Mt Madison (46) – A Case Study of Culture and Conflict

April, 2019

(Note: I’ve updated this post in September, 2019, after climbing Mt Madison once again.  I’ve recently completed ascending all 48 4000-footers, and am going up a few again, in different seasons…)

began a new journey in May of 2016: I aimed to climb every one of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall, writing a description of each ascent; and, each time, I wanted to write a reflection, sequentially, on my journey since joining Peace Corps over 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

So far, I’ve written about 45 of those ascents. Last time I continued describing a new phase, late in my career, related to conflict. I focused in particular on conflict and culture, a very important topic for our globalized time. And I described my climb of Mt Monroe, my 45th 4000-footer, and one of the highest of the 48, on 27 October 2017.  I had climbed Monroe after getting to the summit of Mt Washington earlier that day.

It was a real challenge, and very exhilarating, as I hope you have read. It was also my last climb of the 2017 season: the days were getting colder, and shorter, so I would take a break until the spring of 2018. In the meantime I spent the month of November, 2017 traveling in India with my old friend Ricardo Gòmez, retracing the steps of the historical Buddha…


To skip the description of my ascent of Mt Madison, and go directly to the case study of culture and conflict, click here.


The Climb – Mt Madison

The 2018 climbing season began for me on 12 June, when I climbed both Mt Madison (5366ft, 1636m) and Mt Adams.  Scaling both of these 5000-footers, including the second highest (Adams, which I will describe next time) was very challenging.  I was exhausted and a bit battered when I finished!

ti was a fun, and memorable, way to start the season…

I climbed Mt Madison going up Osgood Trail from the Great Gulf Trail.  Leaving Durham at 7am, I drove up Rt 16, through Pinkham Notch, arriving at the parking area for the Great Gulf trail at 9:15am.  It was a cool, bright day, high hazy clouds up above: a great day for climbing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Here is an image of Madison and Adams, taken on the way down from my second ascent of Mt Monroe, in July of 2019:


I had waited a bit longer than normal to start hiking this year, into June, as there had been some late snow in the spring and I was concerned about conditions at elevation; I had no desire to fall on icy “monorails” as I had done two years earlier, descending from Mt Field!

As I drove past the Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center, I could see patches of snow on the east side of Mt Washington, near the summit, which was worrisome, but the rest of the Presidential Range looked clear.  Even though I was hopeful that there would be no ice on my climb that day, I carried micro-spikes with me, just in case.

As usual I stopped at the Subway sandwich shop in Ossipee, which shares space with an Aroma Joe’s coffee shop.  So when I arrived at the trailhead I was ready to go!

The Great Gulf Trail begins at the parking lot, and soon turns left to cross over the Peabody River:

No Sign Of Snow At The Trail-Head!
Footbridge Over The Peabody River

15 minutes later I reached the junction with the Great Gulf Link Trail, which runs northwards to the Dolly Copp Campground, where I have stayed a few nights in this odyssey.  I went left, continuing on the Great Gulf Trail.

It was a nice day, but I was a little bit nervous about wearing new boots on what looked like would be such a long and arduous hike:

These New Boots Would Never Look This New Again!

Near here I would take what I thought was a wrong turn, at an unclear junction with a ski loop.  I ended up doubling back when it appeared that I was on the wrong trail, but it turned out that the two paths merged a bit farther up, so I wasted a bit of time, maybe 15 minutes.

Just after 10am, after walking pleasantly uphill for about 45 minutes and covering 1.8 miles, I arrived at the junction of the Osgood Trail.  Here I went to the right, taking the Osgood Trail towards Mt Madison:

This was the beginning of a long loop, which would take me (if successful) over Mt Madison and Mt Adams, and then back to this point.  The Osgood Trail became quite a bit steeper here, and I began to sweat through my shirt!

At 10:30am, I reached the junctions of Osgood Trail with the Osgood Cutoff Trail, where there is a tent site:

I continued up Osgood Trail here, which is the Appalachian Trail in this section, with another 2.5 miles to go to reach the top of Mt Madison.  The trail continued to get steeper, and I started to feel like I was a bit out of shape, my legs felt heavy!  Up to this point I had not seen any other hikers, but at about 11:15am an older man and his daughter crossed by, heading down. They were quite curious about how far it was to the Osgood Cutoff, because a group ahead of me had told them it was two hours away, which was quite an exaggeration… it had taken me 45 minutes.

After passing another couple of hikers, and the larger group (with large packs, which explained it – they were moving slowly!) that had misinformed the first man-and-daughter, the forest began to thin out, as I gained elevation, emerging now above tree-line.

At 11:52am, the trail began to be less steep, as I entered the alpine zone, and the views were stunning!  Now I could see the snow on the slopes of both Mt Washington and Mt Jefferson, and had a view of the Auto Road that goes up to the summit of Washington (and I could hear the motorcycles ascending, echoing across the Mt Washington valleys!):

Mt Washington On The Left, Mt Jefferson On The Right.  The Auto Road Up Washington Just Visible

(A few weeks later I would get to the summit of Mt Jefferson, completing all 48! Stay tuned for that…)

Fantastic views to the north and east – over to Moriah and the Wildcat and Carter ranges.

