How Leaders Master the Art of Crucial Conversations Around DEI

A Presentation by Jacques Whitfield of CPS HR Consulting

Written by Kristin Withrow, CSDA Communications Specialist


Jacques Whitfield CPS HR ConsultingJacques Whitfield of CPS HR Consulting discussed the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the workplace, and how the isolation resulting from the sudden migration to remote work had a magnifying effect on the cultural variances among teams. Home offices and video chats took the place of workplace interaction, leaving some to feel disconnected.  It also had the effect of spotlighting people’s home lives, from the intrusion of coworkers viewing each other’s home settings to the interruption of family members and pets inserting themselves into the scene during work calls.

The overarching effect of this heightened view into each other’s lives was a confusing mix of isolation and invasion of workplace into private space.  While the rise of cultural awareness had been increasing at a slow and steady pace broadly, the pandemic acted as a multiplier that catapulted the emphasis forward. 

Rapidly evolving cultural shifts can create backlash arising from discomfort. While some may embrace change, others are cautious or even resistant to change.  These two types of people, the early adopters versus the change resistant, have a moderating effect on the overall shift. 

Whitfield led the session, How Leaders Master the Art of Crucial Conversations around DEI, to a packed room of special district leaders eager to chart a mindful course through the implementation of policies to promote diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace.  He opened the session with a clear definition of DEI.

  • Diversity means “the sum total of all humanity. It’s everything, everyone, all abilities and all communication styles. It is far more than just protected status,” he explained.
  • Equity is all about creating maximum outcomes through the removal of barriers.
  • Inclusion is about action. It is giving everyone equal access to opportunities and resources such that everyone can go as high as they want to go as fast as they want to go.

Whitfield emphasized, “DEI is all about engagement. DEI implements modalities of maximum engagement - Maximum team engagement; Maximum employee engagement; Maximum organization engagement.”

One useful tool to understand how to begin exploring the cultural intelligence needed in the workplace is the book “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High” by Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler and Emily Gregory.

Crucial conversations include:

  • When opinions are strong and vary among team members
  • When there is a lack of consensus
  • When emotions are strong
  • When results impact quality of life

The key skill for effective leaders is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically charged issues through communication.  The emphasis on communication as the process and the solution requires an evolution beyond “talking at each other,” which is ineffective and polarizing, to a more inclusive conversation styel that includes listening to each other to find commonality and purpose. 

Organizations that master the art of inclusive communication are rewarded with less turnover, faster recovery from economic downturns, they have two thirds less workplace injury and are more profitable.  By mastering the art of crucial conversations, they have established a trust modality in the organization at all levels that creates emotional safety and results in greater cohesion. “These are organizations that have embraced transformation,” said Whitfield.

He defined two categories of communication modalities: communication for advocacy and communication for understanding. 

Advocacy communication is more authoritative and transactional.  It is a boss-to-employee modality whereby one individual tells another what, when, how to perform a task and is in a position of superiority to then judge the performance.  This is an essential element to organizational hierarchy and has a necessary space in the workplace – right after communication for understanding.

Communication for understanding includes awareness and connection.  It is a communication method that “meets you where you are,” said Whitfield.  “Most conflict is because some humans want to communicate for advocacy in the space of DEI before finding out where people are coming from,” explained Whitfield. DEI is not as simple as making a set of rules defining what people can or can’t do before understanding where the organization is in its current identity.

When leaders take the time to gather information from their workforce before creating policies, they must gather feedback in an open-ended manner with the intention of building an understanding of the workplace’s cultural starting point. It can be difficult for leaders to identify instances where they move straight to advocacy (to taking action and making policy) because they seek to maintain control or to assert authority before truly understanding the effect those actions will have on the people who must abide by the policies. It can seem easier to shift to action quickly and mark it off the “to do” list; however, ultimately action without understanding can have unanticipated costs and result in lost human capital, lost revenue and lost time.

The goal of DEI is to heighten an organizations’ emotional intelligence.  This includes a focus on self-awareness, situational awareness, self-regulation and self-management of individuals to promote responsible decision making.  Cultural intelligence is an extension of emotional intelligence.  Whitfield defines cultural intelligences as “how different groups of people connect, communicate and collaborate with different groups of people, whether they are aligned or misaligned.”

Human relationships are as complicated and varied as the humans involved.  Leaders who invest the time to thoughtfully create a culture with diversity, equity and inclusion will reap the reward of an emotionally intelligent, mindful workforce that results in maximum satisfaction and performance.

Get the Book!

Crucial Conversations (Third Edition): Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High

The book that revolutionized business communications has been updated for today's workplace. Crucial Conversations provides powerful skills to ensure every conversation - especially difficult ones - leads to the results you want. Written in an engaging and witty style, it teaches listeners how to be persuasive rather than abrasive, how to get back to productive dialogue when others blow up or clam up, and it offers powerful skills for mastering high-stakes conversations, regardless of the topic or person.