Let’s Talk: Expand Your Culture Through Tough Conversations

It’s tough, yet extremely valuable, to address complex issues at work. In this time of unprecedented change, it’s important to create space for open, honest dialogue around the topics on our minds today—race relations in America, the lack of balance in working parents’ lives, or gender in the workplace, for example.

When people gain shared understanding, they become more empathetic and expand their own perspectives, which provides a stronger sense of belonging and connection. “Those empathetic relationships and broader perspectives actually lead to better quality of work,” says Lauren Collins, Chief of Staff, Office of the CEO at IDEO.

In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, we sit down with Lauren to learn how she’s designed community conversations that promote a greater understanding of diversity of all kinds. She shares tips for how to host difficult conversations at work, how to build a more expansive culture, and why having conversations is action itself.


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Embrace and share your differences

As a child, Lauren was always aware of her differences. Growing up, she was often the only Black student in the class. Later, in business school and at work, she frequently found herself as the only woman or the youngest person in the room. “For most of my life, I've been the minority, and when you’re the ‘only’ or the ‘other,’ you become hyper-aware of your dissimilarity,” she says.

At first, Lauren did everything she could to fit in and minimize her differences. But as she grew older, she came to a realization. “Those differences I used to try to hide were actually the most important parts of me,” she says. “And when they’re celebrated versus oppressed, they actually make the spaces I'm in better.”

Lauren started to reframe her thinking. Instead of questioning why she was in a certain space, she began to ask herself what her voice could uniquely bring to the room. This shift in mindset planted the seeds of her passion to design a more expansive work culture. As she started to share more of who she was, she realized she wasn’t alone and decided to keep doing it. “It's about trying to give that power back to other people, to give them space to share their unique voices and harness that collective difference to make culture more expansive,” she says.


“It's about trying to give that power back to other people, to give them space to share their unique voices and harness that collective difference to make culture more expansive.”
Lauren Collins, Chief of Staff, Office of the CEO at IDEO


Focus on culture expansion

When it comes to building culture, many workplaces focus on helping employees fit in. Yet according to Lauren, that might not be the right lens. The focus shouldn’t be on fitting people into an existing environment, but rather creating an expansive environment that can adapt in response to new, diverse members and the experiences they bring.

To create this type of culture, Lauren starts with hosting community conversations. By intentionally setting aside time and space for people to share their experiences and listen to others, you can help people become more empathetic, expand their perspectives, and feel a stronger sense of belonging and connection. “Having these types of conversations goes one step beyond inclusion,” says Lauren. “It's actually about the idea of culture expansion.”

To illustrate the difference between an inclusive culture and an expansive culture, Lauren gives an example of dress codes at a party. “An inclusive culture is one where if you show up to a party and you're not wearing the dress code, they'll still let you in,” Lauren explains. “But in a culture that's open to expanding, when you show up to that same party and you're not in the dress code, not only do they let you in, but they ask you to pick the music.” With a culture open to expansion, people can bring their true and authentic selves to work, because that culture evolves to fit around them as individuals.

At IDEO, Lauren put her ideas to practice. As an introvert, she was overwhelmed by how social and collaborative the office environment was. Wondering whether there were others who felt similarly, she made a studio-wide announcement about hosting a community conversation around introversion. The conversation evolved into a mini-community, leveraging a Slack channel, as well as surveys and silent brainstorms. As a result of Lauren’s initial effort, project leaders started trying best practices on how to accommodate different working styles, the office experience team began hosting more introvert-friendly events like DIY crafts and puzzles, and the studio even redesigned a room as a library for heads-down work and reflection.

Across the workplace, people started to feel more comfortable acknowledging if they needed a moment to recharge or a quick break from the group. Because of that initial open conversation, IDEO was able to adapt its environment to be more balanced for both introverts and extroverts. “Working in this new way normalized introversion so much that our discussion group [on introversion] rarely needs to meet anymore,” says Lauren. “This is why organizations need to have these types of conversations and create space for them.”


Make participants feel comfortable

When designing conversations about race, Lauren notes that they “require more sensitivity, because [race] often prompts the most discomfort for participants.” It’s crucial to establish a sense of psychological safety, so people can open up.

When Lauren was working at her previous employer, there was a police shooting of an unarmed Black man in their community. Many of her Black colleagues felt impacted by it, but when they came to work, it felt like business as usual. Lauren and a colleague decided to hold a Town Hall meeting to acknowledge what happened but felt disappointed when few people showed up. She decided to partner with the YWCA, a nonprofit focused on eliminating racism, to determine how to make the conversation more approachable, so people would feel more at ease joining.

