By Chuck Shelton

In the previous article, we explored handling fear and creating safety as we work on inclusive leadership with white male executives. Now we consider a core skill for all D&I work: the courageous conversation.

This four-week series builds on the findings, recommendations, and learning from the ongoing Study on White Men Leading Through Diversity and Inclusion. This is the first research to analyze and improve the effectiveness of white men as they integrate diversity and inclusion into their leadership work. For more on the study, and to download a free copy of the Executive Summary, go to

The first finding from the research is this: the conversation about diversity and inclusion with white male leaders requires care and focus.

Care and Focus

When the words ‘white men’ are used, things can get complicated. Most executives develop a finely tuned sense of risk as they rise. How do we learn to talk about the risks inherent to including white men in inclusion?

Make conversation safe.

Remember that white male leaders tend to keep their heads down on diversity, so they may be cautious upon receiving the invitation to take more responsibility for integrating diversity and inclusion into their daily leadership work.

Discipline the tone of every conversation and organizational message about white male inclusion. It’s about invitation, listening for understanding, and mutual learning. Handle resistance and disagreement and conflict with grace and respect. Shed any impulse to blame, and invest in “I” statements. Build trust by encouraging one another to tell personal stories about learning and leading through D&I. It’s gotta be real.

And leaders who are not white and male may quietly doubt that white male inclusion will open doors for them. During the research, an executive of color wondered if her feedback would “just increase the power white men have.” Extend the constructive tone to every party in the conversation.

Define the conversation.

There are definition issues. People want to know:

What are we talking about?

The use of the words ‘white men’ operates in a larger social narrative. Responses to including white male leaders range from “it’s racist to even talk about it” to “this doesn’t help me do my job” to “they are already in charge; now we’re trying to draw them out?” Privately note the resistance in such comments, and stay the course by focusing on the integrity of inclusion and solving people problems.

Why is the organization talking about white guys?

People need to understand the case for why the organization now intentionally seeks to include white male leaders, and all white men, in diversity and inclusion. Build the business case for white male leadership development (see the first article in this series on “Why Is White Male Inclusion Important?).

What results do we seek through this learning?

Stakeholders must see the linkage to behaviors (for the work to be real and useful) and to outcomes (to justify the time and resources required to succeed). The behavior that guides us to the outcomes? The ability to succeed in courageous conversations.

Respect and Candor

Courageous conversations about white male inclusion – especially dialogue with white male executives – should always balance words of respect and candor. Such high-performing discussions require two competencies:

Invest in respect.

One of the most heartening data points in the research: almost 80% of all respondents offered a positive effectiveness rating on the ability of white male leaders to ‘show respect for diverse co-workers.’ This skill at honoring and esteeming the character and contribution of others powerfully serves white men (and everyone else), as they learn to lead more effectively among diverse colleagues and customers. Another encouraging response: 79% of white men indicated that they are ‘Usually’ or ‘Almost always’ ‘comfortable talking about diversity and inclusion issues with my colleagues.’

Respectful conversation includes statements of appreciation, accurate rephrasing that demonstrates listening, protecting face-to-face interaction from the intrusive use of technology, appropriate eye contact, facial expression that matches the tone of the talking, and other behaviors that communicate our esteem for the other.

Commit to candor.

In contrast, when asked: ‘When it comes to saying just what needs to be said (candor) among diverse co-workers, white male leaders in your company generally are …’, only 36% of white male respondents answered ‘Quite effective’ or ‘Extremely effective’. In the context of white male inclusion, candor can be defined as ‘saying what needs to be said in a way people can hear it from you.’

Throughout the study, some white men avoided straight talk with deflective comments around the inherent bias of focusing on white men, or the irrelevancy of gender and race (particularly from people in the Millennial generation), or arguments about equivalency (“you could never ask these questions about black women”). We need to recognize deflections, and respond to such viewpoints through honest, straightforward dialogue.

Conflict Resolution

One final thought on courageous conversations: prepare for high-performing conflict. Diversity involves differences in traits and experiences and choices, and differences of opinion. So it is wise to expect that conflict will sometimes accompany straight-up conversations among white male executives and their diverse colleagues.

White men, of course, also have emotions at stake – one respondent said: “I feel like we, as white men, are the forgotten group in the company, when it comes to diversity and inclusion.” The perception of being is a powerful demotivator in every human.

When asked to rate the effectiveness of white male leaders in their company ‘when it comes to equipping all employees to resolve diversity-related conflict’, only 20% of respondents who were not white men answered ‘Quite effective’ or ‘Extremely effective’. White men responded to the same question with a 42% positive rating. Sadly, we have come to accept this significant organizational risk: low-performing conflict coinciding with low expectations for conflict resolution.

People in the organization watch with laser-like intensity when conflict comes up. Conflict tests our values and our plans, and it provides crucial information to followers about the trustworthiness of their leaders. When conflict is effectively resolved, relationships strengthen and results get back on track.

Since the business reasons for focusing on white male leaders are compelling, and there are challenges to make it safe for courageous conversations, it makes sense to upgrade every leader’s skill in conflict resolution.

Courageous conversations that effectively engage white men will feature care and focus, respect and candor, and a maturing approach to conflict. Such conversations set the stage for emerging strategies and practices in white male inclusion, which we will review in next week’s final article in this series.

Chuck Shelton is the managing director at Greatheart Leader Labs, the author of Leadership 101 For White Men, and the principal of the Study on White Men Leading Through Diversity and Inclusion. He has spoken, consulted, trained, and advised on leadership development and global diversity and inclusion for three decades, through more than 300 projects and presentations.