The moderating effects of gender

Managers’ conflict management style and leadership effectiveness: the moderating effects of gender

Karen Korabik

As more and more women have moved into decision-making positions in organizations, the issue of whether there are gender differences in the ability to manage effectively has become an important concern (cf. Powell, 1988). Conflict management skills are an integral part of leadership effectiveness and “perceptions of how females handle crisis and conflict often are cited as blocks to the female manager’s ascent to the executive suite” (Shockley-Zalabak, 1981, p. 289). Yet practically no research has been carried out on the types of strategies that male and female managers use in real conflict situations or on their effectiveness in dealing with such situations.

The purpose of this study, therefore, was to examine gender differences in conflict management and to relate them to leadership effectiveness. |We use the term gender because we feel such differences result largely from culture or experience rather than biology. It should be recognized, however, that we did not measure gender directly, but rather operationalized gender in terms of the biological sex of our subjects.~ Specifically, we looked at three research questions: (1) whether men and women managers believe that they handle conflict differently, (2) whether there are differences in how they actually handle an episode in which their subordinates are in conflict about how the subordinates should do their jobs, and (3) whether the conflict management behaviors used by men and women are evaluated differently by their subordinates. Our aim in doing so was to obtain multiple perspectives about an actual conflict episode in order to extend previous research on gender-related effects to the domain of conflict management.

Research Question 1

Previous research has addressed the question of whether men and women perceive themselves to have similar conflict management styles. But such research has produced contradictory results. Some studies have supported the long-standing assumption, based on cultural stereotypes, that women have a more cooperative orientation to conflict than men and that men are more competitive than women (Rubin & Brown, 1975). For example, several studies have shown that women report more of a preference for accommodation and compromise and less of a preference for domination and competition than do men (Ilmer, 1980; Kilmann & Thomas, 1977; Ruble & Stander, 1990; Rosenthal & Hautaluoma, 1988).

The results of other studies, however, are not totally consistent with the above-mentioned findings or with each other. Although both Chanin and Schneer (1984) and Rahim (1983b) found that women reported using compromise more than men, both studies also found that there were no gender differences in the reported use of a competitive or dominating style. Moreover, Rahim (1983b) found men to report being more obliging (accommodating) than women and women to report being more avoiding and integrating (collaborative) than men. But Chanin and Schneer (1984) found men to report being more collaborative than women and that men and women did not differ on accommodation or avoidance.

Other researchers have questioned whether male and female managers differ at all in their preferred conflict management style (Baxter & Shepard, 1978; Yelsma & Brown, 1985). Many of the studies that have demonstrated gender differences have employed nonmanagerial samples (e.g., Chanin & Schneer, 1984; Kilmann & Thomas, 1977; Ruble & Stander, 1990; Rosenthal & Hautaluoma, 1988) and gender differences are found more frequently among such samples than among samples of managers (Powell, 1988). Also, even when managers are used as subjects, the men and women are usually not equivalent in age, education, or managerial experience. Gender differences in conflict management style, if they exist at all, tend to disappear once gender differences on these other factors are controlled (Champion, 1979; Chusmir & Mills, 1988; Korabik & Ayman, 1987). Thus, men and women managers who are similar to one another do not appear to differ in their self-reports about their preferred conflict management style (Renwick, 1975, 1977; Shockley-Zalabak, 1981).

To assess gender differences in self-reported style, we had a sample of evening MBA students, some of whom had managerial experience and some of whom did not, rate themselves on the Rahim Organizational Conflict Inventory (ROCI-II). We felt this was important given the scarcity of previously published research on gender differences using this instrument and that there has been no previous examination of samples of subjects with and without managerial experience who were drawn from the same population. We hypothesized the following:

H1: There will be no gender differences in self-reported conflict management styles among those subjects with managerial experience.

Because gender differences have often been found in samples of subjects from the general population, we hypothesized, based on Rahim’s (1983b) specific findings when using the same instrument, that for those without managerial experience:

H2a: Women will rate themselves higher on integrating, avoiding, and compromising than men.

H2b: Men will rate themselves higher on obliging than women.

H2c: There will be no sex differences in self-ratings of dominating.

