme are highlighted in table 3 below.

Table 3. Leadership and Management Practices 

No. Journal/ Source Author Year Focus/ Aims Methods Country Key Findings (relevant to my project) Theme
1. Journal of Management Uzunca (2018) To find out how firms learn through buyer relationships. Qualitative Turkey Non-spinoff suppliers never truly develop the same relationship as spin-off suppliers, meaning that partners who have been in long-term business relationships benefit from fewer conflicts than those who have been there for shorter periods. Leadership and Management Practices
2. Journal of Management Walsh et al. (2019) To find out if employees engaged in workplace ostracism as protection against lack of supervisors support. Quantitative United States Workplace ostracism is one way through which employees reprimand their supervisors to offer them support. Therefore, supervisory support is crucial in reducing the incidence of conflicts in organisations. Leadership and Management Practices
3. Journal of Management König, Graf-Vlachy and Schöberl (2020) To extend the application of Gilbert’s qualitative study to opportunity or threat perception of how employees maintain their routine in the organisation. Qualitative Germany There are inconsistencies in the application of Gilbert’s quantitative study to the study settings. This means that conflict resolution mechanisms adopted in one context may fail to work in another. Leadership and Management Practices
4. Journal of Management Sajko, Boone and Buyl (2020) To understand how the decisions of top executives affect interpersonal relationships among other stakeholders in an organisation. Quantitative United States of America Greedy Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) often exhibit myopic behaviours, which increase conflict among stakeholders in the organisation. This statement implies that leadership is an important tenet of interpersonal conflict management. Leadership and Management Practices
5. Journal of Management Lioukas and Reuer (2020) To understand the role of governance structure in improving stakeholder relations in a firm. Quantitative The United States and Europe It is important to have an appropriate governance structure to guide employee interactions and minimise incidences of conflict. Leadership and Management Practices
6. Journal of Management Hunter, Clark and Carlson (2019) To understand how human resource practice contributes toward the adoption of exploratory and exploitative practices and how the same quality nurtures a culture of exploitation in the workplace. Mixed Methods Taiwan Self-efficacy and intrinsic motivations play a significant role in dictating how employees engage in exploitative activities in the workplace and how such relationships influence conflict management. Leadership and Management practices
7. Journal of Management Lee et al. (2019) To understand the impact that social support has on the development of workplace relationships. Mixed Methods The United Kingdom and India The exchange between leaders and their subjects is predictive of the incidences of conflict that would occur in an organisation. Leadership and Management Practices
8. Journal of Management Lewis et al. (2017) To understand the motives of employers in addressing employee issues using economic concerns on one hand and other interests, on the other hand, as the main benchmarked level of evaluation. Qualitative United Kingdom There is more interest in protecting economic as opposed to institutional interests during problem-solving Leadership and Management Practices
9. Journal of Management Graafland and Smid (2019) Find out the impact of conflict-resolution programs at different levels of organisational development Mixed Methods 23 countries in Europe The quality of conflict-resolution programs has a moderating effect on how successful they will be Leadership and Management Practices
10. Journal of Management Miklian and Medina (2020) To understand the effectiveness of peace efforts aimed at reducing organisational conflicts. Qualitative Columbia Collaborative efforts are the most effective in building sustainable peace initiatives. Therefore, the interests of all stakeholders should be factored in when developing conflict resolution directives. Leadership and Management Practices
11. Journal of Management Breslin and Wood (2016) To understand the effects rule-breaking and setting of informal laws would have on employee behaviour Qualitative United Kingdom Informal rules often tend to overshadow any existing formal laws regarding interpersonal relationships. This statement implies that interpersonal conflict thrives in an informal setting. Leadership and Management Practices
12. International Labour Review Journal Comi, S. et al. 2020 To investigate the impact that gender difference son management has on firm performance. Quantitative France, Italy, and Spain Gender quotas have a significant or negative impact on organisational performance and its ability to address conflicts. Leadership and Management Practices
13. International Labour Review Journal Kochan, T. A. et al. 2019 To investigate whether the decline of unionisation in the past four decades has led to a decline in the voice of workers in the management of organisational affairs. Quantitative The United States Employees believe they have a voice in the determination of workplace issues, but their input is often always undermined by the difference between their expectations and the reality of what to expect during conflict situations. Leadership and Management Practices
14. International Labour Review Journal Pike 2020 To understand whether the standards set by the international labour organisation have improved labour management practices. Qualitative Lesotho The voice of the employee is critical in the long-term sustainability of progressive workplace policies Leadership and Management Practices
15. International Labour Review Journal Van Gramberg et al. 2020 To understand the impact that novel intentions, such as employees’ voice and willingness to quit, impact their ability to overcome conflicts. Quantitative Australia Novel intentions play a moderating value in understanding people’s intentions to quit after conflict. Therefore, the interests of all stakeholders should be factored in when developing solutions. Leadership and Management practices
16. International Labour Review Journal Shevchuk, Strebkov and Davis 2019 To understand the impact that non-standardised work schedules have on employee performance and wellbeing. Quantitative Russia Flexible workplace schedules may seem beneficial to employees in the short term but have a potentially negative impact on their wellbeing in the long term. Leadership and Management Practices

