Let’s pretend that you work in a facility or company with mostly female employees. I know, it’s a stretch.
When conflicts arise between two women, what do you think?
If your first thought is “meow,” you’re probably not alone. A doctoral student at the University of British Columbia found interesting results during a recent study on workplace conflict: Both men and women view female conflicts more negatively than if a conflict involves a man or a woman, or two men.
I suspect part of this develops from either our childhood experiences or from watching one’s own children grow up, which create our own biases. For those of us more accustomed to Southern mean-girl style politics that involve whispers and grudges over physical brutality, it’s perhaps not a surprise that we view open-air conflicts between grown women as more dire.
But that means women get a bad rap when it comes to workplace conflict, says Leah Sheppard, who conducted the study with Karl Aquino, Ph.D., a professor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. Their results will appear in an upcoming issue of Academy of Management Perspectives.
“There’s evidence that conflict in the workplace that doesn’t get personal or nasty can be productive,” Sheppard says. “But we have these perceptions around women that are difficult to overcome.”
Sheppard gave 152 people a scenario about a conflict involving two account managers at a consulting firm, which could easily be similar to a conflict about how an MDS was coded. The participants were asked to evaluate whether the managers could repair their relationship moving forward, and to what extent the conflict would affect their job satisfaction and commitment to the company.
When both managers were female, the study participants said the likelihood of repairing the relationship would be about 15% lower compared to the male-male and female-male groups. With job satisfaction, it was believed that the all-female conflict would be 25% more likely than the male-female dynamic to let the argument negatively influence the way the women felt about work.
There was no difference in how the study participants, whether they were female or male, saw these workplace conflicts.
This matters because of the amount of collaboration that’s expected in healthcare, and how many women manage other women. In other words, we can’t blame these stereotype problems on male bosses who just don’t understand. The fear is that these unspoken biases across the management spectrum end up hurting women’s careers. An executive might feel that having too many women on a committee is a bad idea because it would lead to too much drama, or there could be a subconscious belief that a woman is less committed to her job or the company because of a conflict.
Sheppard says we often don’t even realize we have these beliefs, and part of the challenge is to raise awareness about how we view gender in a workplace.
This is not to say that you don’t know your employees — you may have good reasons not to have Martha, Mary and Marcy all on the same team. Or to believe that an argument among them has been bad for morale. But we have to evaluate people as individuals, and realize that conflicts can lead to positive changes.
“We all have conflict and it’s normal, and it can be healthy,” Sheppard notes.