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Cultivating Common Ground: Your Answer to Bias Reduction

Wednesday, July 16, 2014
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No one would deny that diversity and inclusion is a journey. Some, however, would disagree on just what route that journey should take. Certainly, at the very least, it is from inequity to fairness, from inequality to equality, from injustice to justice.

The journey does, I’d argue, travel another route as well. That is, from an “us and them” to an “us” mentality. This amounts to beginning to focus, not only on how we differ, but also on what we have in common. 

This is not to say that we don’t still value diversity in our organizations. Of course, we do. Identifying common ground in no way negates the need and ability to honor how we differ. Instead, valuing diversity and cultivating Common Ground are simply two sides of the same inclusion coin.

This balance between difference and commonality may seem a bit awkward—like trying to simultaneously rub your stomach in one direction and your head in another. But, like those challenging gestures, the two are not incompatible.

How Does Common Ground Reduce Bias?

Bias—defined here as an “inflexible positive or negative, conscious or unconscious belief about a particular category of people”—is your biggest barrier to creating a truly inclusive workplace. Not only does the presence of bias create hurt feelings and tension, it prevents your organization from seeing people for their individual characteristics. As a result, you are unable to benefit from the best talent available. 

That’s where Common Ground comes in. Common Ground is fertile ground. It is in this rich soil that the ability to see people as individuals, not merely members of a group different from ourselves, is cultivated.  

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One of the tools we use to cultivate this ground is the concept of “kinship group.” A “kinship group” is “any population that shares a self- or externally ascribed characteristic that sets it apart from others.” This characteristic might be a disability, race, hobby, gender, age, or any other of dozens of human dimensions.  

By thinking of group categories in terms of kinship groups, we are better able to understand that each of us belongs to many groups at once. Also—and this is the most important part—to see that we share membership in many of those kinship groups with individuals whom we otherwise think of as different from ourselves.  

An Asian-American might, for example, initially see her Hispanic colleague only in terms of how different he is from her: Hispanic, not Asian; man, not woman. If, however, she has the opportunity to know him better, she very likely will begin to see him as a variety of things, not all of which are “different.” Perhaps she runs into him at the grocery store and discovers that, like her, he is a gourmet cook (a shared kinship group); maybe she learns he is adopted, just as she is; perhaps she hears him sing at a company party and recognizes that they both have a passion for vintage Beatles music.  

All of a sudden, she and her colleague are gifted with several categories—several kinship groups—that they in fact share. Result: they have discovered Common Ground. Were she to shift her thoughts about him from an emphasis on Hispanic and a man (different) to gourmet cook and a

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Beatles fan who can sing “Hey Jude“ ( same), she has created a new kinship group in which they are both members. He is no longer a “them”; he is now an “us.”

It is at that point that the demolition of even the most sub-conscious of biases begins. When we shift people from “them” to “us,” an important change occurs in how we think. That change is based on the fact that human beings tend to see members of other groups as all alike; in essence, we indulge in inflexible beliefs (biases) about “them” just because they are not “us.”

On the other hand, we see members of our own group as individuals who are different from each other in a variety of ways. So, once we are an “us,” we automatically see our fellow kinship group members with a less biased eye.  

What does this mean for your workplace? It means that the more effort we make to construct systems and activities that bring people of diverse backgrounds together so they can identify and form shared kinship groups, the less bias we will have in our workplaces. This does not mean we stop respecting and valuing difference, merely that we no longer allow that difference to blind us to the Common Ground on which we stand.

The rest of the blog series will focus on four strategies for creating Common Ground awareness along with several activities you can use to move the process of bias reduction along. Next up: how to keep Common Ground top of mind.

Note: This article is based on Sondra Thiederman’s books, The Diversity and Inclusion Handbook and Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace. Feel free to share it with your colleagues. 

About the Author

Sondra Thiederman is one of the nation’s leading experts on workplace diversity/inclusion, cross-cultural business, and bias reduction. Since receiving her doctorate in cross-cultural studies from UCLA, she has spent the last 25 years as a speaker, trainer, and author helping professionals in Fortune 500 companies, public sector organizations, and dozens of associations find ways to successfully navigate our increasingly diverse workplaces. Contact her at www.thiederman.com.

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