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New Research Finds Presence of Women on Workplace Teams Leads to Greater Sensitivity/Civility by Both Men and Women

By Wisconsin School of Business

March 13, 2015

There may be a simple answer for organizations wishing to promote more respectful behavior in the workplace: include more women on teams.

Evan Polman, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Wisconsin School of Business, and Michele Williams of Cornell University examined how professional workers’ willingness to act with interpersonal sensitivity is influenced by the gender and power of their team members. The research found that professionals were more willing to act with interpersonal sensitivity—caring and respectful treatment of others—when interacting with a female colleague or with a mixed-gender team, as opposed to an all-male team.

“Our findings are important when looking at gender dynamics in organizations because interpersonal sensitivity doesn’t necessarily increase simply because women are more willing to act in a more sensitive manner,” said Polman. “Instead, we found that both men and women are more willing to act with interpersonally sensitive behavior when interacting with female colleagues.”

Polman added, “Studies and polls are showing that Americans view disrespectful behavior in the workplace as a serious problem. That makes it important for organizations to promote interpersonal sensitivity as a means of building trust in the office, reducing stress and emotional exhaustion, and increasing the willingness of employees to identify with the organization.”

Polman said that based on the findings in this study, managers who form office teams might want to evaluate whether interpersonal sensitivity and the benefits it engenders are important factors for team performance, then use that information when considering the gender mix on a team.

As part of their research, Polman and Williams surveyed more than 200 senior-level management consultants from one of the top 10 international management consulting firms. The sample reflected a gender balance similar to that of many groups of professionals in male-dominated industries and many high-level teams in large corporations.

In addition to considering gender, the study also evaluated how a person’s role in the power structure of the organization impacted sensitivity. Polman and Williams found that the effect of power status on interactions with male and female clients were not uniform but gender and stereotype dependent. The research showed that individuals’ willingness to act with interpersonal sensitivity was highest when interacting with women with low reward power, the power to grant benefits or resources to others (e.g., raises, bonuses, or coveted assignments).

The researchers cautioned that this “benevolent sexism” behavior could lead to some women doubting their own competence or reinforce a status gap between males and females.

But when it came to how the consultants acted toward men, consultants showed greater interpersonal sensitivity toward men who had more reward power. While this is in keeping with research that individuals are more cautious around people who have either more social status or power than they do, it suggests that men with less reward power may be treated with less interpersonal sensitivity and may be precluded from the individual, relational, and team benefits of interpersonal sensitivity.

Polman also discussed his research in a recent faculty blog post. The paper, “Is it Me or Her? How Gender Composition Evokes Interpersonally Sensitive Behavior on Collaborative Cross-Boundary Projects”, has been accepted by Organization Science and is available online.