Emotional Intelligence (EQ): The Bridge from Diversity to Inclusion

Andrea managed to find a new project management position at a large pharmaceutical company despite the challenging job environment of COVID-19. She had been laid off in March, and she wasn’t quite sure what to expect during an onboarding process. Turns out her new company takes onboarding seriously. They run an official process with a thick packet and formal classes. Andrea is delighted to discover the time and attention devoted to the company’s support of diverse minds, skills, and people, but privately she can’t help but wonder what the actual day-to-day will feel like for her as a woman and a person of color. Will she actually feel included?

Feeling included depends on whether her coworkers, direct reports, and the leaders around her do their part to implement inclusive practices, which are critical for building an inclusive culture and can only be experienced through the day-to-day life at the company.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) can provide employees, teams, and leaders with the awareness and behaviors needed to create a diverse and inclusive culture, one that is welcoming, curious, and supportive for everyone on the team. Emotional intelligence is your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships. It consists of four key skills: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, and Relationship Management. The highs and lows of Andrea’s onboarding experience illustrate three important ways EQ skills can help foster an inclusive environment:

1. EQ skills enable empathy for newcomers. From day one, Andrea’s team went above and beyond to get to know her. Within the first month, each team member met with her for a one-on-one lunch with a more informal agenda. As a result of getting to know each team member, Andrea felt more comfortable sooner, asserting herself when she had questions, suggestions, or concerns. Empathy necessitates a high degree of social awareness and relationship management. To be empathetic, team members have to proactively learn where new team members are coming from (their stories, culture, background, personality, etc.), acknowledge one another’s feelings, and make an effort to reach out or help. Empathy requires both understanding and action.


2. EQ skills deepen trust over time. Andrea was also pleased to see that as a group they prioritized trust. They used their self-management skills to listen longer and their relationship management skills to give trust (“Yasafar, I trust you. Thanks for working your magic”), rather than making people earn it (“Yasafar, let’s see if you have it in you”). They held everyone accountable for sharing their perspective by calling on quieter people to share and balancing the time taken by talkative people. On lesser teams, people can easily feel that they are outsiders and don’t have a voice at the table until invited, and studies show that individuals on these teams are much less likely to thrive. High EQ words and actions encourage performance and job satisfaction while low EQ words and actions create what are called micro-aggressions, leading newer team members to feel they don’t belong, or aren’t trusted.

3. EQ skills facilitate accountability and learning from mistakes. Even teams that practice trust and empathy can be prone to mistakes. When Andrea sat down to join her first monthly project management meeting, she listened as key players shared progress, numbers, and unique challenges and the next milestones. When the discussion got to the topic of mobilizing eight action teams and the need for recruiting more women, they began to direct questions to Andrea but none about the project content. Their intention was to learn from their newest player, but they really just made her feel singled out. They ignored her expertise, experience, and perspective, and assigned her the role of expert on recruiting women of color, which she had no background in. The team had built enough early trust with Andrea, that she felt comfortable calling out what just happened. She explained how they made her feel one-dimensional. One team member acknowledged she made a good point, apologized on behalf of the team, and another team member assured her they would work on being more aware and considerate. They moved on with the meeting. Working on being emotionally intelligent doesn’t mean doing everything perfectly all the time; it’s about continuous improvement through practice. The best thing Andrea’s team could have done would of course be to problem-solve the diversity recruitment challenge together, but once the mistake was made, they at least listened, could see how she felt, took accountability, apologized. and stated their effort not to repeat their mistake. Andrea’s courage to speak up, and the team’s vulnerability to own their mistake (instead of lashing back, joking it off, or withdrawing into awkward silence) are all examples of what being self-aware, socially aware, and able to self-manage can do for a team dynamic.

From Insights to Action. Just as humans aren’t perfect, Andrea’s onboarding experience was mostly good, but not perfect. The company really did value diversity and inclusion, so they had also invested in training people to develop their EQ skills. These combined efforts increased the likelihood that the project management team made early efforts to get to know Andrea, made her feel valued enough to speak up, and had the EQ skills to receive her feedback and navigate through an important moment. EQ skills don’t prevent bias, but they do give people ways to be aware in the moment, to work through uncomfortable feelings constructively, and to help foster a culture of inclusion.

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