Cultivating Common Ground: Your Answer to Bias Reduction

by Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

Treading on Common Ground
No one would deny that diversity and inclusion is a journey. It is a journey 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 focusing, not only on how we differ, but also on what we have in common.

Of course we still value diversity. Identifying Common Ground in no way negates the need and ability to honor how we differ. I like to say that valuing diversity and cultivating Common Ground are simply two sides of the same inclusion coin.

How Cultivating Common Ground Helps Reduce Bias
I define bias as, “an inflexible belief about the characteristics of a particular category of people.” Biases are a short hand that we use to think about those who are different from ourselves (“All Asians are good at math”; “All gay men are artistic”).

But, what happens if  we find a way to think of that other person, not as a member of a group different from our own, but as someone with whom we have something in common? In other words, as an “Us” rather than a “Them.”  The result: Biases begin to fade.

This happens because people 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 focus on what we have in common as an “Us,” we automatically shed some of our biases.

Any kind of club, volunteer program, or social event at which diverse people mix will do the job. Your workplace is inhabited with human beings who are in some ways different and in some ways alike. It is that proximity that shifts each person’s focus from the differences between them – and the biases they hold – to the Common Ground beneath their feet.

Seven Inclusion Acts of Engagement

When I consult with clients, there is one challenge/opportunity I am asked about more than any other. “How can our leaders demonstrate their commitment to diversity and inclusion?  What follows is an excerpt from, TRAILBLAZERS: How Top Business Leaders are Accelerating Results through Inclusion and Diversity, a D&I strategy book Redia Anderson and I co-authored. To effectively implement the work at an organization, group, and individual level takes committed, dedicated work, and observable behaviors. Here are a few actions leaders and others can take to make the organizational culture shift.

Trailblazers by Lenora Billings-Harris and Redia Anderson1. Share your stories. Your personal experiences of difference — as well as stories in which you’re keenly aware of being included — make strong statements about how willing you are to be transparent and learn from others. You must “give to get”; so talk about your experiences. What did it feel like when you were the “only one” — woman, person of color, LGBT and “out”, over a certain age — at a major business function? What was going through your head at the time? What biases and assumptions did you have to overcome, if any, to participate fully? How accepting were others of you, and what did that do for you?  What did you learn about yourself?

2. Become an active mentor. Get to know three high-potential, junior level individuals who come from a different background than you. Keep it informal; have coffee or go to lunch. Tell them what you’d like to learn about. Be open to their experiences, and suspend your own judgment. Reverse mentoring is also likely to occur; so remain open to letting it happen. You’ll be grateful for what you can learn from your mentees.

3. Support your organization’s networks and/or business resource groups. Become an executive liaison for the group; or, if that assignment has been filled, regularly attend and support their functions. These groups can be an incubator of leadership talent; so get to know their leaders and nurture them into your organization’s leadership ranks.

4. Make inclusion and diversity updates a standing agenda item at your regular leadership team meetings. Set and provide clear expectations of advancement and consequences. Reward and communicate progress broadly. Recognize that when the organization sees and hears little, they assume that nothing is happening; so communicate often to let them know about everything that is indeed happening.

5. Seek opportunities to include messages of the business imperative and the impact of inclusion and diversity to your company’s bottom line in every speech you give and every meeting you hold – internally and externally. Work with the CDO and the public affairs team to proactively brand your company in the marketplace as an inclusive employer; one that respects the broad definition of diversity, and believes in the value of an inclusive and inviting culture.

6. Build diverse leadership teams. As key assignments, business projects, and candidate slate opportunities arise, ensure that you’re consciously staffing your team with the broadest and most diverse perspectives to solve your customer’s problems.

7.  Monitor, measure, and reward evidence of inclusion and diversity progress. Utilize the performance management system as well as your organization’s rewards and recognition programs to emphasize any progress. Recognize the efforts that others put forth in a way that is meaningful to them; and remember that it may not always be a monetary award. In fact, many of the Trailblazers’ organizations utilized a variety of compensation. While these included more traditional year-end monetary and spot awards, they also used more creative means to recognize people – an extra day or two paid time off, theater tickets, a small grant of stock options, dinner reservations for two at top notch local restaurant, and simple “thank-you” notes hand written by senior leaders. All of these methods convey a message of recognition for results.

