A new study is shedding light on the ways in which Blacks and Whites manage conflict in the workplace. The bottom line, according to the author of the study, Dr. Martin N. Davidson, is that "race matters."
Davidson, associate professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business Administration, posits a simple yet provocative scenario in "Know Thine Adversary: The Impact of Race on Styles of Dealing with Conflict," forthcoming in the next issue of the journal Sex Roles. Using two study groups -- a group of undergraduate students and a group of middle managers enrolled in an executive education program -- the participants were asked to assume the role of a product design manager at the fictional Ultimate Shoe Company.
The character in the case study had worked extremely hard, in partnership with a merchandising manager, to develop an innovative shoe that eventually brought substantial profits to the company. But rather than winning plaudits for the effort, the character was betrayed by the merchandising manager, who claimed primary credit for the joint success in a presentation before the company's president. The case study ended with the merchandising manager getting the president's congratulations and the product design manager sitting "stunned and angry" all alone in the meeting room.
What happened next, Davidson found, depended to a great extent on not just the race of the person imagining himself to be betrayed but also on the race of the betrayer.
In the first study group, which focused on 95 undergraduates at an "Eastern college," Davidson found that, while there were no differences between the emotional responses of Black and White students, their perceptions of the proper course of action were often significantly different.
Black participants were far more likely to say they would seek a direct confrontation with the offending party than their White counterparts. Similarly, they were far less likely to try to defuse or reduce hostilities in their interactions with the offender, indicating a higher tolerance for strong displays of emotion.
Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, participants were more likely to show a preference for avoiding a confrontation when the offender was of the same race. That is to say, Whites were less likely to confront Whites over their behavior, and Blacks were less likely to confront Blacks.
The undergraduate study left a few lingering questions -- chief among them the question of "whether or not any of this matters for grown-ups," Davidson explains, hence phase two of the research. That study focused on 152 middle managers -- 96 of them Black, 56 of them White, all of them veterans of an executive education program sponsored by a graduate school of business administration.
The African American managers in this study group were found to be far less likely to opt for direct confrontation than the African American undergraduates, though they still preferred engaging the offending party to a greater degree than did their White counterparts.
By far the most startling finding of the second study, however, was related to the motives attributed to the offending manager. …