Race Matters — in the Workplace
UVA study taps into emerging research field
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. Davidson had hypothesized that Blacks would be more willing to think that a White manager cheated from motives of malice, and that proved to be so.
What surprised him, however, was the fact that Whites seemed to have the same attitude as their Black counterparts to the White manager. Indeed, all participants were more likely to attribute malicious motives when the merchandising manager was described as White than when he was described as Black.
“When all was said and done, you could see that reactions in everyday workplace situations have everything to do with race and cultural norms — the notion that there is a culture associated with us by virtue of our skin color and that that shapes how we deal with conflict,” Davidson says.
While this is old news in the psychological literature, says Davidson, who has a doctorate in psychology from Stanford University, it’s relatively virgin territory in the business school literature — though that’s a situation that likely won’t last for long.
In the past, Davidson explains, the numbers of African Americans teaching and doing research in business administration has been quite small. There were only four or five senior researchers doing significant work in the field from the 1970s through the late ’80s, including David Thompson of Harvard and Ella Bell, co-author of Our Separate Ways, a new ground-breaking work on the interactions of Black and White women in the workplace. Davidson adds that he was virtually the only person in his cohort in the early ’90s.
“But now, there’s a huge, huge group of new people. They’re kicking out 12 or 13 people across all the disciplines in business schools every year — it’s truly a wonderful situation,” Davidson says. And he’s looking forward with great excitement to the work that those young people have ahead of them to do.
“There are more stories to be told. There are ways that Black people have to end up acting in corporate settings that are quite different from the other parts of the world that they live in, and I think that’s worth paying attention to,” he says.
Currently, Davidson, who heads the Darden Initiative on Leadership and Diversity in Organizations, is doing one of the first major longitudinal studies of the progress of African American MBAs through corporate America. Davidson says he has concluded the first phase of the study.
“What we’re finding are things that your grandmother could have told you. But what we’re seeing is that with folks of color, the things that matter are having management who can give them feedback, who can coach them, support them — do all the things that management are supposed to do,” Davidson says.
Davidson says he will finish writing up the first phase of the research in a few weeks and will be disseminating the results to his colleagues at Darden and to his students during the spring 2002 semester.
“To be honest with you, that’s one of the best things about research (in the business school setting),” Davidson says. “It’s designed for a managerial audience; it’s action-oriented research. So it filters into the classroom immediately.”
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