And I could see both of the summits that I was hoping to reach that day: Adams on the left, and Madison on the right.  Adams looked far away and very high!

Mt Adams on the Left, Mt Madison on the Right

I like this view looking down Osgood Trail, looking back where I had ascended, starting up the rocky summit of Madison.  The Wildcat Range is on the right, and the Carter Range is on the left, with Carter Notch in the center:

It was fun remembering hiking those two ridges last year.  And I had another good view of Mt Washington:

Mt Washington On The Right, Wildcat On The Left, The Ski Area Clearly Visible

Above the tree-line the going was harder, hopping up what seemed to be small volcanic boulders.  Tricky to navigate, especially as it got VERY windy and quite chilly.  In fact, so windy that I was blown over at 12:45pm, before reaching the summit of Mt Madison.  I was slightly injured, just a few scrapes and bruises, a twist to a knee, but it was scary, because a smack on the head up here, by myself, could be a challenge… so I slowed down a bit, and decided to have lunch here.  I calmed down. That was a good decision.

I ate quickly; after lunch I put on my jacket, and soon (1pm) reached a major junction of trails just below the summit of Mt Madison.  Here the Daniel Webster-Scout Trail, the Parapet Trail, and the Osgood Trail cross:

Gorham and Berlin To The North, On The Right. Probably Canada In The Far Distance…

At about 1:20pm I crossed the Howker Ridge Trail, and felt like I was getting close to the summit.  Sure enough, at 1:30pm I reached the summit of Mt Madison – number 46 of the 48 4000-footers in New Hampshire had been climbed!  Here I took a photo from the summit, looking over at Mt Adams, which I HOPED to climb next!

As I began to descend from Mt Madison, I could now see the Madison Springs Hut below me in the saddle between Madison and Adams:

Madison Springs Hut Below Mt Adams

Stay tuned for a description of my ascent of Mt Adams, and the long and painful descent back to Rt 16!

I climbed Mt Madison again, three years later.  For a short description of that climb, skipping my final reflections on my journey, click here.


A Case Study of Culture and Conflict

In my last article in this series, I looked at culture and conflict, and shared a range of ways of understanding culture, and how culture and conflict interplay. Fundamentally, my thesis was that culture underlies all conflict: obviously, if several cultures are involved, the dynamics can be very tricky, and a good understanding of the differences a play is essential. But even if only one culture is involved, that culture has its own ways of dealing with culture, which we should take into account.

This time I want to share an analysis that I prepared for an international NGO, in which I tried to understand a serious cross-cultural conflict involving two members of a global NGO Federation.

The case study shared here involves a particular set of people in a particular time and setting; but the dynamics and complexities they faced are pretty common. Therefore, because I hope to use it to illustrate more general points about culture and conflict, I will generalize my description and avoid identifying the people (who mostly have moved on) or organizations involved.


“An understanding of culture is central to an understanding of negotiation.”  

Dean G. Pruitt, ‘Foreword’ in Michele J. Gelfand and Jeanne M. Brett (eds), The Handbook of Negotiation and Culture (Stanford Business Books, 2004) xi, xii.

Some Background

In the late 1990’s, two members of a major international NGO federation were interested in working in Myanmar. One of these affiliate NGOs (“INGO A”) was from a developed Asian country, and the other was from a Western nation (“INGO W”). The international group (the “Federation”), to which both NGOs belonged, had a range of common policies, one of which covered how members would work together in third (developing) countries.

Despite having clear rules about this kind of situation, and despite having agreed on several occasions how things would work in Myanmar, the two affiliated NGOs found themselves in significant conflict. Years later, when studying Principled Negotiation at the University of New South Wales, I decided to use the Myanmar situation as the subject of my term paper, approaching it as a case study of cross-cultural negotiation: how should these two federated organizations have negotiated working together in Myanmar?


The policy that was relevant to the conflict between these two NGOs, related to their collaboration in Myanmar, included the following text:

The “Federation is committed to the principle that there will be one Affiliated Organisation registered in a territory. Whilst operations in a territory will be initiated and led by one Affiliated Organisation, all affiliates recognise the value of a collective, collaborative, transparent and strategic approach; the Lead Member will proactively consider requests from other Affiliated Organisations to work in that territory so as to maximise the effectiveness, reach, influence, capacity and efficiency of programmes and operations.”

The policy also envisioned that the President of the Federation would mediate disputes when the parties could not resolve differences.

Using a related procedure, it had been agreed formally that INGO W would be the “Lead Member” for Myanmar – this agreement was unanimous, including the assent of INGO A.

It is relevant here to point out that this particular INGO Federation was fairly “loose” in terms of how strongly the individual member organizations are bound by policies, join up their operations, etc. Other similar groupings are highly centralized, but this one allowed each member to operate fairly autonomously, gaining the benefits of being seen as very “local” in their market, yet at the same time realizing some of the advantages of working together globally. In addition, and perhaps partly as a result, this Federation was very conflict averse, preferring to avoid conflict rather than confronting matters directly.