Summary

The findings of this narrative review show that three main themes underlined the research issue: management practice, culture and work-life balance. Management practice was the most dominant in the study because most scholars referred to it when discussing conflict management practices in the workplace. This statement means it is an important tool for addressing interpersonal issues in the workplace. The second most dominant theme highlighted in this paper was “culture.” It was mainly presented as a subjective issue affecting how employees related to one another or responded to management policies. Its role in this analysis is visible from the national lens through which this investigation was designed because its focus was on Chinese SMEs. Therefore, it could be deduced that the country’s national culture would have a significant impact on the conflict management styles adopted in the nation. The last theme that emerged from the review was work-life balance. It referred to how well employees addressed varied personal and work-related stresses to remain productive at work and home. This theme was analysed by scholars who chose to review it from the perspective of male and female relationships and the conflicts that may emerge from their interactions in the workplace. Albeit discussed by few researchers, the theme of work-life balance drew attention to the need to analyse conflict management from a preventive perspective where such tiffs are avoided as opposed to confronting.

Methodology

Introduction

This chapter highlights the models, systems and procedures used by the researcher to come up with the findings. Key aspects of the methodology that will be mentioned in this section of the report include the research philosophy, research approach, research design, data collection technique, data analysis and ethical implications of the study.

Research Philosophy

Researchers often share a common set of beliefs regarding how data should be gathered, analysed or used. These beliefs are captured by a research philosophy that should define the spirit of undertaking the evaluation. According to Anderson, Fontinha and Robson (2019), four main types of research philosophies are used in academic research. They include positivism, realism, interpretivism and pragmatism. The positivism research philosophy is based on the belief that scientific outcomes can be analysed and interpreted objectively (Anderson, Fontinha and Robson, 2019). Researchers who use this reasoning in their studies often disassociate their subjective opinions from the research outcomes when interrogating pieces of evidence (Anderson, Fontinha and Robson, 2019). Comparatively, the interpretive research approach adopts a contrary view of scientific research by suggesting that its outcomes cannot be interpreted in one way only (Packard, 2017). Instead, it supports the adoption of a subjective assessment of research variables based on the belief that one issue could be reviewed from multiple perspectives. Unlike the interpretive research philosophy, which relies on subjective reasoning, realism is based on the independence of reality from the perception of the human mind. This philosophy is based on the understanding that human senses can get in the way of obtaining objective findings.

Lastly, the pragmatic research design disassociates itself from the argument between truth and reality and instead supports the use of scientific methods based on “what works.” Nonetheless, regardless of the characteristics of these research philosophies, their application depends on their fit in answering a set of research questions. Bryman and Bell (2019) support this statement by saying the selection criterion for choosing the appropriate type of research philosophy to use in a study should be premised on a rational view of undertaking a succinct research process as the main basis of evaluation. Relative to this statement, the interpretive research philosophy will be used as the main ideological basis for undertaking this study because subjectivity is central to the development of the research findings. In other words, conflict management is largely an interpersonal issue and subjective to people’s views (Ebner and Parlamis, 2017). The interpretive philosophy provides the mechanisms used for interpreting these views and explaining their importance in solving future conflicts.