Research Question 2

Self-reports about preferred conflict management style are poor predictors of actual behaviors (Baril, Korabik, Watson, Grencavage, & Gutkowski, 1990; Bass, 1990). Thus, it is important to examine how managers actually behave when faced with conflict. Renwick (1977) explored this issue by collecting retrospective evaluations of supervisors’ behavior from their subordinates. She found that women were more likely than men to report that their male supervisors used withdrawal (avoidance), smoothing (obliging), and compromise to deal with supervisor-subordinate conflicts.

We could find no other published studies of the actual behaviors used by male and female managers in response to conflicts with subordinates nor any on the effectiveness of the outcomes they attained in such situations. However, there is an extensive managerial literature showing that there are few differences in behavior or effectiveness between men and women managers in similar positions (Dobbins & Platz, 1986; Nieva & Gutek, 1982; Powell, 1988). Based upon this literature, we hypothesized the following:

H3: There will be no gender differences in the actual conflict resolution behaviors used by men and women managers, nor in the outcomes they attain.

Research Question 3

Even when men and women leaders behave similarly, however, they are not necessarily evaluated similarly (Euwema & van de Vliert, 1990; Jago & Vroom, 1982; Nieva & Gutek, 1982; Powell, 1988). Specifically, both women and men are evaluated less favorably when they behave in ways that are incongruent with their gender roles than when they behave in a gender-congruent manner (Euwema & van de Vliert, 1990; Haccoun, Haccoun, & Sallay, 1978; Petty & Lee, 1975; Schein, 1973; Watson, 1988; Wiley & Eskilson, 1982). Based on this notion of gender-role congruence, we hypothesized the following:

H4: Subordinates’ perceptions of leadership effectiveness will be more positively correlated with dominating behavior by male leaders than by female leaders, but with obliging behavior by female leaders than by male leaders.

To examine gender differences in the styles employed and the outcomes attained by supervisors when managing conflict, we had our subjects participate in a role play involving how a group of subordinates should do their jobs. We assigned those students with actual managerial experience to the role of the supervisor in the role play. In order to provide a more thorough and valid analysis, we employed multiple measures of both style and outcomes as well as data from three different sources: (1) the supervisors’ ratings of their own behavior, (2) the subordinates’ ratings of the supervisors’ behavior, and (3) a content analysis of the behavior exhibited during the role play.

METHOD

Subjects

The subjects were 196 MBA students who were enrolled in six graduate management classes in three business schools located in the northeastern United States. The vast majority were middle class Caucasians. The subjects were assigned to 49 four-person groups. However, due to a lack of complete data for six groups, only 43 (88%) of these groups were used in the actual analyses. In each of the groups, we asked one participant to play the role of supervisor. This role was only given to those who had actual managerial or supervisory experience. Of the 43 supervisors, 27 were male (63%) and 16 were female (37%). These men and women did not differ in age (M = 29.7, SD = 5.1) or managerial experience (M = 4.2 years, SD = 3.2), p |is greater than~ .05.

Presession Self-Reports of Conflict Style

During class time, two to three weeks before the group session, participants individually completed Rahim’s (1983a) Organizational Conflict Inventory (ROCI-II, Form B), among other measures. The ROCI-II, patterned after Thomas’ (1976) model of conflict behavior, provides scores on five different styles of handling interpersonal conflict. We selected this measure because it appeared to be congruent with our conceptualization of conflict management, it had been validated on a large, national sample of practicing managers, and it is currently enjoying considerable popularity among researchers (Weider-Hatfield, 1988). The coefficient alphas for the subscales were integrating = .72, obliging = .63, dominating = .63, compromising = .65, and avoiding = .76.

Role Play Session

Two or three weeks after we administered the self-report measure, we conducted a role-play session during class time with groups of four students: a supervisor and three subordinates working as a team (from Maier, Solem, & Maier, 1975). In this role play, the supervisor wishes to introduce a new work method that appears to allow for increased productivity. The new procedure would have the three workers stop rotating positions and stay in their one best position. The supervisor is asked to take up the issue with the team. Two of the team members feel the jobs are already monotonous and strongly oppose staying in fixed positions, which leads to conflict. The whole group must then resolve this conflict and reach a solution. All group role-play sessions were audio tape recorded and then transcribed.