Soon after agreeing the “Lead Member” arrangements, in which INGO W would lead operations in Myanmar, INGO A expressed an interest in collaborating with the Western “lead” member. Public opinion in INGO A’s home country had somehow, abruptly, become very focused on Myanmar, due to events there, and INGO A felt that there were big opportunities for fundraising at hand. At the same time, it seemed that if they were not seen as working in Myanmar they would lose credibility at home. This situation rapidly became of the highest importance to INGO A’s CEO and Board of Directors, felt as being central to the long-term prosperity of the organization.

The Western member responded enthusiastically, and the two affiliated INGOs quickly reached a formal operational agreement, consistent with Federation policy, that INGO W would act as “Lead Member” for Myanmar, and would accommodate the Asian member’s interests as much as possible by providing support for marketing activities.

Importantly, INGO A seemed to view the situation as requiring them to work operationally, in Myanmar, themselves. Working through INGO W would not be good enough: they needed their own people there, on the ground, to be seen (at home) as credible. Although this would violate Federation policy, since the Asian member wished to gain operational experience, the Western member agreed that INGO A would directly manage all aspects of programming with one (of eight) local partner.

The Problem

The operational reality in Myanmar, for the two agencies, soon became unsatisfactory, and relations became tense. When INGO A began sending staff to Myanmar, without informing INGO W, working directly with government and with local partners (beyond the one that they had agreed to manage), tension quickly evolved into conflict. Staff relations on the ground in Myanmar, and between the two home countries, were becoming very tense and stressful.

Through informal discussion, it appeared that the leadership of INGO A had a strong view that the “Lead Member” rule was unfair, as had been agreed before its “rise” as a nation; as a result, countries of interest to them have been “taken.”  This seemed to evoke a kind of “colonialist” dynamic, and was a new insight for INGO W, whose staff hadn’t considered this area of sensitivity. As a result, the Asian member sought to interpret the Federation policy cited above as allowing it broad autonomy to operate in Myanmar: other than not registering independently, it felt that it should be able to conduct operations as it saw fit, without any operational restriction, with no need to coordinate in any significant fashion, with INGO W.

The Asian member further seemed to feel that the specific operational agreements made with the Western member obstructed its ability to do more for people living in poverty in Myanmar, and (importantly) thwarted its need to build market share in its home country.  From their point of view, if agreements reached previously constrained these aims, any such agreements should be revisited and revised accordingly, for moral reasons.

INGO W, on the other hand, felt that the Asian member was in obvious and clear violation of Federation policy by operating in a separate and un-collaborative fashion in Myanmar, breaking key aspects of recent operational agreements. It further felt that the Asian member’s methods of working with the Western member in Myanmar were having detrimental effects on staff morale and operational effectiveness.

In retrospect, it seems possible that the two NGOs had rather different interpretations of the word “consider”, from the applicable Federation policy:

  • the Lead Member will proactively consider requests from other Affiliated Organisations to work in that territory …

For INGO W, as “Lead Member,” the key word here was “consider” – there was no obligation to agree that other Federation members could work in Myanmar. From the point of view of the Western member, Federation policy was applicable and the agreement between the two agencies was very clear. And INGO A was in equally clear violation! So, obviously, INGO A should desist from operating independently in Myanmar unless and until agreements were changed; this, obviously, would require open and direct bilateral negotiation and binding written agreements.

For INGO A, the phrase “proactively consider” seemed to imply a great deal of flexibility and, especially when considering how important it was that they work operationally in Myanmar, great flexibility was required, in the interests of children living in poverty in Myanmar. At any rate, what right did any “Western” country have to tell other countries what they could and could not do?


A two-part problem-solving meeting was convened, with the Western member’s CEO, board chair, and the author meeting with the Asian member’s CEO and several of his senior staff members. 

In the first part, when the Western member’s CEO described the operational challenges that the NGO was facing in Myanmar as a result of the Asian member’s violations of operational agreements, the Asian member’s CEO became angry and emotional, stating that if such agreements got in the way of helping poor children then the agreements should be changed… and that, in fact, he had reprimanded staff who had been involved in the negotiations that had led to the operational agreements between the two agencies.  He insisted that the “Lead Member” rule allowed the Asian member to operate autonomously in Myanmar, as long as it did not pursue separate registration with the government.  

When the Asian member’s CEO strongly and emotionally accused INGO W of not caring about children living in poverty, I objected in equally strong and emotional terms. The Asian staff across the table from me burst out laughing. This certainly took me, and the Western CEO and board chair, by surprise!

In the second session, the Asian member’s CEO apologised for his emotional behaviour at the earlier gathering; the discussion itself, however, was no more productive.

Several months later a second problem-solving meeting was scheduled, this time between the two CEOs without staff. I decided to prepare a term paper for my “Principled Negotiation” class at UNSW, suggesting how the CEO of INGO W might approach the meeting. What follows below is taken from that paper:

Research Findings

All conflict is cultural, and this one was no exception. So it was very important to establish a clear understanding of how cultural differences were contributing to the conflict here.