Research Approach

Two main types of research approaches are used in literature review assessments: narrative and systematic reviews. The systematic review method is often employed in research studies that require an in-depth and critical review of the study topic (Cassell, Cunliffe and Grandy, 2018). Comparatively, the narrative review method highlights general debates regarding a study issue (Sheshi and Kërçini, 2017; Prause and Mujtaba, 2015). The current research used the narrative review method because the researcher wanted to explore the broader issues relating to dispute management solutions in the Chinese SME sector. Since it was difficult to ascertain relevant assumptions in this style of investigation, it was impractical to use the systematic review method because it has such a requirement (Creswell and Creswell, 2018). Therefore, the narrative review method was appropriate for the investigation because of its exploratory nature and flexibility.

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Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill (2019) support the above assertion by saying that the narrative review technique should be adopted in research investigations of an exploratory nature. Conversely, this statement means that using the systematic review method in this research study could have limited the scope of investigations for a research topic that could be addressed from multiple perspectives. The narrative review method helped to overcome these limitations, thereby expanding the scope of analysis that the researcher adopted. Overall, the fit of the narrative review method to the topic under investigation justified its use in the study. Overall, the technique was used in the present study as the main research approach because it is rooted in the exploratory nature of the topic – conflict management. Indeed, interpersonal conflict is a broad subject that may contain aspects of both qualitative and quantitative reasoning. For example, cultural values that influence interpersonal relationships are a subjective issue, but the number of men and women sitting on a management board is a quantitative matter.

Research Design

Similar to the research approaches discussed in section 3.3 above, research designs used by academicians are also dependent on the nature of the research issue under investigation. As highlighted above, the mixed methods research approach was used as the main research approach for this study because it enabled the researcher to overcome the limitations of using only one approach (either qualitative or quantitative). According to Creswell and Creswell (2018), there are six main types of research designs associated with the mixed-method approach. They include the sequential explanatory, sequential exploratory, sequential transformative, concurrent triangulation, concurrent nested and concurrent transformative designs.

The main differentiating factor for these research designs is the sequence of data collection, whereby some designs prefer the collection of qualitative before quantitative data, while others prefer the collection of quantitative data before qualitative information. However, in the sequential transformative design, there is no prioritisation of the type of data to be collected. Instead, both qualitative and quantitative information could be obtained at the same time, regardless of the order of sequence, and the results integrated into the data analysis section (Creswell and Creswell, 2018). Based on these competencies, the sequential transformative design was selected for this study because of the exploratory nature of the research topic. In other words, it was difficult for the researcher to prioritise the collection of one type of data over another because there was no basis to do so. Furthermore, the investigation was exploratory in the sense that it builds on the findings of other studies. Therefore, it was prudent to adopt an open-ended research design that had no biases regarding the collection of either qualitative or quantitative data.

Data Collection

This research study was a narrative review of existing works of literature that have addressed leadership and conflict management in Chinese SMEs. Therefore, the entire study was a secondary analysis predicated on a comparison and analysis of the broader views of researchers in the field (Miles, Huberman and Saldana, 2013). Secondary research is often associated with several benefits linked to the research process. For example, it is regarded as a timesaving method of data collection because a researcher is not required to make field trip visits to obtain data (Creswell and Creswell, 2018). Instead, an investigator can gain access to a wealth of information by simply accessing a reputable online database or borrowing articles from a library. It is also a cost-effective way of obtaining information regarding a research issue because few expenses are associated with the data collection method (Cassell, Cunliffe and Grandy, 2018). Comparatively, the assortment of primary research data can demand intense resources from the researcher. For example, the costs associated with setting up actual meetings with respondents and printing questionnaires that would be distributed to many people are all borne by the researcher. Secondary research avoids the hassle of going through these processes. From this reasoning, the secondary research framework was employed as the main data collection technique because it enabled the researcher to understand the main issues linked to the topic. Its broad findings would also provide a basis for undertaking future primary investigations on the subject. Therefore, it is a precursor to the design of future studies that will use primary data.