Postsession Measures of Behavior

Conflict Style. After the role-play sessions, we asked the subjects to describe how the supervisors had behaved during the meeting. Supervisors (participants in the foreman’s role) rated their own conflict management behavior on a subset of items from the ROCI-II inventory. Subordinates (participants in the worker roles) rated their supervisors’ behavior on the same subset of items. Responses were made on 6-point scales ranging from not descriptive to highly descriptive. A subset of the ROCI items was used in order to reduce the time necessary for questionnaire completion. Items were selected based on their distinctiveness and apparent unique contribution to the constructs and subset items and those from the full scale showed high intercorrelations (all |is greater than~ .87).

Coefficient alphas for the five supervisor rated and five subordinate rated conflict management dimensions ranged from .62 to .92 with two exceptions. The reliability coefficient for the supervisor self-rating of compromising (two items) was .00, while that for the supervisor self-rating of avoiding (four items) was .47. These reliabilities were probably attenuated due to the reduced number of items used and the situationally specific nature of the behavior that was being rated.

We also assessed the managers’ conflict management style through a content analysis of the transcripts of the sessions. Korabik and Baril (1988) developed a ten-category coding scheme that included Rahim’s (1983a) five interpersonal conflict styles. The content analysis was done by coding all of the supervisor’s subject-predicate combinations that could stand alone as sentences. Two coders were trained to code using transcripts from one group that had been discarded from the analysis. Once they could code well together, each coder rated half of the 43 transcripts alone. As a reliability check, we compared their codings with those of a third student who had coded 24 of the transcripts earlier as part of an honors project.

The content analysis interrater reliabilities for domination and integration were reasonably strong: r (24) = .82 and .69, respectively. However, the ratings of avoidance, compromising, and obliging showed weak to no reliability: r (24) = .32, -11, and .43–all nonsignificant. The low reliabilities for avoiding and compromising appear to be the result of the low frequencies of occurrence of these behaviors. We used only the two categories with strong interrater reliabilities (dominating and integrating) in our analyses.

Conflict Outcomes. We also assessed the outcomes attained by the supervisors. Immediately following the group meetings, both supervisors and subordinates responded to the following questions on 6-point scales: satisfaction with the solution selected by the group, influence in the decision process, willingness to accept the other’s ideas, supervisor’s effectiveness as a leader, quality of the solution, subordinate acceptance of the solution, and expected group productivity.

A principal components analysis of the subordinate responses to these items revealed two factors when using an eigenvalue cutoff of 1.00 and a varimax rotation. The primary factor contained all the items except those dealing with leadership effectiveness and willingness to listen to subordinates. We called this factor subordinate satisfaction with the solution (|Alpha~ = .92). We labelled the second factor the leadership effectiveness dimension (|Alpha~ = .81).

We also found two factors for the supervisor perceptions. The primary factor contained all the items except the one dealing with a willingness to accept subordinate ideas. We labeled this factor supervisor satisfaction with the solution (|Alpha~ = .86). Because the second factor contained only the one item, which seemed more process than outcome oriented, it was not considered in the analysis.

RESULTS

We used the group, rather than individual subordinates, as the unit of analysis. Thus, in all measures involving subordinate responses, we based our analyses on the average responses of the three subordinates in each group. We recognize that some researchers recommend using individual TABULAR DATA OMITTED subordinate responses (e.g., Graen & Schiemann, 1978), but we do not believe that would be appropriate in this instance. In our study, supervisors had no previous history with their subordinates nor did they have much opportunity to interact with individual subordinates. In addition, since all three subordinates were reacting to the same experience, their responses are not independent, so that considering them separately could be considered an artificial inflation of the n.

We dropped several postsession measures from consideration. As discussed previously, only two coder categories for conflict style, dominating and integrating, had adequate interrater reliabilities to be included in our analyses (r |is greater than~ .55). In addition, only three of the supervisors’ postsession self-description categories had adequate coefficient alphas to be included in our analyses: dominating, integrating, and obliging. The means, standard deviations, and intercorrelations of all of the variables can be found in Table I.

Research Question 1

We divided our sample into those with and without managerial experience. In support of Hypothesis 1, we found that there were no gender differences on any of the five conflict management styles among experienced managers, p |is greater than~ .05. Among participants without managerial experience, however, women rated themselves as more integrating, obliging, and compromising than did men, t(130) = 2.14, p |is less than~ .04; t(131) = 2.2, p |is less than~ .03; and t(131) = 3.4, p |is less than~ .001, respectively, all two tailed. Thus, Hypothesis 2 received equivocal support. For those without managerial experience, we did find, as expected, that women perceived themselves to be more integrating and compromising than men and that there were no reported gender differences in domination. But we did not find that women perceived themselves as more avoiding than men or that men perceived themselves to be more obliging than women.

