February 27, 2015 | By Evan Polman | Back to blog

In organizations, interpersonal sensitivity—caring and respectful treatment toward others—has been found to build trust, facilitate knowledge sharing, decrease vengeful behavior, increase individuals’ acceptance of unfavorable decisions, reduce stress, reduce emotional exhaustion, and increase employees’ organizational identification.

However, a lack of such interpersonal sensitivity is one of the biggest problems facing organizations today. Studies and polls indicate that Americans view disrespectful behavior in the workplace as a serious problem that is getting worse; for example, at least one in ten and as many as one in five employees indicate receiving persistent hostile treatment in the workplace and, as a result, report that they are looking for new employment.

Evan Polman
Evan Polman, assistant professor of marketing at the UW-Madison Wisconsin School of Business.

To further delve into this issue, my colleague Michele Williams, of Cornell University, and I investigated whether an individual’s willingness to act with interpersonally sensitive behavior is associated with the gender and power of his or her interaction partner or partners, calling into question the assumption that all-male interactions evidence more aggression and less interpersonal sensitivity than do mixed-gender interactions.

We developed and tested hypotheses regarding the effect of interpersonal context, examining whether people’s category-based expectations concerning males and females affect three situations:

  1. How willing people are to act with interpersonally sensitive behavior toward male versus female interaction partners;
  2. How willing people are to act with interpersonal sensitivity toward male versus female interaction partners who hold different levels of power; and
  3. How willing men are to act with interpersonal sensitivity toward male interaction partners, when they are working in the presence of female colleagues on mixed-gender versus all-male teams.

To gain a deeper understanding of interpersonally sensitive behavior in the context of complex, knowledge-intensive work, we tested our hypotheses in the context of consulting projects. Our sample of 202 senior-level consultants from one of the top ten international management consulting firms reflected a gender balance similar to that of many groups of professionals in male-dominated industries and many high-level teams in large corporations.

The results of our survey call into question the assumption that the greater sensitivity in mixed-gender interactions is primarily the result of women behaving in a more sensitive manner and investigates the complementary perspective that both men and women may be more willing to act with interpersonally sensitive behavior when interacting with women. Consistent with this view, we found that professionals were more willing to act with sensitive behavior when interacting with a female colleague or with a mixed-gender (versus all-male) team of clients. Our findings were robust, despite the small number of women at the top level of the firm. Moreover, we believe that this increased willingness to act with sensitive behavior when interacting with female colleagues and on mixed-gender teams is likely to have a real impact because of our finding that individuals’ self-reported willingness to act with interpersonal sensitivity was correlated with others’ perceptions of their interpersonal sensitivity and trustworthiness.

Furthermore, we sought to disentangle the social category expectations associated with an individual’s gender from his or her level of organizationally relevant power. We found that the effect of organizationally relevant sources of power on interactions with male and female clients was not uniform but gender and stereotype dependent.

It is important to note that we did not observe a backlash against women—defined as more negative treatment of women with higher levels of power—which suggests that it might be the trajectory that differs as men and women move from low to high power, rather than the level of sensitivity others show powerful women.

Our finding that men and women were equally willing to act with interpersonally sensitive behavior was surprising. Our supplemental analyses were consistent with research that demonstrates that interpersonal and organizational contexts influence the behavior of women within organizations and that women are often more responsive to social cues than are men. Mixed-gender versus all-male teams, for example, may provide social cues that signal that greater willingness to act with interpersonal sensitivity is appropriate. Importantly, these suggestive results underscore our main finding that interpersonal context is an important driver of one’s willingness to act with interpersonally sensitive behavior.


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