Through feedback, Lauren realized they could improve many aspects of the Town Hall, such as changing the environment from a massive auditorium with a stage and microphone to small table discussions in a cozier room. They also decided to not record any of the conversations and keep them confidential, so people would feel more comfortable sharing their honest experiences. With these changes, the new format of the conversations became a huge success, drawing in many participants. “They became a core part of the company, and several years later, they’re still hosting courageous conversations around race,” says Lauren.

Recently at IDEO, Lauren worked with a team to execute a virtual event called Let's Talk Diversity: A Conversation on Race in America that applied these same learnings. Over 500 employees, from new hires to IDEO’s leadership team, showed up to discuss the murder of George Floyd and racial injustice in America.



Lauren’s 6 tips for designing community conversations

1. Build a Planning Team

It can be difficult to pull off a community conversation by yourself, especially when you have to think about logistics, content, facilitation, and communications. Lauren suggests having two to four people help you—not only does it decrease the workload, but it also enables you to include diverse perspectives on the team. If you’re planning a virtual event, it’s also valuable to have a tech team on board to make sure the video chat runs smoothly.

2. Set Expectations for Participants

Define a clear purpose for the talk, whether it’s for building awareness, increasing understanding and compassion, or simply practicing listening. Reflect on your goals and desired outcomes for the session, and create conversation agreements and boundaries for participation (for example: assume positive intent or listen with curiosity). Usually, these sessions are meant to open up discussion rather than provide solutions to an issue, so Lauren likes to remind participants to expect non-closure. It’s also helpful to share the format in advance, so people feel more comfortable.

If you’re just starting out in dialogue about race and the majority of your team is non-BIPOC, we suggest first considering safe spaces for conversation through affinity groups, groups that bring together employees with similar backgrounds or interests. This can help ensure shared identities have space to process, and that unintentional harm is not caused to historically marginalized populations.

3. Establish Shared Context

“These conversations around race, gender, and age can be broad, so you want to focus the conversation by starting it with a piece of content to really anchor the event,” says Lauren. This shared content could be a guest speaker or a YouTube video clip, and it can help to ground people in the same experience and terminology. But don’t share it ahead of time—it’s valuable for everyone to experience the content together, so you can get their raw, honest reactions. Otherwise, people might think too much about the content beforehand and prepare responses rather than sharing their genuine feelings.

4. Train Facilitators

Facilitators can bring structure and guidance to conversations, ensuring that each participant has talking time and leaning into tensions when the moment feels right. Lauren suggests having one facilitator for every four to six people. She spends preparation time to help them understand the discussion questions, the conversation agreements, and their responsibilities. Lauren points out that facilitators should recognize that their role is simply to encourage dialogue and create a safe space for all. “Especially when it comes to conversations around race, we always ask people to first go on their own individual journey,” says Lauren. “You should understand your own identity, your biases, so that if you get triggered in the conversation, you know to take a deep breath and how to address it.” Oftentimes, Lauren creates facilitator training guides and conducts scenario-playing, so facilitators understand what type of situations they should expect and how they can respond.

5. Model Vulnerability

When organizers and facilitators model vulnerability, it gives other participants permission to do the same. Meaningful discussion doesn’t start until someone moves past the intellectual analysis to sharing how they actually feel based on their own experiences. “It’s hardest for us to talk about ourselves and to talk from a place of ‘I.’ And so once someone actually goes there, it invites others to do the same,” says Lauren. Sharing vulnerable stories helps people know they’re in a brave space, where you expect and embrace differences, and creates the foundation for people to show up and contribute authentically.

Lauren points out that while community conversations can benefit everyone, they should not be considered HR or company-wide training—if they’re formal or required, then people might not come with the mindset of vulnerability. “These conversations require people to lean into discomfort, and in order to do that, they should be there by their own volition," explains Lauren. “So having it come from the community makes it more inviting.”

6. Evaluate and Iterate

After each community conversation, it’s helpful to reflect and learn from what happened. Rather than assuming what people need, you should simply listen and be open to adapting and improving for future sessions. Lauren likes to end with a feedback survey for participants and facilitators, and then make changes accordingly.


Anyone can do it—you’re already qualified

Most people have a bias toward action. But Lauren emphasizes that it is enough to start with these conversations. “Sharing your own experience, listening to that of your colleagues—that in itself is action,” says Lauren. “Building that empathy leads to better action in other places.”

It can feel intimidating to open up and host these conversations, but if you’re passionate, then you should try it. “Absolutely anyone can and should feel comfortable hosting a community conversation,” says Lauren. “If you're a person and you have lived experiences, then you're qualified.”

Learn more about establishing a culture of belonging and creating space for a diversity of perspectives in our online course Cultivating Creative Collaboration.

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