When we see aspects of white supremacy culture arise during DEI work (perfectionism; assimilation; presumption of comfort, safety, and power; individualism), it’s rarely in the form of overt bigotry or discrimination. We’ve all been socialized with white supremacy cultural values. Here are some common manifestations:
- A CEO labels all differences and conflict as “lack of respect”
- Employees are afraid to say or do anything that risks making leadership uncomfortable
- Leadership criticizes the slightest errors in people or their work
- Everyone avoids any emotions, especially strong and uncomfortable ones
- Treating consultants with a lack of humanity
- Talking about a conflict with everyone except the person you’re in conflict with
We expect things to get hard and uncomfortable during DEI work. And we know the work can be easily undermined if we don’t name and confront white supremacy culture.
And so we never proceed without Working Agreements, which are like a set of ground rules and expectations. When there’s a disruption or conflict, we turn to our Working Agreements to help us hold space for differences, navigate conflict, name what’s happening, and repair any ruptures. They are the foundational commitments we fall back on when we notice white supremacy culture driving our behaviors.
Here are some of the Working Agreements we set with every client, and why they’re crucial to substantive and transformative DEI work. We also create additional agreements with clients, based on each organization’s culture, needs, and special challenges.
Working Agreement: You’re Going to Feel Things
DEI work asks us to challenge our values, behaviors, and unconscious biases. All that is going to make us uncomfortable at the very least, and make us feel. But we’ve been socialized against emotions at work, rewarding the stoic and unflappable instead. No wonder the presence of any emotions, especially strong ones, signals to us that something is wrong.
One of our most crucial working agreements is that emotions are welcome, and we need to grow in our capacity to recognize, name, and manage our emotions. Otherwise, we try to control our emotions in damaging ways: denying; hiding; discharging onto others; exerting power and control; shaming; avoiding—all behaviors that damage connection and relationships.
Working Agreements remind us that emotions are normal and help us get curious about them. Emotions are actually good sources of data, helping us understand what we might need, what’s missing, what’s unfair, what’s getting in the way of our best work—but only if we can name them, reflect on them, and empathize with ourselves and others.
Working Agreement: Conflict is Normal (and Good)
Organizations often come to us with the expectation that gaining diversity will mean the end of conflict. We doubt that they would expect conflict-free friendships, romantic partnerships, or families. It’s just not realistic.
DEI work isn’t designed to make everyone happy or get along perfectly. Difference means conflict. Our job is not to eliminate conflict, but to reframe our fear of conflict. We help organizations uncover their ability to disagree and remain connected. Employees and leaders learn to manage the discomfort of disagreement, preserve the relationship, and find new ways forward.
Working Agreements establish that differences aren’t the end of relationships. We own and acknowledge them, regard others with respect, and discern toxic conflict from healthy conflict.
Working Agreement: We Prioritize Relationships
Working together doesn’t automatically create a relationship. If only professional development involved relationship development, helping us practice the complexities of navigating each other’s humanity.
Because relationships are often the first things we lose when we’re uncomfortable or unable to manage our emotions—instead of leaning into the discomfort, we cut people off. We transfer them, fire them, or simply refuse to work with them.
Leaders may believe that this practice makes them tough, but it really teaches their team one thing: do not cause discomfort. Do not speak up, ask questions, or disagree. Uncertainty about relationships doesn’t make anyone a better employee or strengthen your organization. It just makes everyone afraid.
Working Agreements remind us that leaders don’t have to be right all the time or know all the answers. People can make mistakes, even cause unintended harm, and not be cut off.
Working Agreement: You’re in Relationship with your DEI Practitioners, Too
We say, somewhat jokingly, to every organization we work with, “there will come a point when you’ll get angry with us.” It’s actually good news because getting angry requires being in a relationship—anger is a function of trust, interdependence, and liking one another.
Why is it rare that a stranger arouses our anger? Because we don’t hold any expectations of them. Strangers can’t hurt us like friends can.
As practitioners, we live our work. We don’t always get it right, but we are committed to going beyond presenting ideas. Which means we’re not just there to facilitate your organization’s relationships, we’re there to build them with you. Consultants don’t always get seen as fully human. We’re seen as providing a service, temporary, quick to hire and quick to let go. Our model of consultancy is different—not transactional but relational.
So, we do our internal work alongside you. We experience feelings, frustrations, and discomfort with conflict. Why does our relationship with the organization matter? It’s an arena to practice relationship building with safety, support, and less at stake than with those inside your organization.
Working Agreements Keep Us Grounded
Organizational dynamics can be deeply ingrained and hard to even see, let alone break out of. Change isn’t just hard—organizations resist change by trying to assimilate people into their established culture and their values. This includes DEI practitioners and consultants.
Even though our role is to stand somewhat outside the organization and hold up a mirror to behaviors and values, we can be subject to the very behaviors and values organizations call us for help with.
They marginalize or silence us.
They judge our presentation slides or delivery against perfectionism standards.
They shame us for displaying emotions.
They talk about their conflict with us to everyone in the organization except us.
They shut down, sometimes quite literally by turning off their cameras and mics on a video call or leaving the room.
All while we’re trying to do challenging DEI work together.
Working Agreements keep us firmly grounded as your advocates, coaches, mirrors, and guides, so we don’t get pulled into dysfunction. They also remind us of when we are deep in the work. Sometimes our team will feel stuck or unsure of how to move forward, only to realize that this means we’re doing the work, we’re inside the work, and it’s working.
What Repair Looks Like
When there’s a rift between our team and an organization we’re working with, repair begins with a conversation. Not email or text, but seeing each other and being in the full presence of each other’s humanity.
We listen deeply, help clients name their experiences and their needs, and build empathy. We strive to understand where the client is coming from and to be authentic and vulnerable in how we show up.
We ask, for example, what need is your anger pointing us toward, and how can we help you fill that need? We apologize for harm, even when unintentional—this goes back to another working agreement: recognize the intent and acknowledge the impact.
This kind of inner agility is crucial for all employees but for leaders especially. In our learning block on emotions, Jennifer always shares a story of how her own inner agility was tested. She found herself on a call with Kim, Leverage to Lead’s head of HR, requesting a new policy be written. Kim asked simply, “Do we really need this policy?” In the pause she allowed for Jennifer’s answer, more than a yes/no surfaced.
“What I realized,” Jennifer reflects, “is that when I’m feeling frustrated or angry with our team, my go-to is to create a policy. Except, a policy isn’t going to change my feelings. It’s just a way for me to exert my power over other people because I’m uncomfortable with their power to elicit a feeling in me. So, I’m actually making them responsible for my feelings when I create a policy out of emotional reactivity.”
What made this moment of inner agility possible was Jennifer and Kim’s relationship, based in psychological safety, mutual respect and regard, and shared values. It was possible because of the culture they had both agreed to uphold.
“My agility meant that I needed to pause,” continues Jennifer. “I needed to recognize that I’m having a feeling, and that my reaction may be disproportionate to the event that caused it.”
Believe us when we say we understand your discomfort. We empathize with your frustration and anger. We struggle with our feelings and our humanity too. But we’re doing this work with our clients and with our own team every day because we believe this is the way toward real equity and inclusion.
If your organization is ready to learn more about DEI Working Agreements, learning blocks, or other transformative practices, reach out today to any member of our team.