Last time I shared a range of tools and insights related to culture and conflict, including a description of Hofstede’s six dimensions of culture:

  1. Power distance: “the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally”;
  2. Individualism: “the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members”;
  3. Masculinity: “the fundamental issue here is what motivates people, wanting to be the best (masculine) or liking what you do (feminine)”;
  4. Uncertainty avoidance: “the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these”;
  5. Pragmatism: “how people in the past as well as today relate to the fact that so much that happens around us cannot be explained”;
  6. Indulgence: “the extent to which people try to control their desires and impulses.”

Of course, as I repeatedly emphasized last time, we MUST keep in mind that analyses like Hofstede’s represent averages, and therefore even when they are founded upon good research we must use them as STARTING POINTS only, for analysis.

So with that in mind I used Hofstede’s framework to compare cultures of the two countries directly involved in the negotiation related to work in Myanmar. When looking at Power Distance, we see a large difference between the two cultures, a difference that had been quite apparent during the first problem-solving meeting, where the Asian member’s staff had deferred totally to their CEO and, in particular, where he dismissed all earlier agreements that had been made without him being present in the negotiations.

Hofstede’s “Power Distance” Dimension
The Western MemberLow
The Asian MemberSlightly High

(In fact, in retrospect it is clear that when staff of INGO A laughed at my emotional outburst, which was much more subdued than the outburst from their CEO that had provoked me, they were not mocking me; they were, in fact, embarrassed that I would dare to speak to their CEO in such a way!)

One of the greatest cultural differences between the two members related to Individualism:

CountryHofstede’s “Individualism” Dimension
The Western MemberHighly Individualistic
The Asian MemberCollectivist

When we consider Masculinity / Femininity we find another of the greatest differences between these two cultures, with the Asian member’s culture typically displaying “feminine” qualities, seeking consensus where possible, with the Western member being highly competitive:

CountryHofstede’s “Masculinity” Dimension
The Western MemberMasculine
The Asian MemberFeminine

Large differences are also seen in Uncertainty Avoidance between the two cultures:

CountryHofstede’s “Uncertainty Avoidance” Dimension
The Western MemberIntermediate
The Asian MemberStrongly Avoid

Perhaps the most relevant cultural difference at play in the Myanmar situation related to Pragmatism, with the Western member’s culture exhibiting great respect for rules and traditions, and wanting quick results, whereas the Asian member’s society was one of the most pragmatic in the world, seeking long-term agreements and guided by virtues and practical good examples:

CountryHofstede’s “Pragmatism” Dimension
The Western MemberNormative
The Asian MemberVery Pragmatic

This difference seemed to explain much of the problem that the two agencies were experiencing: staff from INGO W felt that INGO A was violating agreements, and that abiding by such formalities was of great importance; INGO A felt that the INGO W was being rigid…

Finally, it could be seen that the Western member’s culture was quite indulgent, with a positive attitude and a tendency towards optimism, while the Asian culture was more restrained:

CountryHofstede’s “Indulgence” Dimension
The Western MemberIndulgence
The Asian MemberRestraint

Culture and Negotiations

I spent a bit of time in my term paper deepening my understanding of how culture and negotiations related, in general. The results were very interesting; for example:

Goh (1) asserts that “culture does play a significant role in a negotiation. Its role, particularly in a cross-cultural negotiation, cannot be ignored… A lack of cultural literacy really is not a case of ‘ignorance is bliss’; it is more a case of ‘ignorance is perilous’.”   Hendon (2) agrees, stating that “certainly in today’s (multi-cultural) business environment, managers must be able to negotiate successfully…”

Lee and Rogan (3) assert that “each culture defines what constitutes conflict and the appropriate behaviours for dealing with conflict.  In other words, while conflict itself may be an inevitable condition of human existence, the communication styles utilised to manage conflict could vary depending on one’s cultural heritage.”

Brett (4) indicates that several cultural values “… are relevant to norms and strategies for negotiation… includ(ing) individualism versus collectivism, egalitarianism versus hierarchy, and direct versus indirect communications.”  Hendon, Hendon, and Herbig (5) found that “collectivist societies tend to stress abstract, general agreements over concrete, specific issues.  Collectivist negotiators tend to assume that details can be worked out if the negotiators can agree on generalities.”

Herbig and Kramer (6) emphasize that “the way one succeeds in cross-cultural negotiations is by fully understanding others and using that understanding to one’s own advantage to realize what each party wants from the negotiations, and turn the negotiations into a win-win situation for both sides.”  “The proficient international negotiator understands the national negotiating style of those on the other side of the table, accepts and respects their cultural beliefs, and is conscious of his or her own mannerisms and how they may be viewed by the other side.”

