Workplace diversity is commonly viewed through the lens of representation—by increasing the number of employees with certain backgrounds and experiences, companies demonstrate their commitment to equality and fairness. While representation is crucial, a real commitment to diversity goes beyond merely recruiting employees with certain characteristics. It involves creating an environment where everyone feels included, empowered, and respected, with the strength of individual differences being genuinely at the heart of the organizational culture.
Companies that want to establish this sort of environment have to focus on diversity and inclusion, which means they have to promote sustainable cultural change that creates norms of fairness and openness. This is where emotional intelligence (EI) comes in; a company’s culture is a manifestation of its employees’ attitudes, behaviors, and interactions, and EI is what allows all of these elements to come together in a healthy and productive way.
EI broadly refers to the ability to manage and interpret your emotions, express yourself constructively, and understand the emotions of others (as well as the implications of your interactions with them). This means EI is particularly important for employees in diverse workplaces, as it can help break down barriers that often form as a result of different experiences and viewpoints. These are all reasons companies should seek employees with high EI and work to increase it within their workforces.
How EI Equips Employees to Flourish in Diverse Companies
One of the most common obstacles faced by members of historically marginalized groups in the workplace is a sense of alienation. Although companies often tout that certain groups are represented in their workforces, this doesn’t change the fact that many members of those groups feel as if they don’t belong or their voices aren’t being heard. This is why inclusion is so vital—employees of all backgrounds have to feel like valued members of the team whose contributions are actively solicited and considered.
According to a 2020 study led by Zorana Ivcevic and her colleagues at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, supervisors with high levels of EI have happier and more creative employees who feel like they have ample opportunities to grow. One of the main reasons EI leads to higher workplace morale and innovation is it increases empathy among managers and employees. Employees are more inclined to share their opinions and concerns when they know they’ll be speaking to a receptive audience. This increases engagement, which is already far too low in many workplaces.
EI Helps Employees Understand and Resist Their Biases
EI doesn’t just allow managers and employees to better understand the attitudes and concerns of their colleagues—it also helps them understand themselves. This is particularly important when it comes to diversity and inclusion, as many employees hold implicit biases they may not be consciously aware of but that still inform their perceptions and behavior.
Some introspection in the workplace would go a long way. According to a PwC survey, although 87% of business and HR leaders say diversity is a “stated value or priority for their organization,” 42% of employees “agree or strongly agree that diversity is a barrier to progression at my organization.” This suggests that far too many workers have a zero-sum view of the workplace in which diverse employees are perceived as adversaries instead of partners. Unconscious prejudices can also lead to microaggressions, behaviors, or interactions that denigrate others subtly or even unintentionally. While 36% of Americans say they have witnessed a microaggression at work, just 10% say they have committed one.
Managers and employees with strong EI are much more likely to be able to avoid thinking (or saying) something discriminatory or disrespectful. And if their colleagues happen to point to something they said or did that may have been hurtful (even if it was unintentional), they will quickly recognize what they did wrong, validate their colleagues’ concerns, and take action to set things right as quickly as possible.
EI Can Bring Employees Together Around Shared Goals
EI among employees in the workplace can help bond people together toward common objectives and shared values. When employees are empathic and considerate, they become less self-interested and more concerned about the success of the entire organization.
EI can also lead to a virtuous cycle in which openness, respect, and consideration lead to reciprocal attitudes among employees, which thereby enhance the interactions and experiences of everyone in the company. When employees take an active interest in the well-being of their colleagues and make a genuine effort to understand their concerns, this opens the door for mutually respectful communication and collaboration, which are two of the most important drivers of EI. It’s easier for a workforce with high levels of EI to be mission-driven and inclusive, two traits associated with higher performance across a range of metrics.
When a company prioritizes diversity and inclusion, it benefits from a wide array of perspectives and galvanizes employees around shared goals—powerful engines of innovation and productivity. Selecting people with higher levels of EI as part of the recruitment process helps to achieve this outcome, particularly for roles that involve large amounts of interaction, such as customer services; sales; team-based positions; and, of course, management and leadership roles. But this process requires more than a commitment to representative hiring practices and efforts to combat discrimination. It requires a cultural shift toward greater self-awareness and mutual respect among employees at every level—a shift that can only be launched and sustained by an emotionally intelligent workforce.
Cherie Curtis is the CEO of Revelian.