Research Question 2

Next we examined whether there were gender differences in the conflict management behaviors used during the role play. The postsession ratings of conflict style from the supervisors themselves, their subordinates, and the content analysis showed that the behavior of male and female supervisors did not differ on any of the conflict management dimensions, p |is greater than~ .05.

We also looked at differences between male and female supervisors on the measures of outcome, using the data from both the supervisors’ self-ratings and from their subordinates’ ratings of them. We found no gender differences in the supervisors’ reported satisfaction with the solutions they obtained, the satisfaction of their subordinates with the solutions, or the subordinates’ ratings of the supervisors’ effectiveness, p |is greater than~ .05. Thus, Hypothesis 3 received strong support in regard to both the absence of any gender differences on conflict management styles and the absence of any gender differences on outcomes.

Research Question 3

To test the gender role congruence hypothesis (Hypothesis 4), for both male and female leaders we calculated the correlations between the extent to which the supervisor had been obliging and dominating (as assessed by the supervisors’ and subordinates’ postsession ratings and the content TABULAR DATA OMITTED analysis) and subordinate ratings of the supervisors’ leadership effectiveness. These correlations are presented in Table II, along with those for all other predictor and outcome variables. In support of the hypothesis, across all relevant measures dominating was more negatively related and obliging was more positively related to perceptions of effectiveness for women than men. However, only the comparisons for subordinate ratings of dominating, z(17,26) = 2.34, p |is less than~ .01, and supervisor ratings of obliging, z = 2.25, p |is less than~ .02, were significant.

DISCUSSION

Research Question 1

As predicted in Hypothesis 1, we found no gender differences in the self-reported conflict management styles of those subjects with managerial experience. Although we did find some significant differences in the ROCI-II scores of men and women without managerial experience, those differences were not exactly the ones we had hypothesized based upon Rahim’s (1983b) results using the same instrument. Instead, our findings–that women perceived themselves to be more obliging, integrating, and compromising than men–corresponded to the cultural stereotype that women are more person oriented than men.

Our results, therefore, are congruent with the general pattern established in past research. Such research has been characterized by (1) an absence of gender differences in self-reported conflict management style among practicing managers (Renwick, 1975, 1977; Shockley-Zalabak, 1981), particularly once differences between men and women in age, education, and experience have been eliminated (Champion, 1979; Chusmir & Mills, 1988; Korabik & Ayman, 1987), but (2) gender differences consistent with cultural stereotypes for subjects who are not managers (Kilmann & Thomas, 1977; Ruble & Stander, 1990; Rosenthal & Hautaluoma, 1988).

Specifically, our data indicate that women managers may differ from nonmanagerial women, but not from men who are managers, in their preferred conflict management styles. It is likely that two factors that impact on managerial women–selection and socialization–result in their similarity to their male colleagues. First, women managers are a highly selected group who do not conform to the typical female stereotype (Korabik, 1990). Because management has long been a male-dominated activity, the schema of the ideal manager is grounded in masculine attributes. This may influence both women’s career choices and the hiring and promotion decisions made about them by others in such a way as to keep women without the requisite levels of masculinity out of management positions (Korabik & Ayman, 1989). Second, women managers may also undergo a socialization process whereby they become more like men (i.e., more masculine) the longer they are in the profession (Korabik & Ayman, 1989).

The results of our study imply that gender differences in self-reported conflict management style cannot necessarily be generalized from nonmanagerial to managerial samples. We have attempted to make this point salient by sampling those with and without managerial experience from the same population, but analyzing the data from each group separately. Even within managerial samples, however, the men and women may not be equivalent in important ways and researchers should be careful to control for differences in age, managerial experience, and/or position, as we have done.

