Questions and answers from the messy/ fascinating side of equity, diversity and inclusion. 

5 Ground Rules for a Better Work Culture

If you already read my post on why I'm a fan of ground rules, you might be curious which to try first. Below are my five go-to ground rules that I start new groups and teams with, based on years of iterating and iterating some more.  In bold is what I usually write on the whiteboard, and the text below each ground rule is what I say aloud to new groups so they get the depth/ the why/ the how of each rule. 

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Ground Rules

Before we say/do/forward/reply-all/slack/etc, we consider: "Might this make someone really uncomfortable because it belittles, disses or straight up attacks something that is part of their core identity?" 

Example: I stop myself from Slacking a gif of a dancing Jesus in a speedo, because I realize some coworkers might find Jesus a really important part of their identity, and if I were them, this gif might make me feel kinda dissed.  Am I a bit sad because I find the dancing Jesus so super funny and I want to share it with the world? Yes.  Can my sadness be replaced by sending a gif of a gopher in a speedo instead? Totally. This ground rule is not about being politically correct or censoring ourselves, it's about caring about people's sense of belonging, which is a critical skillset for team success



#2  STAY CURIOUS: Every person is a universe
It's easy for us to feel curious about the universe because we don't presume we could possibly ever fully see it, much less fully understand it. It's vast, it's huge, it's complicated and well, fascinating. In this group/ in these conversations/ on this team, we treat humans the same way: We see every person as a universe of complex experiences, feelings and abilities, not something to be oversimplified or flattened. When we approach humans as complex vast universes, we create better conversations: Curiosity immunizes us against vengeance, arrogance, stubbornness and other types of dead-end discussions. Tip: Curiosity cannot be faked. Humans can smell inauthentic curiosity -- in how we talk to each other, in what questions we ask, in what body language we use, so curiosity starts in how we see each other, not in hiding what we actually think about each other.  

Personal example: There was a man in one of my workshops years ago who spoke more than others, used a louder volume than others, and who sat with his hands clasped behind his head in a leaning back kinda way (read: power pose) -- at pretty much every workshop and discussion.  Half-way through the session series, I realized that I was breaking the first ground rule -- I wasn't staying curious about him -- I had formed all kinds of presumptions about him (not empathetic, not comfortable being wrong, macho bro, etc).  In later sessions, I worked hard to fight my assumptions, and try out curiosity. I asked myself questions about him, like, was he loud in other group settings, or was it specific to this one? What did he like about these sessions, what did he dislike? What was the story with that bracelet he always wore? etc. About two years later he was leaving the company and wrote me a thank you email -- he told me the group sessions were transformative to him -- he had grown up with a violent father and then later struggled with wartime PTSD, and he learned more about himself in those groups sessions than with his therapist.  Lesson learned, again: Every human is a universe. Had I not course-corrected my presumptuous attitude, I am not sure that he would have felt truly respected or fully seen by me in those sessions, and his experience of them would have likely been really different. 

Every person here is superbly smart about a lot of things, and is trying to be a good human in this world.  I don't say that as a pep talk to y'all. It is a truth, and while it seems obvious right now, when discussions get messy or triggering, our brains (mine included) will throw ground rule #2 out the window, and then move to a presumption that the person on the other end of the conversation is clueless or careless or an asshole.  If I'm really triggered then I will presume that they are definitively all three. Here, we hold ourselves (and each other) gently but firmly accountable to speak and act from this truth: Everyone in this room is smart, and dang it, is really trying. They might need to hear a new angle on something, they may be acting defensive now, they might be triggered themselves and staying assholey things, but they are also smart and trying.  When someone approaches us authentically with both ground rule 2 and 3 firmly in their mind, we are much more willing to listen to that person, to consider their perspective, to buy them a donut, remember their birthday and in general, we are more willing to meet them halfway. 

If you have a complaint, take time to first brainstorm a few possible solutions or suggestions about what would make it better, then share both complaint and suggestion.  If you need to vent first to just sort through your thoughts and feelings, this is totally cool, you have five minutes to do so, we're here to listen or commiserate. If we surpass the five minutes, we'll gently but firmly remind each other that it's time to move towards brainstorming solutions, ideas or alternate suggestions.  



Offering suggestions and solutions is critical in EDI, but it only works if all parties are truly open to negotiation. In considering multiple new ways to achieve a goal, and considering new ways to prioritize my goals vs your goals. Example: Let's say you want a ground rule that we leave religion out of work. I want a rule that we don't use F bombs on slack or in email.  You love to curse, and I don't see what's the big deal with sending that gif of Jesus in a speedo.  The future will work out a lot better if we're both equally curious about how to achieve each other's goals, and we're open to the give and take that is part of all good relationships (work or personal).  That might mean we compromise - You agree to not use the F word in emails, and minimize how much you use it on Slack, and I agree to not mass-email or all-Slack stuff that makes fun of religions. Are we both perfectly happy? Possibly not. Do we both feel better because the other person is genuinely trying to meet in the middle? Definitely yes.

Equity, diversity and inclusion are not about making everyone 100% happy.  That is 100% impossible 100% of the time.  It's about everyone doing their damn best to stick to ground rules like these say, 89% of the time, and being patient with each other the other 11%. That's it.

After a few of these sessions, I'll open it up to see how we can tweak or replace these ground rules with even better ones, based on the groups needs and wishes.    

Ready to make ground rules your BFF? Here's how I breathe life into ground rules for a group or team.