Lenora Billings-Harris Earns Prestigious Top5 Speaker Designation in Diversity and Inclusion

GREENSBORO, NC – JANUARY 27, 2014 –  Diversity and Inclusion speaker Lenora cropped-billingsharris1-150x150Billings-Harris has been awarded the prestigious “Top5 Speaker” designation in 2014 by, one of the United States most prominent speakers bureaus. Out of hundreds of nominees, Lenora Billings-Harris has risen to become one of the world’s most respected and compelling speakers in Diversity and Inclusion.

Each year, recognizes five speakers, within ten popular topic areas, based on: expertise, professionalism, presentation skills, original contribution to the field and public votes cast at the Web site.  Over 12,500 votes were cast from business leaders, educators, association members and others from around the world for the 2014 nominees.

Lenora Billings-Harris, living in Greensboro, North Carolina, partners with organizations to help them make diversity a competitive advantage. Lenora is a Certified Professional Speaker and holds a Bachelors of Science from Hampton University and a Masters of Arts from  the University of Michigan.

Some of Lenora’s most popular presentations include, “Beyond Diversity Rhetoric”, “From Adversaries to Allies”, “STOP”, “5 Secrets Unveiled”, “Turning Barriers into Bridges” and “Engaging Generations in the Workplace”.  Upon being notified of receiving this award, Ms. Billings-Harris stated, “I am humbled and thrilled to receive this honor once again. It motivates me to continue to work for positive sustainable change.”

Top5 Speaker honorees receive a distinctive crystal award, and are highlighted at the

Make 2014 the Year of Speaking Your Truth About Inclusion

As we analyze the many challenges present in our society, it can sometimes seem overwhelming. It can seem as though one person cannot make a difference. I believe that each of us, individually, can make a tremendous difference.

No major social change has ever occurred because the masses, all of a sudden, decided it was a good thing to do. Consider the works of Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Jesus, Nelson Mandela, Irena Sendler, Lech Walesa, and others. Each of them had a strong belief and commitment. They were able to make major changes. You, too, in your own way, can change your community, your workplace, and the overall re­spect and acceptance of people on this planet.

The process starts with you. You need three things. You already possess all three: a brain, a heart, and courage.

You might assume, if you just use your knowledge (brain), and engage your heart (compassion) that will be enough. A brain and a heart alone are still not quite enough be­cause they do not move you to action. Of the three, courage is the most important. By using your courage, you will be more willing to ask questions, more capable of speak­ing up against inappropriate behavior and wrongful actions, more determined to have an authentic voice rather than following the majority silently.

Now is the time, and today is the day to take the first step. I encourage you to lean into your discomfort, and speak your truth. Let 2014 be your best year ever because you took a stand on what you believe to be right to make the world better for the children who will follow us.

Let me know your thoughts. Just click the comment button at

Season’s Greetings!

SEASONS-1Welcome to the December Multicultural Musings newsletter. Because I know you’re busy this month, this is a short message. And you can listen to it instead of reading it!  Click here.

For many people, December is a month filled with family, celebrations, and giving thanks based on our beliefs. For others it is a month of enjoying time away from work and thoughts of new beginnings for the New Year.

December happens to be Political Correctness Month. During training sessions or as part of Q&A segments of keynotes, I am often asked about the issue of saying “Merry Christmas”. People ask, “Should I say ‘Merry Christmas’, or should I say ‘Happy Holidays’?  Or should I just not say anything at all?”

My recommendation is to just relax. This is easier than you might think. If you were not concerned about offending others you would not even ask the question. So congratulations on wanting to learn. If you know the person is a Christian then saying, “Merry Christmas” is perfect. If you have no idea what their beliefs are, then say, “Have a wonderful Holiday Season.” Those who choose to be offended are usually just looking for something to be mad about. Let it go!