Adair et al (7) “expect that, in general, negotiators from hierarchical cultures will use power strategies more than negotiators from egalitarian cultures.”  Citing Brett et al and Pruitt, it is found that “hierarchical cultures in comparison to egalitarian cultures were more likely to espouse norms for distributive tactics.  Distributive tactics (i.e. making threats or using arguments) are power strategies that are focused on individual, not joint, gains.”  On the other hand, Cai et al (8) find that the more that parties in a negotiation exhibit collectivist traits, the more that joint profit is increased.

Adair and Brett (9) conclude that “if people from Eastern cultures believe negotiation is more about relationships, the interplay between cooperative and competitive goals may represent an attempt to create a long-term relationship that is not too cooperative but has enough social distance to justify claiming value.”

Bangert and Pirzada (10) apply Hofstede’s work on culture to Fisher and Ury’s Principled Negotiation Approach.   They consider that Fisher and Ury’s approach “is the product of an Individualistic-low Power Distance-Masculine-low Uncertainty Avoidance society.  As such, its prescriptions may not lead to the desired results in a Collectivist society.”  One of their conclusions is that while cross-cultural negotiations may face significant process-related challenges, due to communications challenges manifest across cultures, results may tend to be more positive, because differences in values across cultures may lead to more opportunities for win-win outcomes. 

The Asian Member’s Business Culture

It was obvious that I needed to probe business culture in a bit more depth if I was going to understand what was happening, getting beyond the interesting but general insights about culture and negotiations. So, even though there were two NGOs negotiating, not businesses, I looked into the business culture of the Asian member’s culture. My findings were quite surprising, and very helpful!

One reference indicated that “in a Western sense, (the Asian member’s) morality is seen as irrational and unethical because it ignores the very foundation of Western thought: rational behavior based on universal rules of conduct that transcend personal feelings and personal relations”.   The society is “authoritarianistic and there exists a strict order or separation of power in relationships of superior-subordinate…everybody is expected to adhere to those who are ‘higher’ than they are in the given social structure.”  The author goes on to advise that “contracts, among a list of many things, are viewed differently.  Business culture in this country does not see anything as set in stone and they may change the terms of agreement. They believe that if the circumstances have changed, then it is only natural that the details of the contract between companies change as well.”

Another researcher depicts business negotiators from this Asian culture as “clever and forceful.  Their politeness masks a shrewd, never give up, and never lose business sense.”  Their “negotiators are aggressive, quick to express anger and frustration” and are “irritable and cannot stand a long time period negotiation.” 

A third research paper discusses values and business practices.  Although the country continues to evolve, the authors feel that its agrarian, collectivist past and the deep influence of Confucian ethics mean that “emotional and authoritarian attitudes of management are dominant rather than democratic and rational ways of behaviour.”  

Similarly, a fourth article links “an attitude of collectivism” with the country’s agricultural past, where “a good portion of the work, including planting and harvesting, was performed in groups.”  They cite studies that describe contemporary members of the society as “impatient and hot-headed,” traits that “stand in contradiction to the teachings of Confucianism, and are arguably undesirable traits for a chief business negotiator.”  “Chief among the criticisms voiced about their approach to negotiation was that negotiators can appear to be too aggressive at times… they do not learn how to debate when in school.  As a result ‘they are not rational.  They argue without evidence, facts, logic.  They do not listen to others… they rely on emotion.’

A fifth researcher describes the Asian member’s culture’s negotiation behaviour in detail.  “businesspeople are often shrewd and skilful negotiators who should never be underestimated.” “It is very important to emphasize frequently the long-term benefits and your commitment to the business relationship you are seeking to build.”  

“… they often employ distributive and contingency bargaining… Although the primary negotiation style is competitive, they nevertheless value long-term relationships and look for win-win solutions.”  “… they may get very emotional and show strong anger. Remaining constructive and professional usually helps refocus the negotiation… Foreigners may perceive a dichotomy in their negotiation style: on one hand, relationships matter a lot and must be maintained at all times, while on the other hand negotiations may become very emotional, aggressive, or outright adversarial.”

“It is important to realize that businessmen from this country have a very different view of written agreements and contracts from the one most Westerners have. In the traditional view, agreements are just snapshots in time and contracts are similar in role to historic documents: they reflect no more than the agreement that existed at the time they were written up and signed.”  “Signed contracts may not always be honored. Because of their view of the role that contracts play, people from this culture regularly continue to press for a better deal even after a contract has been signed. They may call ‘clarification meetings’ to re-discuss details. If you refuse to be flexible, allowing the relationship to deteriorate, contract terms may not be kept at all…”

Along those same lines, an article described “an important point to keep in mind concerns the nature of reaching an agreement with a firm from this culture. Westerners attach great importance to a written contract which specifies each detail of the business relationship. People from this culture, on the other hand, value a contract as a loosely-structured consensus statement that broadly defines what has been negotiated, but leaves sufficient room to permit flexibility and adjustment.”  

