Five tips for creating a compelling EDI Narrative

A coach with a clipboard talking to his team on a field

By Rina Goldenberg Lynch

The success of your Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) strategy depends to a large extent on how successful the leadership is in engaging the staff population. This will depend greatly on the narrative leaders embrace when talking about the benefits that EDI offer to your company.  It’s worth thinking carefully about precisely what that message should entail and how it might land with employees.

To ensure your EDI strategy is relatable to every person, I offer you the following five tips:

1.  Start with Why

  • Start your communication by explaining why EDI is important to your company. What is the opportunity that the company is seeking to achieve with its EDI strategy?  This is the high-level narrative that might be set out in the EDI strategy or on the website. This high-level overview sets the tone for a more detailed discussion.
  • Continue by explaining why EDI is important to your specific department or group. For this communication to be effective, the high-level narrative needs to be adapted, with examples that they can directly relate to.   Are you perhaps a sales team that needs to reflect and understand the different types of customers you have so that they can feel heard and understood? Or maybe you’re the IT team looking after the rest of the organisation, so EDI helps you not only to understand the needs of your in-house clients but to come up with solutions for the different scenarios in which IT is utilised. Or maybe you run the premises security department, so EDI could make it easier to get a sense for the varied situations that might cause security breaches and how to pre-empt and/or address them.  Whatever the team, there will be a specific benefit that EDI affords you. If you don’t yet know exactly what that might be, it is a good idea to spend some time thinking about it and even asking the team to think about this together; another option is to ask peers or your EDI team.

2.  Provide the right incentive
Motivate your team using both a ‘carrot’ (explaining how EDI helps us improve what we do and how it will help us hit our targets) and a ‘stick’ (what will happen if we do nothing).

A carrot approach will start with those benefits referenced above, but you can also provide other incentives, like monthly recognition or even prizes.  Some companies incorporate rewards for people who are proactively helping achieve targets or other EDI-related ambitions.  The most common reward is for managers who succeed in expanding the diversity of their teams; others can include cash for the introduction of suitable candidates with a diverse background or identity (i.e. different from the one dominant in the team), or for identifying a bias in a process and offering sensible solutions to address it.

A stick approach might be equally as familiar.  This is when people are discouraged from  unwanted behaviour, such as harassment or microaggressions, by clarifying that this is unacceptable in the workplace and will not be tolerated. Another one is to ask the team what they think would happen if they didn’t embrace the company’s EDI ambitions – how much of a future would they have in the organisation as a team, and even as an organisation, if others also took no action?

This approach of providing an incentive to help on the one hand, and a reason not to get in the way on the other, will relate to most parts of the EDI journey and thus will have the broadest appeal.

3. State Your Ask
Once you’ve set the scene for the importance of EDI to your organisation and team and provided suitable motivation, it’s time to be specific about your ask: what do you want each person to do?  A good general example of this is this statement made by the Chair of PWC a few years ago:

Are there people who just feel like they got cheated? Yes there are.  And what I say to those people is ‘I’m asking you to respect what we are trying to do.  I’m asking you to respect our colleagues. I’m asking you to have compassion.  And if you don’t agree, that’s OK.  You don’t have to agree with me.  But I do need you to live our values.’ 

A more specific ask can be requesting that each person attends offered training on the subject (if they haven’t yet) and brings their learning into team meetings where the topics might be discussed for 10-15 minutes.  For those who have been actively engaged in EDI, this might be an invitation to help observe unwanted behaviours and call out what might be hidden assumptions and judgment as and when they occur, in the spirit of the entire team learning to address them.  For those who have lived experience of bias or discrimination, perhaps some of them may wish to share it with the wider team, so that everyone can become more aware of the struggles of a few.

4.  Caveat Emptor: Buyer Beware 
If you’re introducing a change into a homogenous team, expect there to be friction.  It’s important to acknowledge in your messaging that push-back, mistakes and even paralysis (i.e. the feeling that you can’t say or do anything anymore that won’t be ‘misinterpreted’) are all part of the process.  Mistakes are a great way to learn, so as long as people are trying, it is OK to misstep and learn from it.  Be clear about the type of supportive environment you wish to create so the team can grow and evolve together on this journey. Explain that you’re all in the same boat and, while some are sitting at the stern and others the bow, the boat will be advancing through uncharted waters together, with a captain that is but a few steps ahead of everyone else.  Make it clear that you are available to your team if they have questions or worries about the changes taking place and invite them to speak to you individually. Explain how you envisage the team handling the inevitable mistakes, how you will be learning together and how you will support each other as you practise new skills and form new habits.

5. Staying the Course
While it is expected that people will misstep as they’re learning together, it is also important to formalise expectations, so that you can address any non-compliance with the company’s EDI ambitions.  So to complete the message, consider how you could enforce non-compliance informally or formally if it becomes obstructive.  What is a reasonable time period for learning, after which you will expect people to have made strides forward and have fewer missteps?  What will you do if you notice people aren’t making the necessary effort?  When will you take stock of the progress you’ve made and adjust the course of your journey? You may wish to involve the rest of the team to come up with answers to these questions.  The more people agree the boundaries, the easier they will be to enforce.

In summary, saying the right thing to the rest of the employee population will help you deliver on your EDI strategy.  Crafting this message will take a bit of thinking time.  But to paraphrase one of Nancy Kline’s most powerful quotes, the quality of everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first.  So it’s worth investing a few minutes to articulate this message in writing and to practise delivering it, so it lands exactly as intended every time you deliver it.

What will your EDI message look like?