I thought you might enjoy watching an invocation I delivered this summer, just in case you find yourself in a similar position over the next several weeks. Let me know what you think about the invocation and about what to say. Click here.


Hug someone you love.



But Stereotypes are Based on Truth Aren’t They?

Author’s Note:  My entries in Multicultural Musings are always intended to provide food for thought, a different way of viewing things. Not right or wrong, just different. These past few weeks of current events have provided much to think about and say, hum; what is the truth, what is the real motivation here especially regarding stereotypes. I appreciate your thoughts and comments. Please continue to click the “read more” and then comment on my blog,

You can either read this month’s article or CLICK HERE to listen while you multitask.

A stereotype is a generalized statement or belief applied to everyone in a group, as though the entire group is the same. Any belief or characteristic, applied to an entire group, immediately makes it invalid because no characteristics are held by everyone in the group.

Stereotypical beliefs sometimes come from some degree of truth, however. There is probably someone in the group who fits the stereotype. The challenge is to acknowledge people as individuals without generalizing individual behaviors or characteristics. For example, a stereotype about African Americans is “Black people dance.” It is true that many African Americans are rhythmic. However, all African Americans do not have rhythm that matches the beat of the music played, and many people of other cultures do have rhythm.

Another stereotype is depicted in the movie, “White Men Can’t Jump”. The title poked fun at the stereotype about White men as though none of them could play basketball. Viewers of this movie had the opportunity to see that White men, can in fact jump.

There is no such thing as a “good” stereotype. All stereotypical beliefs led to inaccurate assumptions about individuals, whether the belief is a positive one or not. In the United States, there is a widely held belief that Asian children are smart, especially in mathematics and science. It is true that many Asian American children test well in these subjects. However, they were not born smarter than other people. Their ability, as it relates to these two subjects, is a result of their environment. All Asian Americans are not highly intelligent or skilled in these areas, although many have grown up in a home environment that strongly supports education. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers there is a reasonable explanation for this phenomenon that has to do with linguistics and math. (See Outliers chapter 8) Here is an example of how even a “good” stereotype can be damaging.

Imagine you are observing a third-grade class. The class is composed of White children except for three. One male child is a Latino. Another male child is an African American, and the third child of difference is a Chinese American female.

The teacher is someone parents are delighted to have in the school system. He is the type of individual that goes out of his way to help his students excel. He truly loves each child, spends his own money for additional resources, stays after school, and comes in early to be available to assist students in any way he can. In other words, his intentions are good. However, he is not aware of his own stereotypes. Therefore, he is not aware of how those stereotypes impact his behavior.

It’s September, thus he does not yet know his students individually very well. As he plans his lesson, the teacher begins to determine which students he may need to spend additional time with in order that they too can perform well. He’s going to teach long division. Which students do you think he will most likely conclude need additional assistance, even if they have done nothing yet to indicate a need for help?

The next day he goes into class, teaches long division, and then distributes math problems to each student. He immediately walks over to the African American little boy. Now, remember, his intentions are good ones. He wants to help. Is it possible the African American male is doing well? Of course, yes, it is possible. Is it likely that this young student will, in some way, let the teacher know that he does not need help? That behavior is most unlikely. The teacher then walks over to the Latino student. Is it possible he too needs no assistance? It is unlikely that he will tell the teacher he does not need help.

The teacher never walks over to the Chinese American little girl, even though another stereotype in the United States is girls do not perform as well as boys in math and science. In this case the ethnic stereotype is stronger than the gender stereotype. Is it possible that the Chinese American girl does need help? Of course, the answer is yes. Is it likely she will ask for help? Most likely, no. Even at eight years old, in the third grade, she probably knows from messages around her, in comic strips, from adults, and from peers, that she is sup¬posed to be a good math student. Additionally, she may have learned from her culture never to ask a person in authority a question in public. This would imply that the person in authority was not clear, and could cause the authority figure to possibly “lose face.”

