Creating Brave Conversations About Diversity and Inclusion at Work

Artboard 2brave conversations.png

Many employees have worked for companies that have a “check-the-box” safety program.  Sitting through countless videos and retaining little of what is shown or taking easy to answer exams and listening to presentations are hallmarks of such programs.  They are usually top-down initiatives implemented by HR at the request of top execs. 

But these programs don’t start out with the intention of becoming “check-the-box”.  Most are undertaken in good faith to protect liability and ensure worker safety.  The problem is that they don’t include the employees they seek to protect in the development of the initiative and therefore miss the kind of input and feedback that would genuinely help develop training the employees.  Over time, and because of the top-down focus of the initiative, the program becomes less about safety and more about ensuring that employees watch videos, take tests, record attendance and make sure placards and warning signs are where they are supposed to be. 

Diversity and Inclusion Programs Revisited

But if the risks of strict “operational” focus of the example above is true for fundamental issues such as employee safety, they are even more so for the vastly more complex issue of Diversity and Inclusion and their deep reliance upon culture.  In fact, many companies struggling with exactly those risks in their own D&I programs have reached a similar point in the curve for the same reasons.  Having “operationalized” the process, they are beginning to realize that they have left out an important part of the equation and are seeking ways to correct it.

More and more, companies are realizing that the missing piece of the puzzle is culture.  This is especially true for the Inclusion part of D&I.  For while most companies can get the numbers right because they fit into a comfortable “operationalized” structure, it is the Inclusion part that bumps into cultural reality.  When this happens, managers often realize they can’t progress D&I until they change or reshape the culture.

The reality on the ground is that D&I programs can’t excel beyond the operationalized structure until they are an intricate part of that culture.  And if the culture doesn’t allow integration, then many D&I programs will wither and become, at best, another “check-the-box” program that excluding those it was designed to serve.  At the end of the day, truly functional Diversity and Inclusion can’t exist without a healthy and vibrant company culture.  A healthy and vibrant company culture can’t exist without engaged employees.  And engaged employees aren’t possible without having brave conversations.

Brave Conversations

Bravery is defined as “the quality or state of having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty”.  But in today’s hyper-sensitive workplace, many subjects have been rendered taboo for discussion through the media to the point that employers are reluctant to go down certain paths for fear of veering into one of those subjects.

That doesn’t mean that truly brave and effective conversations can’t or shouldn’t be had to build and reinforce positive company culture.  Quite the opposite; employee feedback, concerns and examples of what they face are not only part of the discussion, but part of the building process required to change that culture.

To reach that stage, companies must acknowledge and be willing to admit several realities required for brave conversations:

  • Brave conversations are difficult to have – Let’s face it, one reason structures are often the default in many initiatives is because they are easy.  But leaders should be aware of the impact they can have by taking the first step.  Sharing their own stories and growth in thinking over their career will go a long way in starting off on the right foot.  And setting an example to show that it’s OK to have a personal story can create an atmosphere where others feel free to share.  This is especially true when leaders come from marginalized groups themselves.  Once stories are shared, others will be more comfortable in opening up about their own experiences.

  • Tone is important – Stories, and the tone they set, are extremely important in having difficult and brave conversations.  But often, the tone is set by a leader that stifles or represses feedback.  It may be unintentional, but by keeping feedback positive, the tone is set that hard discussions, short rants, “letting off steam” and other modes of expression are fine and even expected.  So too should the leader respect silence and pauses and not jump to fill the gap.  Allowing employees to fill those gaps creates an environment where they understand they truly are part of the conversation.  It reinforces that the sharing of stories really is sharing and not a reflexive jump to top-down “instruction” or one of guiding employees to a predetermined point of view. 

  • Honesty is important – Perception of honest intentions is often intuitive.  But a lot of times, employees will have reservations.  In companies seeking to undertake a culture change and positively impact their D&I, those reservations may be stronger and harder to overcome.  The only path through this is honesty.  Just as employees in many cookie-cutter safety programs know their employers want them to watch the video and sign the acknowledgement without hearing their concerns or feedback, employees will know when an effort to improve culture or have a conversation is more a mandate than a mutually beneficial exercise.  Again, stories are important and leaders who honestly reveal their own experiences, vulnerabilities and growth will set the stage for employees to follow.  Following through, staying true to goals set after the conversation and establishing safe ground for the employees to express themselves without fear of retribution and with a feeling that their story moved the needle in the development of the process are vital. 

