Collaboration Collapse from Power Distance and Hidden Bias in the Workplace

Does your team ever experience lapses or collapses in effective collaboration? Are individuals less engaged with each other than they should be at work?  In the last post, we explored how to be intentional in setting up the team for success in collaborative work.  In this post, we’ll explore power distance, hidden biases and their symptoms.

Power distance comes from actual or perceived differences that convey or cause a feeling of superiority to others, often subconsciously resulting in altered behavior. This can arise from structural imbalances, such as economic power, pay differences, access to information, training and education, or biases in promotions at work. It is also caused by biases arising from things like one’s gender, seniority, religion, race, national origin, age, beliefs, appearance, or the way one processes information, sometimes called neuro-diversity.  Can you think of others? At the end of this post you’ll find a link to a Harvard University website that can help you become aware of your propensity towards the various biases.

Symptoms in the Workplace
Power distance can either have a subtle or a very strong influence in the work place. Here are several observable symptoms related to power distance and hidden bias.

  • Interrupting people
  • Mansplaining
  • Ignoring someone when they are speaking
  • Downplaying or even taking credit for the contributions of others
  • Withholding information needed by others to do their work.
  • Belittling people because of what they say or what they ask.
  • Offering to help without asking – inadvertently taking their work and learning opportunity away.

On the receiving end, a person will often clam up, withdraw, become anxious or belligerent, thereby shifting the quality or duration of any required collaborative work.  The training and awareness required to counter these effects is needed to let people know these behaviors are not ok. It takes great personal awareness, knowledge, and maturity to develop the composure to counter and give feedback to the offender.

Economic and Psychological Impact
What is the economic impact of poor interpersonal behaviors and reduced collaboration on existing teams and projects?  Because of the “metoo” movement, we have seen the impact on the careers and lives of so many women and sometimes also men, when people in positions of power have wielded their power to intimidate and control women’s careers, often silencing them with hush money.  When the problems surface fully, the people perpetrating extreme power-over behaviors also pay a price when they lose their jobs and reputation.  Another way of measuring the economic cost, is the amount of money spent on programs to assess, train and coach people in emotional IQ, leadership skills, team IQ, personality, diversity and inclusion. Couple those costs with the psychological toll of the minor infractions that barely get noticed and you begin to sense the magnitude of the issue and its effects on the workplace.

So What Can you Do?
There are several routes to increasing your own awareness about these issues. You can read more about the topic, take an assessment, or go to a workshop on biases and communication.  You can also initially simply take time to journal what you observe such as the number of interruptions you make or how forcefully and frequently you advocate your position over those of others. On the flip side, you  can log how much you pause, listen and ask questions from a genuinely curious stance towards people who are different from you.

Get help
A coach or a facilitator can help you and your team to observe its behaviors and can work systemically to foster better interactions. Personal awareness and development is a requirement for high performance teams. The best team approaches I know of have a very strong personal development component to them.

Be a role model of calm
What should we do when bias directly affects us?   One way is to be  be inspired by how Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg reacted to bias and power distance. In the May 2018 documentary of her career, we learn that even soon after she was appointed to the Supreme Court, she kept calm in the face of the blatant sexism she found in the Court.  She was and still is, at age 85, a pioneer in promotion of equality between men and women, describing her attitude when she first started on the Court: “I simply took the stance of a kindergarten teacher because the judges didn’t believe discrimination existed.” Anger, she knew would not serve her. [Note: You can learn more about the current Supreme Court by reading this article on the observed gender differences in ‘interruptions’]

What can you do if you find yourself responding emotionally to work situations? This is understandable when something about your beliefs, values, or career is being challenged or affected.  You’ll need to learn how to manage your state, and respond when it happens.  Use the power of observation, curiosity and listening first.  Confront, but do so empathically. Seek help, if you need it.  Find teachable moments. Acknowledge to others that these moments exist, catch yourself and others when you see it.

Here are some online tools to help you learn more

Remember, you are not alone.  Together with others you can help to cure these workplace ills. By adding tools and skills for developing awareness and connection, inclusivity and inquiry at work, collaborative work will be joyful.

We can increase the possibility of it succeeding by not shying away from conversations about power distance, hidden biases, and co-lapses.

Do contact me if you need help at andrea@connections-at-work. I can offer a phone consultation, training, facilitation,  personal and team coaching.

Explore posts in the same categories: Bias, Clean for Teams, Coaching, Listening, Organizational Change, Personal Growth

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