Which students has the teacher’s behavior impacted? I hope you would agree that all of the students, not just those three, have been negatively impacted. Certainly there would be some White children who do need help. The teacher neglected them, while the African American and the Latino received unnecessary attention, which could have sent the wrong message to the other students.

As the children go to the playground, the teacher’s behavior could now impact their behavior toward each other. Some students might assume that the Latino and the African American are teacher’s pets, and start a fight with them. Other students might assume that the Latino and African American must be slow learners because they get so much attention, and start a fight with them.
If they continue to see the same or similar messages acted out, that teacher’s behavior could impact students behavior later in life, when working with people who are ethnically different than they are.

It is impossible to get rid of stereotypes entirely. The best we can do is become more aware of our own stereotypes. This way we can become more aware of how our stereotypes impact our behavior. It takes a courage to challenge assumptions and stereotypes. Join me in striving to be the example we want to see in the world.

“Colored Sugar” and Other Perplexing Politically Correct Terms

Have you ever heard or used “colored sugar” to describe brown sugar? Do you ever wonder what’s the big deal about being cookbook_cover_small_editpolitically correct? Are you tired of political correctness and wonder why it is suggested that language should become more sensitive? Miriam Phillips, a friend and colleague of mine came across this term in a recipe. She thought it meant sugar that had been colored by food coloring. When she asked me about it, I too thought the same. Nope. We were wrong. The reference was to brown sugar. Well, then I thought it must have been used in the early days of political correctness, perhaps the late 80′s or early 90′s. Wrong gain. The cookbook was published in 1978, before most people gave any thought to being “PC.”

Since this was during the era of the civil right movement, perhaps someone was trying hard not to offend. Personally, I think they missed the boat on this one because the descriptor led the users to the wrong interpretation. However, it does raise the issue of the importance of context. Try as we did, we could not discern what the author’s real reason for using the term might be. Without context, it is easy to judge and dismiss, instead of understand and value. How often do we hear someone not of a particular ethnic group dismiss the importance of the name desired by another group? I invite you to be the lamp lighter that enlightens those around you. The more we understand, the less often we will judge.

recipe-smallAs our society and workplaces continue to expand their diversity, more and more people want to be referred to by terms they have chosen rather than the labels selected by others. Sometimes the power of words is underestimated. Thus, one ill-chosen word can create friction. (For a full list of Words to Use versus Words to Lose refer to chapter 4 of The Diversity Advantage: A Guide to Making Diversity Work.

Context makes all the difference in understanding. Many people of Latino heritage, for example, do not like the term Hispanic because it was a term formulated by the United States Census Bureau in 1970. When it was discovered that many U.S. households consisted of families who spoke Spanish, there had not previously been a way to recognize and record this phenomena. Rather than attempt to identify every country from which these residents’ ancestors might have come, the Census Bureau created the word Hispanic. Hispanic is not really an ethnic group. It is a generalized term used to describe a diverse group of people whose primary language is often Spanish. On the other hand, some people of Latino heritage prefer the term Hispanic because they believe it carries less bias than the words Mexican or Puerto Rican, for example.

Many Blacks prefers African American because the word black is rarely capitalized, even when it is specifically referring to that ethnic group (except within books written by African Americans and magazines targeting the African American culture), whereas African American does have the honor of capital letters. Some people believe the small case “b” is another example of subtle, institutionalized racism. African American is a term of pride. Unlike European Americans who can choose to recognize their Irish, German, or Italian heritage, African Americans do not have that option for recognizing their specific heritage. For many African Americans it is impossible to identify their ancestors’ country of origin. On the other hand, some Blacks do not like African American because they see themselves as American and not African since Africa is not a country; it is a continent. Each time I visit South Africa and other African countries to work with organizations there, I am acutely aware that I am American, even though I am proud of my African heritage.

