Bias, Conflict & Kaizen: When Complacency Becomes Complicity


This article was originally published on LinkedIn.  Read the original here.

Every day business operations often require collaboration across a variety of functional teams within your organization.  This collaboration requires representatives from different teams, usually with competing incentives and interests, to come together to accomplish goals and achieve solutions for the company and the customers.

Each of us comes to work every day with our own biases, built from our life experiences, our backgrounds, and our individual circumstances.  In this context, “bias” is not a malicious term, but simply a word to describe the filter through which we each experience the world.

When we blend different perspectives in the workplace, magical things can happen.

Humans have an infinite set of possible combinations of characteristics and experiences that define us.  Our bias is made up of everything from our experiences based on our explicit characteristics, such as gender identity, age, and race; to our more implicit experiences and characteristics, such as work experience, education, relationships, upbringing and more.

I’m personally biased towards coffee over tea, and cake over pie.  I am biased towards fairness and mutual benefit, and away from risk.  These particular biases (among others) help me excel in my particular line of work as a customer and business advocate and help shape my perspective as I approach any new challenge or problem to be solved.

Diversity is like chemistry.  Reactions are bound to happen.

When we blend different perspectives in the workplace, magical things can happen.  Diversity often leads us to innovation and growth.  Sensitivity to diverse opinions can lead to more open conversations and better solutions.  When people feel it is safe to speak, they’ll often offer up new ideas and perspectives that were otherwise not represented in the group.  Counterintuitively, it is possible, however, to focus on that sensitivity to the extent of actually suppressing those varied perspectives for the sake of keeping the peace.

Diversity is like chemistry.  Reactions are bound to happen.  Mixing those infinite combinations of biases in cross-functional teams often results in two possible outcomes: innovation and conflict.  It would be easy to define these as opposites: the “positive” and “negative” outcomes, but in reality, constructive conflict is simply the step that precludes innovation.

Kaizen: /ˈkīzən/ (noun) the practice of continuous improvement

When we become so conflict averse and protective of people’s feelings, is it possible that we are beginning to lose the catalyst for innovation?  As I mentioned in my article series on kindness, it is vital for healthy team chemistry to “fight fair.”  However, there is a fine line between constructive conflict and back-patting, self-congratulatory complacence.

There are certainly many great things to say for teammates with a positive outlook, but delivering criticism of an idea, a project status, or a product is a far cry from direct criticism of a colleague’s quality.  After all, how can we practice kaizen, or continuous improvement, without applying a critical eye to everything we do in our work?   Sometimes, everything’s not fine.  We practice kaizen because things can always be improved.

I’d like to hear from you on this topic:

How does your team ensure a healthy balance between colleague support and constructive conflict?

Have you experienced a conflict-averse work environment that seemed to hamper more than help your team’s ability to innovate?

Have you ever felt like you had to go along with an idea you disagreed with in order to avoid conflict?  How did it turn out?

We practice kaizen because things can always be improved.

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