  • Acknowledge difficult reveals – The pensive nature that comes with holding in feelings and opinions is difficult for many employees to release.  Acknowledging those reveals and restating them for understanding is critical for employees to develop a true sense of belonging.  Once the conversation is had and their opinion truly included or factored into future decision making, the acknowledgement will allow them to be more open to future participation.  This “scaling” effort, while more difficult and time consuming than “check-the-box” thinking, establishes firm ground for building true inclusion as employees feel that their opinion is not only heard, but valued and useful as well.

Assuring “No Harm/No Foul”

Any company seeking to modify and improve their culture by breaking down the one-way street must be ready for the “oncoming traffic” headed their way.  And setting an example where employees feel they can give their opinions without fear, shame or retribution will go a long way toward paving that road.  To do this, leaders can adopt effective changes in their own approach by:

  • Learning from others – Most companies have at least one leader or manager that employees seem to trust innately or have worked with someone like that in the past.  In most cases, that leader is already utilizing most of the strategies above.  By admitting the effectiveness and seeking to learn or emulate that leader, a manager can show they are willing to learn new ways of breaking down barriers.  This encourages reluctant employees that the efforts are sincere.

  • Listening to other viewpoints – Many leaders work alongside their staff for years without truly learning what drives and motivates them.  Leaders must not only be willing to hear their employee’s stories and provide an environment where the are comfortable talking about them.  They must be ready to accept them and perhaps incorporate other viewpoints learned from those stories into their own development and growth.

  • Being open-minded – Beyond just hearing other viewpoints, a leader should be open-minded to the value of employee input.  If you grow a flower in a pot indoors, it may have to be replanted the next year to grow.  But that same flower outside lends itself to cross-pollination from bees, insects and birds that can foster a self-sustaining flower field that grows, changes and renews itself year after year.  Open-mindedness to all opinions within the workplace can cross-pollinate and create a self-sustaining culture of inclusiveness.

  • Understanding personal culture – Many companies have a homogeneous employee base.  Others have a culturally diverse workforce based on proximity to a major metropolitan area.  Leaders must craft their D&I to fit their geographical and demographic reality.  Understanding the culture and location of where they are managing is vital to creating brave conversations that fit the situation.  For example, in some cultures, parents want their child to look at them when they are speaking to them.  In others, eye contact with a parent is considered disrespectful.  Likewise, using the index finger to make a point has different meanings in different cultures.  Taking the time to understand the cultural background of the employees will make having brave conversations easier. 


To jump start the “hands-on” approach to having brave conversations, there are effective activities that can be used to get things moving.  These activities can include things such as:

  • My Fullest Name – This activity is great for groups who aren’t familiar with one another.  Each person writes down the three identities they hold most dear and uses that as a description of their name.  It may be a nickname and how they got it.  Or, it may be an ethnic origin, or cultural identity.  The goal is to have the person express who they are and how they arrived at that description.

  • I am…But I am Not – This activity is an effective way to start a brave conversational path.  Participants tell each other their stories and list their identifiers (similar to those used in My Fullest Name).  Once they are done, they then list stereotypes they have heard over the years about the identities they have listed.  This helps participants understand what they have endured and often reveals to the listeners issues they had not considered.  The goal is to open the conversation on the more difficult aspects of what they have experienced after contextually framing it within the experience of their cherished identity.

Brave conversations are difficult but not impossible.  For those seeking to improve their Diversity and Inclusion, integration with corporate culture is an imperative.  To do so, companies can set goals to achieve this.  Goals should include improving perspectives through activities, creating awareness by being open to difficult but informative stories that inform and shape leaders perspective of their employees and by choosing the hard path of having these difficult conversations.  It must be in an environment where everyone is comfortable and where everyone feels like they belong.  And in doing so it will change the culture, link it to D&I and ensure that those conversations continue going forward to move from an operationalized D&I structure to one where brave conversations are not dreaded but valued.


Five to Nine helps create the spaces where brave and honest conversations can happen. Request a demo today.

Pedro Suarez