One person can never know all of the right words to use. Diversity collisions abound among the best intentions. However, when a reference must be made, diversity learners ask people who are members of that group which term they prefer. The answers will vary. People have individual preferences, but your interest in asking questions will demonstrate your effort to show respect. Too often we assume, instead of asking, thus causing misunderstandings and conflicts. Perhaps a more effective way of referring to different ethnic groups is to place the word American in front of the ethnicity; for example, Americans of European heritage, Americans with Asian heritage, Americans with Latino heritage, and so on, following the model of people with disabilities.
Although using words and phrases that show respect and sensitivity requires effort, it really is not very difficult or time-consuming. Think about how you feel when someone uses what you perceive to be a derogatory term in reference to a group of which you belong.

The United States is a baby in historic terms. China’s first 500 or so years people did not call themselves Chinese. They identified with their heritage that helped form China. This is true even today, as people there refer to their regions to describe their identity with pride. As we become even more of a global village, take the time to learn the context of terms to help deepen your understanding.

Oh yeah, if you have ever heard of “colored sugar” referencing brown sugar in a recipe I would really love to hear from you!

Can Prejudice Be Eradicated Through Legislation and Regulations?

In a word, NO! That does not mean however that all the anti-discrimination regulations enforced by the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunities Commission) should be abolished. What this does mean is leaders must not assume that just because their organization is following the law, that their work culture is prejudice or discrimination free.

Let’s first define the terms. There are many variations so the following is a composite: (a full list of terms related to diversity and inclusion can be found in The Diversity Advantage).

Prejudice- An adverse opinion or judgment formed beforehand or without full knowledge or complete examination of the facts.  Irrational hatred, or suspicion of a specific group, or religion.

Discrimination- is the prejudicial and/or distinguishing treatment of an individual based on their actual or perceived membership in a certain group or category, “in a way that is worse than the way people are usually treated.” (source: Wikipedia)

I am sure by now you heard about the store clerk in Switzerland that allegedly told Oprah Winfrey that she would not show her a $38,000 purse because “you can’t afford it.” The reports indicated that Winfrey did not get upset, but she also did not buy the purse. The store owner later said that Winfrey was overly sensitive. This was a case of prejudice that led to discrimination, and the store owner’s comments only made it worse. Think of the commission that was lost!

Ask yourself these questions to learn from these type incidents. What would you have done to coach your employee in this situation? Why is it that offenders often try to downplay the offense and discredit the victim when it comes to prejudice? I believe a diversity-competent leader would coach his staff to never assume a person unable to buy regardless of skin color, accent, ethnicity, etc. Many years ago I taught people how to sell cars, and rule #1 was ‘never assume.’ More times than I can count some sales people would assume the buyer was just a “looker,” and not worth their time. Later when another sales person made the sale, those who judged the customer would learn the customer bought a fleet of trucks for her business, or a fully loaded top of the line car.

Most people do not believe they are prejudiced. It is too painful to think that about oneself. The fact is all of us have prejudice of one sort or another. It is easier to blame the victim than to accept our own biases. Once we decide to address it, by gaining information and experiencing situations with those with whom we hold a bias, most of us become more aware of our prejudiced thoughts and learn NOT to act on them. We learn to become curious instead of critical; become cultural learners instead of cultural critics.

Do not become frozen due to an inability to solve all prejudice. Instead take action on something. I recently saw Lee Daniel’s The Butler. Usually when I go to the movies in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, there are not more than five or six others in the theater. This time it was different. There were easily one hundred people from diverse backgrounds viewing the movie with me.

As people exited the theater afterwards, most of the African Americans moved silently. I heard one White woman say to her friends, “I do not feel good being White right now. My Wisconsin colleague and friend Chris Clarke-Epstein (who grew up in Chicago in the sixties) shared her experience after seeing The Butler. She said to her friends, “That’s the way it was”. One friend of the same age-range said, “I can’t believe it was that way.”

It is often said in one way or the other that we must learn our history in order to shape our future. I challenge you to learn the perspectives of others regarding historically significant events, and then decide to take action to effect positive change. Silence is not golden.

