“She always works late. She is a workaholic.”
“He is a minority. It was easy for him to get a job here.”
“She cried at the office. She is so emotional.”
“He doesn’t come to happy hours. He isn’t a team player.”
“She asked for a promotion. She is really entitled.”
“He took paternity leave. He is not serious about his job.”
A “single story” is a simple, incomplete narrative we tell ourselves and others about another person. And I believe single stories are one of the reasons conscious and unconscious biases continue to exist in today’s workplaces.
In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TedTalk, The Danger of a Single Story, she introduces the concept of a single story as it relates to both places and people. Ms. Adichie explains that “How [single stories] are told, who tells them, and when they’re told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”
When we tell single stories, we make no attempt to learn more about the person. We don’t seek to find out their motivations, inspirations, goals, or vision; instead, we take the narrative at face value. This stops us from developing the personal relationships that are required to reach understanding and empathy, or to transform any detrimental biases. We also use single stories, in the words of Ms. Adichie, to emphasize “how we are different rather than how we are similar” to that person.
In the workforce, teams and organizations can crumble if employees cannot develop authentic relationships beyond these incomplete, easily digestible stories. Too often, we simplify the existence of our direct reports, team members, coworkers, and managers into a single story and then amplify that narrative with office gossip and politics—repeating it over and over again until others believe it as someone’s truth. This behavior feeds harbored biases, which can have enormous ramifications in workplace culture and policies.
Has a single story ever been told about you? Have you ever told one about someone else?
Ask yourself these questions and identify what role you can play in rooting out bias. Challenge yourself to stop telling single stories, or to stop accepting them from others as the sole truth, and most importantly, step in and say something when you hear one being told. Strive to uncover your colleagues’ real identities, choices, experiences, and characteristics. As workplaces become more diverse, we as individuals have the opportunity and the responsibility to transform company culture for the better.