Research Question 2

In support of Hypothesis 3, we found no gender differences in the conflict management behaviors displayed nor in the outcomes attained by males and females in the supervisory role. These results are consistent with the large body of research demonstrating that male and female managers who hold equivalent positions do not differ in personality, leadership style, motivation, or effectiveness (Dobbins & Platz, 1986; Korabik, 1990; Nieva & Gutek, 1982; Powell, 1988). Our study extends these findings to the domain of conflict management–an important aspect of a manager’s job and one that has been previously neglected. In addition, our results are important because they are based on an actual conflict episode and not just on how managers or their subordinates think that the managers might behave in hypothetical conflict situations. The validity of our findings is enhanced, moreover, because we were able to replicate them using multiple sources of information about both leader behaviors and outcomes. However, because conflict management styles are likely to be situationally specific, additional research is needed to examine whether our results will generalize to a wider range of conflict situations.

Still, our results should help to combat the common beliefs that (1) male and female managers deal with conflict differently, (2) managerial men and women use conflict management styles that are congruent with gender role stereotypes, and (3) women are not as effective at conflict management as are men. Thus, our findings not only dispute reservations about women’s ability to handle conflict situations, but also call into question suggestions, such as that of Jago and Vroom, that we should, “capitalize on stereotypic sex-differences … by making women the ‘social workers of management'” (1982, p. 782).

Research Question 3

We found support for Hypothesis 4 on gender role congruence. Specifically, when they used a dominating style, women were rated by their subordinates as being less effective than men. In addition, when they used an obliging style, men were rated by their subordinates as being less effective than women. These findings support past research establishing that both women and men are evaluated less favorably when their behavior is gender incongruent than when it is gender congruent (Euwema & van de Vliert, 1990; Haccoun et al., 1978; Petty & Lee, 1975; Schein, 1973; Watson, 1988; Wiley & Eskilson, 1982).

Thus, our findings lend credence to the substantial research showing that although male and female managers behave similarly, they are not necessarily evaluated similarly (Butler & Geis, 1990; Euwema & van de Vliert, 1990; Jago & Vroom, 1982; Nieva & Gutek, 1982; Powell, 1988) and that autocratic behavior on the part of women managers is viewed negatively by others (Jago & Vroom, 1982). Butler and Geis (1990) contend that this occurs because dominating behavior on the part of women is unexpected and therefore “female leaders elicit more negative nonverbal affect responses from other group members than male leaders offering the same initiatives” (1990, p. 48). Moreover, the results of both the Butler and Geis study and our own study make it clear that subordinates’ perceptions are biased by their gender role stereotypes and don’t reflect actual differences between men and women in their competence or effectiveness.

Butler and Geis demonstrate that these biases may result in the devaluation of women’s contributions as leaders. Our study showed, however, that this bias works in both directions. From the perspective of the subordinates, it was as bad for men to behave in an obliging way as it was for women to be dominating. In fact, this was a situation that required a participative, person-oriented approach (see Baril et al., 1990). Therefore, it is particularly troubling that the men who acted in a situationally appropriate manner were seen to be poor leaders.

CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS

In this study we looked at gender as both a subject variable and as a stimulus variable (Deaux, 1984). We found, in line with past research, that when gender was conceptualized as a subject variable, there were few dispositional or behavioral differences between men and women. Yet when gender was viewed as a stimulus variable, we found that subordinates reacted differently to male and female supervisors.

The gender of the subordinates may also influence their evaluations (Euwema & van de Vliert, 1990). Unfortunately, due to the small n used in this study and our inability to systematically vary the sex composition of the groups, we were not able to examine interactions between leader and subordinate gender. This should, however, be a focus of future research.

Future research should also address the generalizability of our findings. Powell (1988) has noted that findings in support of the gender role congruence hypothesis are more likely in the laboratory than in the field. However, a recent meta-analysis by Eagly (1990) demonstrates that this is probably due more to the nonmanagerial samples used in most laboratory settings than to the setting per se. Because we did use those with managerial experience as supervisors, our findings might well apply to real life situations, particularly those with appointed leaders where the leader and the subordinates are not well acquainted with one another. As Bettenhausen has noted, “findings using student groups in manipulated settings often generalize to organization settings as well as or better than findings from intact groups that are frequently confounded by unique, unmeasured contextual factors” (1991, p. 346). Still, there is a need to replicate our findings using actual supervisor-subordinate dyads in a field setting.

Finally, there is the possibility that some of the nonsignificant results in our study were due to our small n and the resulting lack of statistical power. We feel this in unlikely, however, given that we obtained the same pattern of results across multiple measures and those results were consistent with past research findings.

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