A Call for Dialogue and Race

There is an elephant in the room in your community and at your workplace. The name of this elephant is “race”. The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial has caused people to have strong opinions about what happened, and what should have happened regarding the trial’s verdict. Yet, in most work environments we have been told do not talk about race, religion or politics. This means that most people only voice their opinion with those whom they know already agree with their point of view.

My goal with this newsletter in general and this article in particular is to present information in a way that will cause the you to consider other perspectives before cementing your opinion. When you tell me, “Hmm, I had not thought of it that way,” I believe I have accomplished my goal for that month’s message.

Race is the elephant in the room because  without empowering individuals to have a dialogue about this in a safe environment where different points of view can be heard, the elephant just gets bigger, and people cement their position without the benefit of diverse perspectives. When this happens in the workplace, reduced productivity and lack of full engagement impacts the organization short term and long term.

Much of my work with clients includes helping individuals and teams learn how to have courageous conversations about uncomfortable issues such as race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc. The objective is not to convince the other person to think like you do. The objective is to heighten curiosity about why people believe as they do—what is the “back story”, the context in which they have framed their beliefs. When these dialogues occur in a constructive way the result is higher engagement, and better communication in many ways beyond the specific subject at hand.

What is needed to support a work environment of cultural learners instead of cultural critics?  Leaders at all levels of the organization must first understand that ignoring the elephant does not make it go away. Because you have read this article this far, I know you are a cultural learner, so I invite you to take various actions, most of which are in the Tips section of this message.

Before a non-judgmental discussion can occur, the participants in the dialogue need to own their personal biases. The first step to change is awareness. Below are several definitions of words that tend to get tossed around as though they all have the same meaning. These definitions are a composite of several sources from experts and academicians.

Make time to complete the unconscious bias test. See the link below. Be prepared for honest feedback (It is totally confidential) and stop yourself when you start to reject its results. Be open to the possibilities.

Join me in working toward being the change we want to see. Speak up and speak out even if your voice cracks. Click the comment button and let me know your responses. Let’s convene a dialogue on the blog. 

Tips, techniques….

  1. Study these definitions and then use the words accurately in your courageous conversations with others. Share this with two or three colleagues and have a discussion about the words themselves.


An inclination or preference, especially one that interferes with impartial judgment.


A person fanatically devoted to one’s own group, religion, politics, or ethnic group and intolerant of those who differ.


The notion that one’s own ethnic stock is superior which leads to prejudice or discriminatory actions based on ethnicity. A system of advantage based on race.


A conventional, usually oversimplified opinion, perception, or belief about a person based on group definitions without consideration for the  individual’s unique attributes.


An adverse opinion or judgment formed beforehand or without full knowledge or complete examination of the facts.  Irrational hatred, or suspicion of a specific group, or religion.

2. Take the Implicit Bias test. It is also known as the unconscious bias test. Harvard University and others collaborated on its development and it is very enlightening. IT IS FREE, so encourage others to experience the test and then discuss your reactions with others.  Click here for more details




Diversity and Inclusion Training and Education Around the World

As our lives become ever more hectic with email, tweets, Inmail and posts, we hope to jugglingmake it easier for you to learn while you multi-task at your computer or mobile device. Yes, listen while you clean up other email, or while you are driving (no texting of course!). Our podcasts will generally be between 15-20 minutes.

This month we are launching the first of many podcasts that will appear periodically within this newsletter. In this interview, I posed most of the questions up front, and Gustav then responded.

Dr. Gustav Gous is an international diversity consultant and professional speaker based in South Africa. His work takes him to several countries within the Middle East and Asia as well as throughout southern African countries.Dr Gustav Gous

Gustav and I frequently partner to deliver diversity and inclusion training that includes organizational strategies as well as day to day cultural intelligence skill building.

In this seventeen minute chat, he will address the following:
• The concept of Diversity Intelligence
• Diversity and Inclusion beyond race
• How diversity training differs across country boarders
• Do’s and don’ts when speaking outside of your home country
• Partnering D & I sessions to provide broader perspectives

To learn more or to contact Gustav directly:
Diversity Intelligence Associates


Let me know what you think.

If you prefer to download the audio file Right Click Here