Building Common Ground: A Tool for Leaders

In systems building establishing common ground is critical because we work in dynamic, functional systems made up of ever-changing entities that are interrelated and interdependent. People and pieces of the system are connected and function in an ongoing relationship to each other. Building common ground requires a rethinking of values, process, and the environment around how work is done by a group.

The role of the leader is critical in this rethinking. The leader has to be prepared to model the behavior required and to maintain focus on building and sustaining common ground, especially when it becomes difficult to do so. Moreover, because building and maintaining common ground is a journey that, although it can become easier, does not end, the leader must be steadfast in his or her attention to where the group is standing and where they need to be.

Prior to understanding the strategies and tools leaders use for building common ground, it is important to know what common ground is and some of the challenges leaders have faced in building it as well as why it is important. An understanding of the definition, challenges, and benefits will enable leaders to apply the strategies detailed in the subsequent section for their purpose and in the specific group within which they work.

Before a leader can build common ground, that leader must know how to define it. What is common ground? What does it feel like to be standing on common ground with a group of people? How did you get there? How do you stay there while the environment changes? There are some things all of you see. Some of them you see differently because you have different vantage points. And, there are some things that only a fraction of the group sees.

Building common ground is often thought of as a tool or strategy that groups use to get a decision made or problem solved. Although it can provide a context for doing this, common ground is much more: It is a way of being. The values that are required for building and sustaining common ground are deeply rooted in the norms of leaders and translated into their work with others.

Common ground is a complex combination of mind-set, environment, and strategies that are based on a set of organizational values from which the culture of a group or organization is created and maintained. The framework also includes institutional processes that lead to norms of working that promote building and sustaining common ground. It is about creating opportunities to understand and integrate different perspectives—weaving whole cloth out of individual threads of different hues. It is the foundation of common ground on which all else can be built.

There is no single definition that truly captures the complex nature of “common ground.” For the purpose of this discussion, common ground will be defined as that space in which the collective worldviews and experiences of members within the group serve as a foundation for shared learning and understanding in pursuit of a shared view of the world.

Common ground is built when every diverse voice has value and is embraced, and through the process of building common ground, the purpose, processes, functions, and messages become owned and promoted by all. For all to feel a sense of ownership in the common ground, all must shift from focusing on their own part to focusing on the whole. There is shift away from individual agency ownership to ownership by the collaborative. It requires reflection on our own values, calls for us to change the norms of our systems, and yet acknowledges that moving forward should carry no guilt or shame for the way we have handled it in the past.

A Foundation of Values: groups must identify and define the values that must guide their work together. Values help to keep leaders and their groups on track as they discuss difficult issues such as change and conflict and sensitive substantive issues that can arise.

A Process Grounded in Values: The process for building common ground must be built upon a foundation of values. Leaders are most effective when their attitudes, behaviors, and values are evident in their leadership. Otherwise, expediency can get in the way of creating a culture of collaboration. If it is a credible process (it has both integrity and a fair chance of producing results) and an open process (the dialogue is both honest and receptive to different points of view), then people are more likely to invest the energy required to build common ground.

Strategies For Building Common Ground: The process of building common ground in collaborative work is a deliberate choice. It does not happen by default. If a group chooses to build common ground, they must commit to it as an ongoing process. For a group to commit (and re-commit) to the continuous process of building common ground, the leader must be ready to frame, implement, and work to sustain the process. There are three primary components of the overall process, each with its own set of actions and required skills.

First, a leader must motivate a group to build common ground.

Second, the leader manages the process of both building and sustaining common ground.

Third, leaders must measure aspects of common ground to determine if the group is making progress and moving effectively in a predetermined direction. Measuring should provide feedback for the processes of motivating and managing.

Download the Building Common Ground tool (pdf).