We’ve all disagreed with someone about something at some point. Whenever this happens, there is conflict.
Conflict does not need to be negative; healthy conflict can lead us to new insights and creative solutions. However, when people have different approaches or attitudes toward conflict or different ways of dealing with it, one group can have an advantage over another—and this can have an impact on diversity, inclusion, and especially equity.
In a recent research study carried out by my organization, the Myers-Briggs Company, we asked participants how well they managed conflict at work. Overall, 6 percent said they managed conflict very well, and just 1 percent believed that they managed it very poorly. However, we found statistically significant differences by gender and personality type. Specifically, the extraversion versus introversion—extraverts are energized by and focus their attention on the outside world of people and things while introverts focus on their inner world of thoughts and feelings—aspect of personality showed the most variance. Among male extraverts, 21 percent said they managed conflict very well, but only 3 percent of female introverts said the same. Not a single male extravert said they managed conflict very poorly, but 8 percent of female introverts believed they did.
There was nothing in the results to suggest that women or introverts were less able to manage conflict well; indeed, there was evidence to the contrary. When asked to choose whether women or men in general handled conflict better, more survey respondents said that women handled conflict more effectively than men. Female managers were more likely to be seen as managing conflict very well than were male managers and less likely to be seen as managing conflict very poorly.
There is a paradox here. On balance, women are seen by others as better at dealing with conflict, but they tend to see themselves as less capable. This may be an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. If women underestimate their abilities and men overestimate theirs, this has implications for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
Another piece of research adds detail to the picture. We looked at data from more than 460,000 people who had completed one of our assessments, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), over the last 15 years. The TKI looks at which of five behavioral modes an individual is likely to adopt when they disagree with another person. We found that men (especially senior men) were significantly more likely to adopt a competitive style than women. A competitive conflict mode is about power and winning at all costs, regardless of the other person’s wants or needs.
Of course, there are women who adopt a competing mode and men who do not. Nevertheless, on balance this is likely to play out in ways that adversely affect women in the workplace. For example, women may be at a disadvantage when it comes to negotiating, which likely contributes to the gender pay gap—especially if women, compared with men, tend to underestimate their ability to manage conflict. Similar effects play out in other groups as well. For example, 22 percent of those who self-reported as Caucasian or White listed competing as their favorite conflict mode, compared with 18 percent of those who self-reported as African American or Black. This could have a significant impact, especially when compounded across substantial groups of people and large organizations.
However, knowledge is power. Once people know their usual approach to conflict, they can learn to use a different mode when appropriate—in pay negotiation, for example. For individuals, being able to flex one’s behavior to fit the situation increases choices and helps to counteract potentially adverse impacts of different conflict styles.
This information is useful for organizations, too. For example, a company can raise awareness among those making decisions about salary so they recognize the effect of conflict styles and reduce unintentional bias favoring those with more assertive styles. Achieving a degree of equity within an organization involves recognizing that people are individuals. And that means appreciating and valuing individual differences in personality and conflict style.