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Why DEI is Leadership’s New EQ

The social movements and Covid-related disruptions of 2020 galvanized a rush to implement diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives and programs, yet outcomes have not caught up to intentions. Why a disconnect in DEI leadership? One reason for this is a disconnect at the executive level, where many company leaders simply have not grasped a critical fact: DEI efforts are a reflection of leadership’s values and priorities, and reveal a significant amount about an executive’s emotional intelligence (EQ).

After years of low-level buzz about DEI, the concept has moved beyond HR to become a significant topic of discussion among executives at companies of all sizes.

DEI leadership

Reframing the bottom line

HR and program development specialists have long wrestled with the best method for getting the C-suite on board with DEI initiatives. The focal point for these pitches has traditionally been pulling out the financial proof that DEI “works,” such as numerous surveys and studies indicating that diverse teams are more innovative, or that companies with diverse boards are more likely to achieve above-average profitability.

However, attention to DEI has quickly hurdled the fence from being a competitive advantage to a bare minimum for socially responsible companies. The challenge now is not whether your organization has a DEI strategy present, but how your company ensconces DEI in its culture and whether leadership is treating it as a key development tool. Consumers and investors are also looking to company leaders to see how they personally respond to and are involved in DEI efforts.

Leaders who internalize DEI as a core value and are able to demonstrate that commitment will be well-positioned as Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) performance indicators continue to ramp up — and the key to shifting perspective is by diving into the intersection of DEI and emotional intelligence.

Mapping DEI attitudes to emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is a critical skill to develop as executives have increasingly moved from the relative obscurity of the boardroom to the searing spotlight of social and traditional media. An executive’s ability to field, understand and manage their emotions and the feelings of others is now a general lynchpin for success, but it is also a key instrument in DEI.

Few would argue that each and every facet of DEI efforts contains uncomfortable truths, whether it be racism, sexism, ageism, ableism or any other focal point. Even for executives with years of experience in high-stress situations, embracing the discomfort associated with uncovering implicit bias and taking honest feedback from marginalized employees requires a tempered resolve and strategy rooted in EQ.

EQ-based actions for DEI success

As critical as surveys and metrics are for quantifying DEI success, improving the quality of initiatives requires hands-on allyship from the top. Executives must apply their knowledge of EQ to DEI in tangible ways and through tough discussions.

Some of the challenges leaders must face include:

  • Acknowledging their own irrational thoughts, fears and biases.
  • Intentionally centering empathy.
  • Addressing and improving impulse control.
  • Ensuring communication is welcome across seniority and through multiple channels.

These challenges require a rigorous dedication to openness and honesty, which are difficult to cultivate and maintain in a leadership role. Leaning into emotional intelligence and mapping it to actions related to DEI strengthens accountability and helps strengthen the bridges between the C-suite and employees when it comes to the steps needed for organizational progress.

DEI as a leadership development tool

DEI is not just an initiative or limited series of training. It reflects the values of an organization, as well as the organization’s leadership. To make those DEI dollars count, executives must stop treating the concept as a way to compete or comply with unwritten diversity rules, and realize that it’s an exercise in the emotional intelligence investors and employees look for in a leader.

Looking at DEI through the EQ lens facilitates a better understanding and application of both tools in everyday leadership. This dual approach allows the C-suite to more directly empower DEI efforts through true allyship and allows leaders to expand EQ for ongoing development of this critical skill.   


Learn more about SAI360’s Ethics and Compliance Learning solutions, our DEI program, or our ethical training experiences focused on executives, Tone at the Top.

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