Meyer’s Wheel of Conflict

In an earlier blog article in this series, I describe how Meyer’s “Wheel of Conflict” could be used to understand particular situations. I think it’s helpful to use this tool to summarize background to this case study thus far:

Needs and Interests:

The interests of the two parties seemed to be as follows:

Interests of INGO A (the Asian member):

  • Raise profile and market share in country by working in Myanmar as it sees fit, without restriction;
  • Ensure that the “Lead Member” rule is interpreted so that INGO A can operate autonomously in locations of interest, including Myanmar;
  • Maintain positive relations in the Federation, and maintain the current loose arrangements;
  • Gain more direct program management experience, learning in particular from INGO W’s approach.

Interests of INGO W (the Western member):

  • Continue to lead program implementation in Myanmar;
  • Obtain increased financial support from INGO A for programs in Myanmar and elsewhere;
  • Ensure that the “Lead Member” rule is interpreted so that INGO W retains the management of operations in Myanmar;
  • Maintain positive relations in the Federation, and encourage the Federation to become more coherent and effective as a collaborative body;
  • Reduce the heavy management burden and stress involved in collaborating with INGO A in Myanmar.

The best negotiating strategy would take these varied interests into account, along with (fundamentally) the differing cultures of the two home countries.


History was very relevant here, in particular the recent “rise” of INGO A’s home country, and its feelings that it was being treated in a “colonialistic” manner.


The nature of the “Federation” that both organizations belonged to, in particular the ‘loose’ nature of the grouping, was very relevant.


A range of differing values seemed to underlie this conflict, some of which were described in the cultural analysis carried out above.


Lots of emotions were present in the negotiating room, some of which were used as bargaining tools; others were vivid and contributed to emotional flooding (certainly on my part!)


There were language differences, and some differences in culture impeded clear discussion until we recognized what was happening.


INGO A was growing quickly, much faster than INGO W; and INGO A had a much bigger budget. This put INGO A in a stronger position in the Federation.


See above.


Data didn’t seem to play a strong role in this conflict.


While the personalities of the people involved were very relevant in this conflict, my sense was that cultural differences outlined elsewhere in this article were more important

I found Meyer’s tool to be very useful as I thought about the conflict.

A Negotiation Strategy

Based on this insights described above, taking into account the interests of both parties, as I perceived them, the nature of the Federation and differences between the two cultures, in particular the significant differences in how business contracts and negotiations were viewed, I set out recommendations for how INGO W’s CEO should approach upcoming negotiations.

Firstly, preferred outcomes seemed to be quite different: the Asian member preferred to work autonomously in Myanmar, and beyond, while the Western member preferred that both sides respected a literal reading of the Federation “Lead Member” policy and that all support for work in Myanmar be channeled through INGO W.

But there were also some shared interests: both Members wanted to avoid damaging the Federation and resolve bilateral tensions, both wanted to raise their profile in their home markets by working in Myanmar and, most importantly, both wished to support progress for children there (and beyond).

Second, use of a principled-negotiation approach had not resolved the conflict in Myanmar.   Given the hierarchical nature of the Asian member’s society, it is possible that the lack of direct involvement of their CEO in designing the first agreements meant that his interests were not satisfied; at any rate, the strongly hierarchical nature of the Asian member’s culture meant that negotiations without him were not likely to be supported.  Also, as Bangert and Pirzada point out, the use of principled-negotiation approach may be less suitable to collectivist societies, and INGO A’s country was strongly collectivist; Katz finds that negotiators from the Asian member’s country “often employ distributive and contingency bargaining.”  Thus it is likely that an element of distributive bargaining would be useful in the upcoming meeting. 

Thirdly, I had found strong evidence that business culture in the Asian member’s society placed much less importance on contracts and rules than other cultures, much less that in the Western member’s culture. That finding needed to be taken into account in any next steps.

Finally, and positively, the fact that the culture in the Asian member’s country was strongly collectivist, which means that they were likely to hold a strong desire to remain an appreciated member of the Federation. 

These findings gave me some glimmers of what INGO W’s negotiating strategy should be. But first, what were the interests of the two parties?


So my recommended negotiation strategy started with a few assumptions:

  1. Both organizations placed a high value on the Federation, and wanted to remain a part of it in good standing. This meant that the Federation as such, even if it was rather loose, could be a key element of any negotiation strategy;
  2. The Federation to which both INGOs belonged held autonomy as a strong value. This meant that the emphasis earlier placed on the “Lead Member” policy by INGO W, as binding on both parties, was probably misplaced. That policy needed either to be ratified and upheld by the Federation, even strengthened, or INGO W would have to assume that it would not be applied and thus abandon it as a key part of their strategy;
  3. As shown in my research, INGO W’s reliance on written agreements that would be respected by both parties was also probably mistaken. This meant that INGO W would need to prepare for frequent revisiting of the situation in Myanmar and in INGO A’s home market, and be willing to engage in periodic problem-solving, and ongoing negotiations. This way of working would have to replace some of INGO W’s earlier reliance on contracts and formal agreements;
  4. Given the cultural attributes found, direct involvement of INGO A’s CEO was imperative.


