Improving diversity, equity and inclusion through EI

LaTonya Jackson provides 4 steps to counter micro aggressions with emotional intelligence training

The diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) conversation has undoubtedly shifted. Many organisations responded to the events of 2020 with bold DEI initiatives, programmes and policies designed to encourage participation by and improve representation of marginalised people.  An evaluation of these efforts, however, leaves lingering questions about ongoing support. Simply hiring a more diverse team does not result in an inclusive culture; it requires lasting work.

Research confirms that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams. Since diverse teams include people who bring their biases and emotions to work, those who lead these teams must understand, model, and assist in developing inclusive behaviours. But first, leaders must have a shared vision to create respectful environments along with a leadership-wide commitment to the right behaviors.

Emotional Intelligence in leadership

Often, eliminating microaggressions (comments or actions that subtly – and often unconsciously or unintentionally – express prejudicial attitudes toward marginalised groups) means improving emotional intelligence (EI) of leaders.

Emotional intelligence can be defined as the ability to manage one’s own emotions, and those of others. If a leader lacks the awareness or ability to regulate their emotions related to inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility, then they’re less likely to motivate or show empathy to their teams. They’ll continue to engage in subtle and unconscious behaviours that create social awkwardness at best, and an overtly racist workplace at worst.

We must acknowledge the forms in which bias — often a decided lack of awareness — shows up in our own workplaces

Micro aggressive moments matter. They can lead to workplace culture disruptions, cause lasting emotional damage, and undermine opportunities for marginalised workers to succeed and grow. A manager’s good intention is not enough to overwrite the hurtful impact felt by the member(s) of the excluded group. Leaders who are equipped with solid social skills, empathy and motivation are better able to move people from destructive to constructive behaviours, creating respectful workplace environments. It’s important we understand how organisational leaders can improve their EI as it relates to eradicating micro aggressive behaviors.

Leaders can develop EI through an understanding of awareness, acknowledgement, action and accountability, and a willingness to implement change. 


Change always begins with awareness — understanding and acknowledging that something is happening that is in our power to alter. In the case of micro aggressions, it begins with the question… Why do we commit them? 

Leaders must put themselves in the shoes of others: What would your response be if someone took credit for your ideas? Withheld necessary information to do your job well? What would it be like to be called the wrong name? When leaders assess their reactions to these questions, it creates an opportunity to hold up the proverbial mirror. Further ask: Am I doing any of these to the people I manage? Am I doing any of these more often to the people I manage who are part of a marginalised group?

Engage in discussion with employees about where you differ and where you align. The goal (and eventual result) is to preserve the dignity of every individual on the team, ensure mutual respect for differing perspectives, and enable everyone to grow and become better versions of themselves at work, and in their respective communities.


We must acknowledge the forms in which bias — often a decided lack of awareness — shows up in our own workplaces. For example: imagine sharing an idea in a meeting and being overlooked until someone else shared the same concept and was credited, or even applauded, for their contribution.

Consider ubiquitous statements such as “I don’t see colour” or “you’re so articulate/well-spoken” or “you don’t strike me as gay”. These subtle moments are an attempt to discount and discredit people. Even when said with good intention, they can have an unintentional negative impact. As a leader, you must acknowledge your own implicit biases and mistakes to learn from them and avoid repeating them in the future

Action and accountability

Whether it takes the form of implicit bias training, emotional intelligence training, or both, managers and executive team members must do some serious self-reflection before they can look to improve others or drive change. This includes challenging their own biases, acknowledging shortcomings, developing empathy and seeking to build unity.

The benefits of doing this work is significant. While individual EI tends to be fairly stable, we can make personal changes that affect the wellbeing of those around us; Harvard Business Review reports that coaching programmes can improve interpersonal skills by 25%, that stress-management programmes can improve up to 35%. Co-creating and implementing shared values and shared visions of DEI in the workplace can improve organisations’ unification efforts, leading directly to greater innovation, less perceived bias, reduced discrimination, and a decrease in emotional exhaustion caused by discrimination. Implicit bias training works.

Take action! When you observe or are made aware of micro aggressive behaviour, speak up, say something and hold everyone accountable to building and maintaining a culture of respect.

Better DEI is possible through EI

We all strive for an ideal future of equal opportunity, mutual respect and workplaces that not only understand, but embrace differences. The more we can learn about ourselves as leaders and work to improve our self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills, the more we can collectively improve corporate spaces moving forward. 

Recognising that a lack of EI can lead to unconsciously acting upon biases, is it reasonable to assume that by improving EI for those in leadership roles we can further the cause of overcoming micro aggressions and bias at work? Science says we can, if we’re willing to put in the work. Leaders must focus on acknowledging and overcoming their own biases before they attempt to hold others accountable for doing the same.

LaTonya Jackson, Ed.D. is the vice president of services at Media Partners



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