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Diversity and Inclusion

Affinity bias and you: Evaluate your inner circle

This is an Inclusion Works Workout — an interactive session guide to help teams foster a more inclusive culture. We’re sharing this Workout so you can use it to facilitate and encourage honest discussion as part of your company’s antiracism work.

Affinity bias explains our natural tendency to associate with people just like us.

You know the feeling when you meet someone and you just click? The reason it feels easy is because it is. You understand each other’s reference points because you have many shared experiences to riff off.

This affinity we feel with others inevitably plays a part in who we surround ourselves with. A 2013 survey found that “our core social networks tend to be dominated by people of the same race or ethnic background”.

That ultimately limits the exposure we have to lived experiences that are different to our own.

Evaluating our inner circle helps us recognize how it’s been influenced by affinity bias. It’s obvious from the stats above that the average social circle is far from diverse. This Workout helps us understand the need for conscious effort to engage with those who are different from us and commit to actions to address the unbalance.

What about your inner circle? How much has affinity bias influenced the network you curated? And how might affinity bias influence us at work?

This guided discussion will:

⚡ Uncover how monolithic our close networks are and get us exploring the link between this and affinity bias

⚡ Flag the different forms that affinity bias takes and how it might crop up in our lives

⚡ Give us practical actions to diversify our network and overcome affinity bias at work

Here’s what you’ll need:
Participants: 2+ | Time: 35 mins | Difficulty: Easy
Resources: Screen, link to the Inner Circle resource and/or printout (or ask attendees to bring a laptop to use the Inner Circle resource on), pens, highlighters, anything you usually need for any remote joiners

One week in advance
✅ Ask your team to make a list of the ten most trusted people in their life (preferably excluding family) to bring to the session.

One day in advance
✅ Download the Inner Circle resource and save to a folder that can be shared for remote joiners and attendees using laptops/tablets on the day, and/or print enough copies for each attendee.

✅ Remind everyone to have their list of trusted people ready for the Workout.

On the day

  1. Get started by explaining the purpose of the session: to get everyone thinking about how affinity bias affects who is in our inner circle. Recap what affinity bias is. (3 mins)
  2. Share the Inner Circle resource as printouts or via a folder if working digitally/joining remotely. Ask everyone to fill in the table with ten trusted people’s names they brought along with other details in corresponding columns. Get everyone to highlight all the traits they share with each person (for age, participants should highlight any ages +/- 5 years from their own age). (10 mins)
  3. Start a discussion around how inner circles are influenced by affinity bias. As a group, discuss the volume of traits we share with our trusted people. You may want to engage your team by asking people to raise their hands if they share more than 10%, 25%, 50%, and finally 75% of their inner circles’ traits (e.g. a rough estimate of highlighted traits vs non-highlighted traits). Ask everyone if they’re surprised by how similar their close network is to them. Recall affinity bias and talk about how it typically makes us gravitate towards those who are similar to us, unconsciously. (5 mins)
  4. Ask everyone to reflect on the effects of affinity bias outside of our inner circle. Consider how affinity bias might affect our limitations in trusting and understanding people who might not traditionally fit in our inner circle. You could ask questions like:

“How do you think affinity bias might affect you when you first meet people?”

“Now you’re aware of affinity bias, do you think it will affect the way you approach people in your life that you don’t know so well?”

“What would you say stops you from including more people that are different from you in your inner circle?”

Go around the room and call on each person so they have a chance to give their answer. You might have people who admit that it just takes more effort and/or time to build deeper connections with those who are different from them.

You might also get innocent reasons that affinity bias often masquerades as, like:

“I’ve known my college friends the longest.”

“I can be myself around other women.”

“My social calendar is always too full, I don’t have the time for more networking!”

“I don’t think a younger person would want to be my friend.”

“I just tend to get on better with [insert any category].”

Point out that these are the ways we rationalise affinity bias. And while it isn’t wrong to feel comfortable with our long-standing friends, it does run counter to opening up and diversifying our circles. (5 mins)

5. Discuss actions that everyone can take to counteract affinity bias. Mention that, while diversity is important to exposing us to different people, affinity bias can actually affect us even more in large, diverse environments. It drives us to seek out those who are similar to us (e.g. how we start by finding ‘our group’ at school). If you need talking points, refer to the cheat sheet at the end of this Workout. (7 mins)
6. Wrap up. Compile a list of everyone’s suggested actions. Set the expectation that each of us will commit to trying one of these in the next week and share how it goes. Go around the room and let each person commit to one that they’ll try. (5 mins)

Afterwards
✅ Write up the agreed list of actions from this Workout session and share it with the group. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

  • Speak to someone at work who you’ve never spoken to before (e.g. ask what they’re working on at the moment or how their day has been)
  • Arrange a coffee/lunch date with someone you’re not that close to
  • Ask to sit in on an update/meeting that you usually wouldn’t need to
  • Attend a talk, workshop or beginner’s class on a topic you’ve always been interested in or aren’t very familiar with
  • Join a new social club or encourage others to join a club you’re part of if they show interest
  • If you’re a manager, pair people who you know don’t usually spend time with one another to work on a project together (e.g. a work task or planning a social event)
  • Ask to be paired up with someone you don’t usually spend time with
  • Diversify your social media feed by following people who are different from you
  • If you’re religious, attend a service or community meeting in a different neighborhood
  • Find a local Meetup or join a friend for a hobby you wouldn’t usually do
  • Read books, listen to music and watch TV shows and films written by and focusing on underrepresented groups
  • Swap out your favorite podcast for one you’re not familiar with

✅ Share Dolly Chugh’s TED talk (12 mins) and ask everyone to watch it before the next team meeting. At your next team meeting, ask what each person thought about the idea of rethinking how you see yourself (i.e. as someone who is a work in progress vs someone who is complete). How does having a more fluid, continuous-learning mindset help address our bias?

✅ In your next round of 1:1s, ask for each person’s thoughts on the session. What has learning about affinity bias taught them? What might they rethink or do differently to counteract their affinity bias? Have they completed their action/which action are they intending to complete? What feedback do they have for you on how you ran the session?

✅ Share the Implicit Association Test and ask everyone to complete one before the next team meeting. Ask how they felt about the test. Did it illuminate how affinity bias affects how they might think about people who are different from them as a whole?

✅ Encourage your team to complete an action every week or month and share it in their 1:1s and/or team meetings. When sharing actions, ask if anyone has any new ideas for actions that can be added to the original list created from this Workout (by either editing the list and resending it or amending it in its shared folder).

Affinity bias and you: Evaluate your inner circle

Each week, we dip into the unanswerable, nuanced and gray areas of inclusion and offer, not answers, but inklings.

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Inclusion Works

This resource was taken from our Inclusion Works programme, which was created with a network of more than +100 diverse contributors and advisers. We learn from, amplify and cite creators of different races, ethnicities, genders and cognitive styles and continually work to represent all dimensions of diversity.