As mentioned in this chapter, the literature review process was undertaken using a narrative approach. Its use in this investigation was justified because it allows researchers to investigate the descriptive aspects of a research topic to gain insight into the main findings. Stated differently, the researcher implemented the technique to understand broader issues regarding leadership and conflict management styles adopted by Chinese SMEs. Consequently, the narrative method enabled the researcher to highlight the main issues influencing conflict management among these enterprises and explain their linkages with the efficacies of existing solutions for addressing them. This way, it was possible to have a holistic outlook of the research issue by using the descriptive tool. Overall, the narrative review technique was adopted as the main data collection method for this study because of the exploratory nature of the investigation.

Data were obtained from three databases: International Labour Review Journal, Journal of Management, and Business & Society. These databases were selected because they focused on labour (International Labour Review Journal), management (Journal of Management) and the business environment (Business & Society). Stated differently, the secondary research process involved the identification and review of select studies from the three databases. This broad-based selection was informed by the need to evaluate the research topic from multiple perspectives. For example, the Journal of Management was used to obtain research articles that focused on the “managerial” aspect of conflict management. Comparatively, the International Labour Review (ILR) Journal was used to obtain research articles that focused on human resource practices associated with conflict management. Lastly, the Business and Society journal was added to the database as a source of research articles that focused on the subjective aspects of conflict management, such as institutional culture.

Collectively, the above-mentioned databases generated 567 articles from the initial search. The number of articles sampled was reduced to 129 after a majority of them were excluded from the review because they did not meet the publication date criterion (2015-2020). In other words, the articles had to have been published within the past five years for them to be included in the review. The number of peer-reviewed articles sampled for analysis was further scaled down to 56 after some of the articles were excluded from the database because they lacked an empirical basis for advancing their findings. Lastly, a select group of 30 articles was obtained for the final review after manually evaluating their findings to identify materials that were most relevant to the present discussions. The selected articles are summarised and evaluated in section 2.0 of this paper.

Data Analysis

Data were analysed using thematic and coding techniques. As its name suggests, the method requires researchers to categorise data according to different themes. These themes typically represent a research objective or issue under assessment. To simplify the data computation process, researchers often attach a “code” to a unique theme and peg the findings of each article to these codes. Articles with similar numbers are pooled together to form one theme of study (Silverman, 2015). This thematic and coding method was implemented as the main data analysis method by following six key steps, which included familiarisation with data, assigning data to unique codes, generating themes, reviewing the themes based on how well they addressed the overall research question, defining and naming the themes and finally writing up the data. Albeit the mixed methods research approach was adopted as the main research approach, the thematic and coding method is commonly associated with qualitative reasoning. (Silverman, 2015). This means that the mixed data that were collected from the investigation were interpreted qualitatively.

Ethical Implications of the Study

Considering human subjects were not included in the data collection process, the ethical implications of the study were mainly focused on the proper presentation of the views of other researchers whose findings were used to develop this study. In this regard, all information used in this investigation was properly cited, and credit was given to the respective authors. All the research materials used in the investigation were also obtained with the consent of the authors. This means that all the articles reviewed in this article were freely available online for review. Consequently, articles that required the permission of the author to be used were excluded from the review.

Summary

Overall, the techniques used to answer the research question have been highlighted in this chapter. The interpretive research philosophy emerged as the guiding framework for the implementation of all other aspects of the investigation. The research design and data collection techniques are also products of this strategic approach, which was used by the researcher to integrate aspects of both qualitative and quantitative reasoning in the analysis. The data review part was the last section of the research process, and it was based on the use of the thematic and coding methods as the main data analysis frameworks. The implementation of these techniques led to the emergence of key themes mentioned in section 2.0 and analysed in the next section.

Findings/ Analysis/ Discussion

Introduction

As highlighted in the literature review section of this report, three key themes emerged from the overall analysis of the research articles. They included management practice, culture and work-life balance. In this chapter of the study, these themes are evaluated based on how well they addressed the research aim, which was to explore the main leadership styles that are used in conflict management within Chinese SMEs.

