Do Male & Female Managers Handle Conflict Differently?

Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images

When working out whether a manager’s gender impacts how she handles conflict in the workplace, it can be easy to rely on assumptions and stereotypes to understand gender and conflict management styles. Stereotyping aside, men and women do tend to handle conflict differently at work – and society’s different expectations for them explain why. While masculine conflict resolution tends to be direct and goal-oriented, feminine conflict resolution is often process-oriented. Gender conflict in the workplace can create challenges for managers and employees of both sexes.

Gender Differences in Conflict Resolution Strategies

In many cases, male and female managers do tend to handle conflict in different, distinctly gendered ways. Male managers tend to be transactional in their conversations with employees, focusing on the tasks that need to be accomplished and how the employee can accomplish them. Female managers are often more democratic than their male counterparts, guiding their employees rather than directing them. These tendencies are often reflected when gender conflict in the workplace arises.

Because female managers are often more personally engaged in their work, they tend to be more sensitive to the personality clashes that lead to conflicts. They often focus more on their workplace relationships during conflicts than male managers do, which drives them to use a wider variety of conflict resolution strategies and focus on “big picture” goals when resolving conflicts, like fulfilling all involved parties’ needs and working toward shared goals.

Masculine conflict resolution, on the other hand, tends to discuss conflicts in linear, legalistic terms. Male managers are less likely than female managers to play a peacemaker role at work and, instead, focus on resolving conflicts as a means to accomplish tasks. Managers of both sexes cite resolving the conflict at hand as their top priority when dealing with disputes at work.

Confidence, Vulnerability and Empowerment

Research on gender and conflict management styles suggests that women’s greater focus on interpersonal relationships and less direct conversation style stems from their greater likelihood of feeling vulnerable during workplace conflicts. This feeling of vulnerability may be amplified in conflicts where they expect to face masculine conflict resolution strategies that involve aggression and anger. Male managers are more likely to have male colleagues and supervisors and thus are less likely to feel vulnerable at work due to being the only person of their gender working at their level.

Women are also more likely than men to face discrimination at work. A history of discrimination can undermine a manager’s confidence to resolve conflicts, especially when she feels she could face retaliation for standing firm in her decisions.

Expectations and Gender Conflict in the Workplace

Women are more likely than men to be labeled “difficult,” “domineering” and “aggressive” when making executive decisions and displaying anger in the workplace. This can drive female managers to couch their criticisms, requests, feedback and reactions in softer, less direct language. For example, a male manager might warn a chronically late employee that he'll be written up if he's late again, while a female manager might allude to having to take disciplinary measures if the employee continues to show up to work late. The difference between these messages is subtle but illustrates the wide berth between gender and conflict management styles due to gendered expectations and lived experiences.

Despite data showing that female managers often face more difficulties resolving conflicts at work, they also tend to have a few distinct advantages over male managers in the workplace. A 2015 Gallup study of 2,500 American managers found that female managers have greater engagement levels with employees of both sexes, give employees feedback on their progress more frequently than male managers do and are more likely to make employee development part of their role than male managers.