The power of stories: 4 insightful approaches to DEI conversations

In today’s working world, employees are more often likely to share the inner workings of companies and the behaviors of their leaders on social media—both the good and the bad. Companies are also breaking down established processes, functional silos, and leadership habits to open up and share more stories about what work life is really like for historically marginalized people. Amid this change is a growing realization that many corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts must focus on behavior change, cultural transformation, or system rethinking. 

LRN’s latest webcast, “How Stories Build Empathy, Guide Better Decisions, and Foster Stronger Cultures of DEI,” explored how some organizations are evolving beyond traditional programs and looking at DEI as both an ethical imperative and a manifestation of company culture and values. I had the real privilege of moderating this discussion with some accomplished guests: 

  • Jennifer Brunelle, Head of Charitable Giving at NRG Energy, Inc. 
  • Rachel Collins, Head of Inclusion & Diversity at Colt Technology Services 
  • Nadine Jones, Co-founder and Executive Director of THE INITIATIVE: Advancing the Blue & Black Partnership  

4 insightful approaches to DEI conversations 

Stories have the power to reflect and shift culture. Here are four actions the panelists recommended to help ensure DEI conversations are authentic, values-based, and supportive in fostering ethical and inclusive cultures. 

  1. Bring people together over shared experiences. When it comes to DEI efforts, we've written before about the importance of balancing individual learning elements with more collaborative ones. Providing opportunities for people to come together and explore their commonalities and differences makes a significant impact. Brunelle discussed how her team received feedback early on in the roll-out of self-led DEI trainings that while it was helpful, NRG employees felt it lacked the in-person element. As the program grew, they integrated more interactive sessions where employees shared personal stories in small groups and participated in philanthropic activities. Brunelle explained that by doing this, “You’re getting to know each other, you’re finding those commonalities, and you're breaking down those barriers through a different lens.”
  2. Be collaborative, vulnerable, and respectful. A truly inclusive environment is one where everyone involved believes that they will make progress together with the help of each other’s perspectives. That kind of collaboration requires being vulnerable about your own experiences and respectful of the experiences of others. As Jones put it, “You need to really believe that you can't get to where you want to go without the other person. That belief is what is going to anchor you through difficult conversations.” This fuels her efforts at THE INITIATIVE, which works to end systemic police violence and implement a collaborative approach to building healthy, scalable, community policing models.
    You need to really believe that you can't get to where you want to go without the other person.”        —Nadine Jones, Co-founder and Executive Director of THE INITIATIVE
  3. Don’t lose sight of the people impacted by the issues. It's important to remember that people are at the center of all DEI topics. Collins noted that sometimes conversations can stray into hypothetical or theoretical areas, leaving the human element out entirely. “Sometimes with conversations about inclusion and diversity, you get people talking about it as if it’s an intellectual debate,” she said. “The fact that there’s a human being—many human beings—on the end of that ‘debate’ is really important to not lose sight of.” Collins and her team, inspired by the viral Humans of New York Facebook page, decided to highlight the many different people who make up Colt Technologies. They created Humans of Colt, an online initiative where hundreds of employees talk about their personal sources of inspiration and proudest achievements. 
  4. Check your biases—often. Everyone has room to be more empathetic and inclusive. It’s an ongoing part of our growth, but it can be stunted by our personal biases. That’s why it’s important to not only seek out other perspectives, but also reflect on our own thoughts and behaviors. A clear indicator that you need to check your biases, said Jones, is a lack of empathy. If you find yourself being dismissive of another group of people, take a step back and ask yourself why that is. “Part of the problem is we keep populating these broken systems, but we haven’t evolved ourselves,” Jones stated. “It is incumbent upon us to evolve, and then the systems that we populate will be easier to change.” 

The key takeaway 

At the heart of these actions, the panelists agreed, is the importance of embracing imperfection. Oftentimes, people feel  pressure to express the perfect response or idea when discussing DEI topics. But being a person means making mistakes and missteps. Holding grace for yourself and others, especially when they share their experiences, is essential to creating an inclusive work environment. To watch the full webcast panel discussion, click here. 

At LRN, our work looks at effective and sustainable DEI efforts through the lens of authentic expression of human values, purpose, mission, and culture. You can learn more about increasing the impact of your DEI program by checking out our comprehensive DEI offering—including curriculum planningcoursesadvisory services, and other tools designed to help people do the right thing.