Findings

While it is important to acknowledge the findings highlighted in this report as being insightful to the minimisation of workplace disputes, it is also equally vital to acknowledge the lack of sufficient research papers that have focused on exploring leadership and management approaches from a Chinese perspective. Relative to this statement, independent research findings have shown that Chinese firms tend to adopt a collaborative conflict resolution mechanism that seeks to balance the views of different stakeholders when developing a consensus (Zhang et al., 2016). The need to cater to the interests of all stakeholder groups was highlighted by several researchers from the literature review section of this study, including Van Gramberg et al. (2020) and Shevchuk, Strebkov and Davis (2019), who explained its relevance in formulating effective policy proposals for boosting team performance.

The above-mentioned findings suggest that collaborative forms of conflict resolution mechanisms are most commonly used in China to solve arguments. This statement answers the main research question investigated in this study, which was to identify leadership and conflict management practices in Chinese SMEs. Studies show that managers who adopt this type of leadership style take time to build relationships with their juniors (Zhang et al., 2016; Van Gramberg et al., 2020). They also handle social disharmony constructively and believe in the need to share control when looking for solutions to address conflicts in the workplace. Nonetheless, the context of implementing leadership and management practices plays a pivotal role in determining the kind of conflict management strategies to use.

Leadership and management practices emerged as a core theme in this study because of the need to have effective management control in conflict situations. The effectiveness of conflict management solutions also emerged as another key attribute of interpersonal relationships affecting how well employees co-exist with one another. This area of analysis should be regarded as a new frontier in research because past studies solely focused on assigning intervention strategies without making a follow-up to know the impact of the programs (Ng, Kee and Ramayah, 2016). From this background, the context of implementing conflict resolution mechanisms emerged as a core concept in this review.

The theme of work-life balance as a strategy to avoid conflicts in the organisation did not emerge as a surprise in this analysis because its shares a close relationship with Chinese Confucian principles of finding nature’s balance. This belief is widely shared in China and influences most aspects of the people’s economic, social and political lives (Li, 2020). Therefore, its adoption in the workplace setting is consistent with the sociocultural nature of Chinese society. Furthermore, the theme of work-life balance shares close similarities with that of culture because they both appeal to the nuances of employee behaviours, which are predicated on people’s social norms and beliefs. This theme is largely consistent with the views of several research articles, which explored the role of religion and spirituality in influencing employee behaviour, and understanding how they solve conflict or interact with one another (Elamer, Ntim and Abdou, 2020; Weichselbaumer, 2020). The evidence points to the powerful role of religion in shaping people’s beliefs and practices. In fact, the religious conviction that some employees have regarding their work and personal obligations to other people has forced some managers to suppress attempts by some employees to impose their religious beliefs on others. Stated differently, most managers strive to be “religion-neutral.”

Discussions

This section of the paper explains how the aforementioned findings related to the themes identified from the narrative review. They include leadership, culture and work-life balance.

Leadership and Management Practice

The findings of this study showed that the framework for implementing management decisions and leadership styles was of paramount concern when designing conflict-management solutions because they affect their success in a multicultural work environment. Particularly, the theme of leadership and management highlighted explains the importance of understanding the context of implementation as a precursor to the execution of conflict management strategies.

Culture

The role of culture in addressing interpersonal conflict in the organisation comes from the premise that workers hail from different backgrounds and have unique differences that may foster or impede their ability to interact with others and form social bonds. In an organisational context, these differences may be a potential source of conflict in the organisation. Particularly, this statement is true in the present global business environment where employees are interacting with people from different parts of the world. The trend has been spearheaded by multinational companies, which often have a culturally diverse employee workforce that appeals to multiple customer segments (Santistevan and Josserand, 2019; Dulleck, Fooken and He, 2020). The role of culture in shaping human resource practices and outcomes suggests that conflict management solutions adopted in China must also have a cultural context of implementation.

The above-mentioned pieces of information are important to policymakers and managers who may be pondering new ways of improving interpersonal relationships because they can use culture as an overriding implementation tool for supporting their interventions. This statement is consistent with the findings of the literature review section of this study, which showed that policy proposals should ride on the “cultural wave” as opposed to objecting to it (Dulleck, Fooken and He, 2020). Therefore, the timing of implementing conflict management resolutions and the cultural context of execution should play an important role in formulating effective leadership or conflict management solutions.

