DEI Programs Not Working? Time to Grow Your EQ

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

I came of age in the corporate world when diversity was just becoming a mainstream talking point. The conversations in those early days were about hiring quotas and employee resource groups for women and people of color. Eventually every salaried employee in America took a Harvard implicit bias test, and diversity, equity and inclusion evolved. Over the years, however, not that much has changed when it comes to DEI at work, and that’s for two main reasons. The same two main reasons most things stop working when humans and capitalism are involved: money and feelings.

The early days of DEI

In the early days of DEI, the first thing we had to do was convince our bosses it was worth our time to even be thinking about it. I vividly recall a conversation I had with a prominent CEO who told me not to worry about “all that diversity stuff because it wasn’t the point.” His company supported organic farming and that was enough. That attitude was why advocates spent all their time gathering data about returns on investment for diversity efforts — even at the most “progressive” organizations. Everyone was trying to get the old white men in charge on board so we could get the time and money to even do the work. And, we weren’t appealing to their better natures, just the bottom line.

From quotas to culture

This was a tenuous foundation for all of the work to come. Since the premise of most DEI work was that it was financially productive, and hiring was something everyone already did, the work itself got stuck in headcount. As companies actually did hire more diverse employees, however, a new problem emerged — it was a lot easier to see racism and sexism in the workplace with people of color and women there to call it out. HR leaders everywhere went back to the DEI drawing board. It was time to talk about culture, and diversity trainings began in earnest. The problem was, just like the lackluster sexual harassment training everyone was subjected to annually, DEI workshops were focused on the perpetrators of the bad behavior. And the tone was very “Please stop being racist in addition to no longer treating women like garbage, okay?” But everyone had to participate so that the bad actors didn’t feel called out. And very little was done to actually support the marginalized staff members.

Another problem with focusing on hiring and “not saying racist things” as the core principles of DEI is that, while important, those things should actually come a little further down the line of progression. Because achieving something like inclusion doesn’t happen on a spreadsheet or a script. It happens in our hearts and minds. And if that just made you cringe a little, get to the front of the emotional intelligence lessons line, my friend. We have work to do.

Getting back to human basics

We simply do not check our humanity at the door when we show up at work. We definitely try, but eventually, that persistent human nature sneaks in — often in the form of anger and burnout after putting up with too much inhumanity for too long. That’s what’s fueling the so-called Great Resignation right now, but I’m sure it’s been messing with people’s heads for as long as there’s been social hierarchy. DEI isn’t just about the perfect mix of Black, indigenous, queer, and disabled staff, it’s about everybody getting to be a person first and foremost. So, if your DEI efforts are falling short, it’s likely time to get back to human basics. This is where emotional intelligence comes in.

Emotional intelligence is about more than just kindness. It’s the ability to anticipate and understand the truest and most human motivations behind everything we do. Before it shows up in how we relate to others, it starts with how we see and treat ourselves — our strengths, our weaknesses, our values, triggers, boundaries — the whole deal. That’s not a strictly intellectual endeavor. It’s physiological and neurological. It’s complicated from a big picture perspective, but relatively simple to grow skill by skill.

The skills to make DEI work

Imagine a team working on resilience together, understanding what wears them out and makes them feel supported. Or an executive learning how to communicate about the state of diversity at the company with realistic optimism. A group of middle managers focusing on servant leadership and building trust. These are the skills that need to be embedded into corporate culture simply to create an environment where true DEI conversations can take place. Going from “that’s just the way it is” to anti-racism is a massive leap. One that should be pushed for with all our might, but massive nonetheless.

There’s also a lot of unlearning to do to achieve DEI progress, but that can’t be done without really taking a good hard look at our roles in the system we’re trying to change and the way that affects our relationships with each other. People with privilege have to be okay admitting what we’ve done wrong, and when we mess up again, be willing to listen and learn, to recognize when an issue is systemic, and not to tolerate harm. That can be a lifetime’s worth of work before a person even thinks about how to make things better. Marginalized communities need support in managing stress, growing influence and catalyzing change. All of that is emotional intelligence. So is recognizing everyone is in a different place on their EQ journey.

Emotional intelligence isn’t the alpha and omega of diversity, equity and inclusion, just one necessary ingredient. If it isn’t a part of your DEI efforts, it should be to create common ground, and break down the individual skills we all need to make progress not just more accessible, but more possible.

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