Given the relatively loose nature of the Federation, and the obvious “loophole” in the “Lead Member” policy, it looked to me that INGO W was in a fairly weak position. INGO A was unlikely to change behavior, because their CEO was behaving consistently with some very fundamental values and cultural traits. And the Federation would be unlikely to discipline this seemingly-minor violation of policy, when even more serious policy clashes were not resulting in enforcement or willingness to engage in mediation.

Despite this, I recommended that, in light of the strongly collectivist nature of INGO A’s society, INGO W should reframe the discussion away from Myanmar and towards the Federation, emphasising the benefits to the collective group by the two members working together, and the harm to the group that an open split could cause.  

In particular, I recommended this should involve reviewing the “Lead Member” policy and formally proposing that it be strengthened and upheld. I suggested specific language changes, as illustrated below:

Existing LanguageProposed Stronger Language
the Lead Member will proactively consider requests from other Affiliated Organisations to work in that territory so as to maximise the effectiveness, reach, influence, capacity and efficiency of programmes and operations.operations in a territory will be initiated and led by one Affiliated Organization, which will proactively consider requests from other Affiliated Organisations so that work in that territory maximises the effectiveness, reach, influence, capacity and efficiency of programmes and operations.

I realized that such a significant strengthening of the policy was unlikely, and in fact it seemed much more likely that the policy would be further weakened as a result of the conflict over Myanmar. But pushing for it seemed to be only way to put INGO W in a stronger negotiating position.

After seeking to change the nature of the discussion in this fashion, two different Tracks could be considered by INGO W’s CEO, depending on results of the “Lead Member” discussion. (Note that here I am using terminology from Principled Negotiation techniques, such as – primarily – the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement” – “BATNA”)

Track 1: the policy is (at least) not weakened.  In this case, the Western NGO’s CEO should reassert the validity of the agreements made earlier.  Recognising that such agreements were not seen as binding in INGO A’s business culture, INGO W’s CEO should propose a high-level, ongoing joint problem-solving body.  He should make it easy for INGO A to say yes by outlining how this solution would bring more harmony to the relationship while enabling INGO A to satisfy its interests.  Wording could be used such as “we feel proud of our work and approach.  Can you tell me why supporting us as called for in the policy is not an option for you?”

He should make it hard to say no by emphasising the clear statement in the draft “Lead Member” policy that “operations in a territory will be initiated and led by one Affiliated Organisation”, proposing that if this option is not feasible for INGO A, then INGO W will pursue the mediation option contained in the policy, with the likely negative impact on relationships.  

If the “Lead Member” policy is not weakened, the option of continuing with the earlier operational agreements, with the addition of a joint problem-solving mechanism, will likely be seen as better than each organisation’s BATNA, and as complying with policy (thus, legitimate.)

Track 2: the policy is weakened.  The position of INGO W’s CEO in this case is not strong.  He should thus propose the creation of a formalised joint venture agreement, through which governance of operations in Myanmar is shared, and the establishment of an operational problem-solving mechanism.   This option might be meet the interests of INGO A, at least for some time, preserving much of INGO W’s role and position.  

This agreement could be seen as legitimate as it complies with the option contained in the “Lead Member” policy that the Lead Member “… proactively consider requests from other Affiliated Organisations to work in that territory so as to maximise the effectiveness, reach, influence, capacity and efficiency of programmes and operations.”

If INGO A does not accept this option, or if experience with this option over time does not resolve conflict between the two agencies, then INGO W’s CEO should implement his BATNA: cancel the operational agreements made earlier, agree that INGO A operates autonomously in Myanmar, and begin to discuss funding arrangements for INGO A in other countries managed by INGO W.  In other words, to seek to extract financial support for INGO W’s work outside of Myanmar.

Experience and analysis indicate that this would be the most likely outcome.  

Given the sensitivity of INGO A to belonging to the Federation, the likelihood of agreements (Track 1 or Track 2) being sustained would be increased by formalising matters during a future meeting of the CEOs of all members of the Federation.


This case study seeks to illustrate how a comparative analysis of cultures can help lead to a deeper understanding of conflict. In this case, the insights gained were very useful, at least to the extent of gaining a clearly view of why the situation was so challenging.

My own experience with this situation certainly confirmed for me the centrality of culture in conflicts, and helped me see how useful certain tools (Hofstede’s Six Dimensions of Culture, Principled Negotiation, etc.) were when dealing with seemingly intractable conflicts.

The INGO Federation involved in this case study is one of several global groupings, most of which are less “loose” than this one. Despite this difference in degree, these Federations all face a range of very interesting challenges involving commonality and difference, culture, history, differing markets, etc.

  • Do they emphasize their scale and reach, their international and global aspect? The trends I’ve explored earlier in this blog series, of NGOs becoming more “business-like” would encourage this – seeking to dominate their “markets” by growth and acquisition…
  • Or do they market themselves as local organizations, in tune with their local market? This would mean forgoing some of the supposed benefits of having a global “brand” and some of the supposed efficiencies that might come from scale.

Since I’ve worked for a couple of these groupings, perhaps this would be a good subject for a future blog article!