Work-Life Balance

Overall, in the context of this discussion, the need for work-life balance should not be regarded as a conflict management tool but rather an aspirational concept that should be attained by all employees to minimise the incidences of conflict in the workplace. This theme has been highlighted in several human resource journals sampled in this document as being the solution to the most pressing workplace problems affecting modern employees. Tight schedules, limited time for completing tasks and the lack of adequate time to spend alone or with friends are potential causes of conflict in the organisation. Striking a careful work-life balance helps employees to avoid most of these problems and, consequently, live a risk-free life.

Summary

The themes of leadership and management, work-life balance and culture emerged as key attributes of conflict resolution strategies that need to be reviewed before further progress can be made in addressing conflicts within the SME sector. The use of successful conflict management solutions depends on the context of application and the nature of the employees concerned. In this chapter, it is suggested that China is more accepting of a collaborative leadership style than its western counterparts because of the citizens’ religious beliefs, attitudes and practices that further support the same belief. This is why it is important to pay attention to the context-specific nature of conflict management solutions relevant to Chinese SMEs.

Conclusion

From the onset of this study, the goal of the investigation was to evaluate leadership and conflict management strategies for Chinese SMEs. Due to the expansive scope of this investigation, secondary research was undertaken as the main data collection method. Thirty peer-reviewed articles from three key databases were retrieved using “conflict,” “management,” “small and medium enterprises,” “SMEs,” “China”, and “leadership” as key search words and phrases. These articles were analysed using the thematic and coding method, whereby three major topics themes were uncovered: management practice, work-life balance, and culture. Management practice emerged as the core theme of the investigations, thereby highlighting its importance in addressing workplace conflicts. The collaborative leadership style was identified as the most common dispute resolution mechanism in Chinese SMEs. It aligns with the Chinese culture of Confucianism and communism.

Comparatively, culture emerged as a moderating variable in conflict management. It addressed the roles of people’s beliefs, norms and values about workplace processes that affected how they responded to management policies and environmental stimuli aimed at maintaining harmony in the workplace. Lastly, the theme of a work-life balance was highlighted as an aspirational concept in the management of workplace conflicts. Stated differently, researchers presented it as a benchmark for assessing employee output and a framework for attaining both personal and work-related objectives.

The findings of this study will be useful in improving conflict management in the workplace, particularly for firms that have Chinese employees or serve the Chinese market. Additionally, the findings of this study could be useful in addressing employee relationships within small workplaces or among companies that have a low turnover because the scale and scope of a company’s operations have an impact on how well it adopts recommendations for addressing conflict management.

Recommendations

Although the themes of culture, work-life balance and management practice emerged as core issues in this study, they were mostly derived from research articles that had a global focus on conflict management, as opposed to a national focus on the same. The findings highlighted in this report suggest that there is a gap in the literature, which fails to contextualise conflict management issues within the Chinese model or governance and, more importantly, within the SME sector. This statement means that most scholars have investigated the research issue from a broad perspective of generalised human resource understanding without having adequate knowledge of how context-specific factors could affect their outcomes. The lack of adequate studies based in China means that the findings of the study could be used as a basis for developing a primary research study. Stated differently, the aforementioned gap identified in the literature should be filled using this primary research approach because this narrative review has already revealed the lack of adequate research studies that focus on Chinese SMEs. Therefore, primary research should be undertaken to fill this gap.

The second issue that emerged in this study is the lack of a keen understanding of the role of leadership in addressing conflicts within the organisation. Instead, management was more commonly mentioned as the best tool for addressing these conflicts. However, according to Breslin and Wood (2016), leadership and management are two distinct disciplines with varied areas of application. From this definition, it could be assumed that management is a more effective tool for addressing workplace conflicts as opposed to leadership, which articulates the overall vision. However, future research studies should seek to understand the extent that which leadership can be used as an equally effective tool for addressing conflicts in the workplace. These studies should use a qualitative research approach as opposed to the quantitative technique because most of the studies sampled in this review used the latter technique. Furthermore, leadership is a subjective concept of analysis, in the sense that what may work in one context may fail to succeed in another one. Therefore, these investigations should consider the subjectivity of leadership when investigating how it affects conflict management.

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