Reduce Bias by Cultivating Common Ground

Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

1965 – The Right Thing to Do: Ignore our differences and integrate.
1985 – The Right Thing to Do: Focus on differences at the expense of looking for what we share.
2013 – The Right Thing to Do: Emphasize both differences and commonalities.

Those of us who have been involved in diversity efforts for a long time have watched this gradual evolution of perspectives. At one time, all we could think about was how to integrate, assimilate, and acculturate. Then there came the era when it seemed as if our workplaces were on the brink of “tribalization” with talk only of ethnic identity, gender uniqueness, and the differences between gay people and straight.

Hopefully we have finally found our footing – a footing that recognizes that while we must value differences, we must also look for commonalities. A footing that reflects the knowledge that, in fact, one way to minimize our biases and, thereby, honor those very differences, is through the identification of shared values and shared concerns.

At the heart of this unifying approach is a concept I call a “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, gender, age or any other of dozens of human dimensions. The virtue in the notion of a kinship group is that it allows each of us to belong to many groups at once depending on the characteristic on which we focus. It also, and this is the best part, enables us to broaden our group to include many populations that we previously thought of as different from ourselves.

The reason creating and identifying shared kinship groups reduces bias is that this process transforms those whom we previously thought of as “them” into a newly-identified “us.” When this happens, we automatically begin to evaluate the “formerly ‘them’” more fairly and with less bias. This is because human beings have a tendency to give their own “kind” a break. When members of the group with which we identify do something bad, we figure it is because of circumstances; if they do something good, it is because of character. When, on the other hand, people from another group do something bad, it is because of character; if they do something good, it is because of circumstances.

This dubious reasoning created problems at a bank in New York where the Vietnamese-born manager complained that her Puerto Rican tellers didn’t grasp procedures as fast as the Vietnamese. “I suppose it’s just that they have a different attitude toward learning [character],” she said. When asked if she ever had any Vietnamese who also learned slowly, she said, “It’s different with the Vietnamese. It’s not that they don’t want to learn; it’s just that they live in such close quarters with their families that they don’t always get enough sleep. Sometimes they come to work so tired they can’t think. They do make mistakes from time to time, but, under those conditions, who can blame them [circumstance]?” She said nothing about a differing attitude toward learning or any other character trait.

Transforming those whom we previously thought of as “them” into “us” has nothing to do with removing the characteristics that make them different, but with finding or creating those defining features that unite us. Here are a few strategies for bringing about that transformation:

Strategy #1: Keep What We Share Top-of-Mind
Do you remember the last time you were in the market for a new car? If so, you probably recall it as a long and tedious process consisting of several steps. First, of course, you must decide on your budget. Next, you undertake the task of deciding just what brand and model you want.

One requirement you might have for a car is that it be fairly unusual; one that you don’t often see on the road. The snag in this criterion is that you may not see many of them before you decide on the model, but, much to your dismay, once you make the decision, they, like magic, appear to be everywhere!

“Where did all those cars suddenly come from?” you wonder. In fact, it’s not the number of automobiles that has changed, but rather your awareness of that particular model. Once you decided you wanted it, the car became forefront, or top-of-mind, in your thinking and you noticed it everywhere.

These heightened observation skills happen because of a fundamental truth of how the mind works: We notice what we care about.

Though this tendency to notice what we care about may result in disappointment when it comes to buying the only car of a chosen model on the block, the principle of top-of-mind thinking sure comes in handy as we struggle to identify what we share with others.

Keeping what we share top-of-mind is a matter of caring. Once we recognize how important identifying commonalities is to creating an inclusive workplace, we will care. And, in turn, we will—like in the example of that coveted new car—see shared values, interests, and points of view in every corner of our workplace.

Strategy #2: Identify Common Goals for Team Members.
These goals, in turn, become a new kinship group and bias is reduced. Roger Ackerman, former Chairman and CEO of Corning, Inc., learned this concept when growing up in the 1950’s. Ackerman’s enthusiasm for athletics taught him a fundamental truth that has as much to do with bias as it does with sports, “When in the heat of battle, it doesn’t matter what you are.”

Another corporate leader, Jim Adamson, former CEO of Advantica Restaurant Group, had the same experience when first entering a black high school. Adamson, who is white, had trouble fitting in until he and his fellow students picked up a basketball and headed for the court. Once he became a really good player, any concern that his black teammates had about the color of Adamson’s skin melted in the heat of their enthusiasm for winning the game. The simplicity of this idea is encouraging: When we are striving to achieve the same thing, it is just plain harder to hate each other.

Strategy #3: Create Innovative Categories of Affinity/Employee Resource Groups.
When affinity groups first came into being, they largely were organized along racial, ethnic, or gender lines. There is, of course, nothing wrong with cutting the human pie by these categories, but let’s consider another option as well.

Why not develop affinity groups along functional lines, around life experience (elder care, college age children, etc.), or along the lines of shared interest and hobbies? In this way, people who previously thought of themselves as different from each other – as members of diverse ethnic kinship groups, for example – begin to realize that ethnicity is not the only thing that unites us. They begin to see that an interest in gardening, the challenge of elder care, or a shared skill as an engineer can form just as tight a bond.

Strategy #4: Make a conscious effort to talk with people whom you think are different from yourself.
Discuss the things that really matter to you — hobbies, ideas, interests, lifestyle, and challenges. You will be surprised how much you have in common. You might, for example, discover that sharing single parenting tasks does more to connect you to someone from a different race than racial differences do to separate you. Perhaps your interest in sports and your passion for computers connects you far more firmly to a much younger or older person than the “generation gap” would lead you to expect.

There are many ways in which kinship groups can be redefined and broadened. No matter what approach is taken, the end result is reduced bias, improved teams, and greatly increased leadership skills.

The material in this article is based on Sondra’s book, Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace and in her video training package, Is It Bias: Making Diversity Work.

Sondra Thiederman can be contacted for webinars and in-person presentations by clicking here or calling 619-583-4478. For additional information, go to www.thiederman.com.

© copyright 2013 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

Feel free to re-print or re-post as long as copyright and web site (www.thiederman.com) information is attached.

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