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How We View Relationships at work influences another area of the workplace, How We Handle Conflict. As always, to avoid stereotyping, we let our prototype Max represent the masculine side of the masculine-feminine continuum and the prototype Fran represent the feminine side. On the masculine side of How We Handle Conflict is “Direct”; on the feminine side is “Indirect.” Within the feminine worldview, Fran sees herself in a network where relationships matter more than status or winning. It is logical, then, that she would avoid conflict and handle issues in an indirect way in order to preserve relationships. In  the masculine worldview, Max sees himself in a hierarchy where status and winning trump connections.  His direct approach to conflict is designed to accomplish goals, build his status and help him “win.”

Max is more “wired” to fight directly than Fran. The part of the brain that handles anger, fear and aggression (the amygdala) is larger in Max’s male brain. The part of the brain that suppresses anger is larger in Fran’s female brain. The hormones that predominate in each may influence differences in how they handle conflict. Max has more testosterone, which drives aggression and the “fight or flight” response. Under stress, while Max secretes testosterone, Fran may secrete oxytocin, the bonding hormone. This (a) drives her to protect her offspring and (b) triggers the “tend and befriend” response. Connecting with others provides strength in numbers, compensating for her smaller size and lesser strength. (Relationships, in this sense, are a matter of survival for Fran.)

Culture reinforces these physiological differences. As a child, Max learned not to cry or express many emotions. Research shows that, even if a man’s brain registers emotions, his facial muscles can quickly adjust to mask the emotion.  It is more acceptable for Max to show anger while Fran has been taught not to show that emotion. In childhood, Max and Fran played differently. Max’s games involved conflict, aggression and winners and losers. Fran played games with little conflict in which relationships trumped winning (and the rules).

Max quickly gets over a conflict with a colleague; it isn’t personal to him, and handling it directly brings closure. Because of how she values relationships, conflict is often personal to Fran, and she may hold onto it for a very long time! Her value of close relationships may make it hard for her to confront a friend or colleague directly, even though indirect forms of conflict–suppressing her anger or telling others about it–may be more damaging in the end.

Healthy conflict management is a not a strength in many workplaces. What elements of direct and indirect conflict do you think contribute to healthy conflict resolution?