Next time I will begin to wrap up this series with some highlights of learnings along the journey that began with two years in the Peace Corps. And I’ll describe the rest of the hike that day in June of 2018, climbing up my 47th mountain, the second-highest of the 48 peaks, Mt Adams!


Second Climb, Second Season

I climbed Mt Madison again on 30 August 2019, after having completed all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers late in 2018. As I did last time, I climbed both Mt Adams and Mt Madison on the same day, but this time I ascended from the north instead of from the east:

Also, this time I climbed Mt Adams first, and then went up Madison, so in reverse order as compared to the last time.

Part of my earlier climb is shown here in blue. This time, after having gotten to the top of Adams, in heavy clouds, I dropped down to the Star Lake Trail (which I had ascended last time) and made my way towards the Madison Springs Hut. As I descended, the cloud cover began to dissipate:

The Granite State

Soon I arrived at Star Lake, and then Madison Springs Hut. It was abut 2:30pm:

From the Hut, I climbed up to the top of Mt Madison, taking only about 25 minutes:

The summit was very windy, but the views were fantastic – now that the clouds had lifted, I had a classic White-Mountains vista all around me.

I spent a few moments at the top of Madison, enjoying the view, and then headed down. At first I missed the trail, and started heading down towards Pinkham Notch (which was where I had come from last time). Quickly realizing my mistake, I had to hunt around a bit for Watson Path, which I finally found.

I had planned to take advantage of the fine day, and the longish light, to take a bit of a detour on the way down: instead of heading straight down the Valley Way, I would take a right turn on Kelton Trail over to the Dome Rock, and then turn left back to the parking area.

Although my legs -thighs and knees in particular – were really starting to hurt, I decided to stick with the plan, and I’m glad I did. But I did pay for it the next few days!

Very tired, and with both legs hurting a lot, I arrived back at the Appalachia trail-head just before 7pm. It had been 8 1/2 hours of climbing, steeply up in the clouds to the top of Mt Adams, then over to Mt Madison, and down the long way. Although it took a few days for my legs to recover, it had been worth it – another great day out in the White Mountains of New Hampshire!


Here are links to all the blogs in this series.  There are 48 articles, including this one, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration;
  33. Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
  34. Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
  35. Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  36. West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  37. Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  38. Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
  39. Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
  40. North Twin (40) – Value for Money;
  41. South Twin (41) – Disaster Risk Reduction;
  42. Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed.  What Next?;
  43. Zealand Mountain (43) – Conflict: Five Key Insights;
  44. Mt Washington (44) – Understanding Conflicts;
  45. Mt Monroe (45) – Culture, Conflict;
  46. Mt Madison (46) – A Case Study Of Culture And Conflict;
  47. Mt Adams (47) – As I Near the End of This Journey;
  48. Mt Jefferson (48) – A Journey Ends…

(1) Bee Chen Goh, ‘Culture: The Silent Negotiator’ (1999) 2 (2), ADR Bulletin.

(2) Donald W. Hendon, ‘Negotiation Concession Patterns: A Multi-Country, Multi-Period Study’ (2007) 6 (2), Journal of International Business Research.

(3) Hyun O. Lee and Randall G. Rogan, ‘A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Organizational Conflict Management Behaviors (1991) 2 (3), The International Journal of Conflict Management.

(4) Jeanne M. Brett, ‘Culture and Negotiation’ (2010) 35:2, International Journal of Psychology.

(5) Donald W. Hendon, Rebecca Angeles Hendon, and Paul Herbig, ‘Negotiating Across Cultures’ (1998) 42, Security Management.

(6) Paul A. Herbig and Hugh E. Kramer, ‘Do’s and Don’ts of Cross-Cultural Negotiations’ (1992) 21, Industrial Marketing Management.

(7) Wendi Adair, Jeanne Brett, Alain Lempereur, Tetsushi Okumura, Peter Shikhirev, Catherine Tinesley, and Anne Lytle, ‘Research Report: Culture and Negotiation Strategy’ (2004), Negotiation Journal.

(8) Deborah A. Cai, Steven R. Wilson, and Laura E. Drake, ‘Culture in the Context of Intercultural Negotiation: Individualism-Collectivism and Paths to Integrative Agreements’ (2000) 26 (4), Human Communication Research.

(9) Wendi Lyn Adair and Jeanne M. Brett, ‘Culture and Negotiation Processes’ in Michele J. Gelfand and Jeanne M. Brett (eds), The Handbook of Negotiation and Culture (Stanford Business Books, 2004) 158.

(10) David C. Bangert and Kahkashan Pirzada, ‘Culture and Negotiation’ (1992) 34 (1), The International Executive.

3 thoughts on “Mt Madison (46) – A Case Study of Culture and Conflict

  1. Pingback: “The Functions of Social Conflict” by Lewis Coser | Mark McPeak

  2. Pingback: Mt Adams (47) – As I Near the End of This Journey. | Mark McPeak

  3. Pingback: Mt Monroe (45) – Culture, Conflict | Mark McPeak

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