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Could emotional intelligence be the key to achieving positive DEI outcomes?

You would have to be living under a rock to have missed all the debate around diversity, equity and inclusion (‘DEI’) that has taken place in recent years. Such developments as the Black Lives Matter movement have served to increase the salience of these issues. Has all the target-setting that has formed the basis of increased DEI activity in law firms over recent years helped move the dial on representation? Almost certainly, but we need an accompanying focus on the experiences behind any numbers we set, or achieve, if we are truly to make progress.

Even if quantitative diversity targets are achieved, the quality of an individual’s lived experience in the workplace is the real determinant of success. It will always be compromised if they are not operating in an environment high enough in psychological safety so as to enable genuine inclusion. It will fall short if they are not given access to stretch assignments; if meetings are repeatedly scheduled at times which clash with caring responsibilities; or if they are not given high-quality developmental feedback. If we are too focused on how many people from diverse groups there are at work, and not enough on how individuals from those groups feel at work, then we miss out. We miss out on all the ideas that are never given voice; we miss out on the discretionary effort that happens when engagement is high; and we miss out on the brand ambassadorship that helps us establish our reputation amongst external stakeholders.

And here is where we come to the missing piece of the puzzle. Making others feel safe is a vital component of the belonging that accompanies inclusion. But first, we need to cultivate safety and belonging within ourselves. We need to understand how to integrate, rather than alternate, the different parts of ourselves which, on the surface, might seem to be at odds with each other. In fact, they are just a part of the natural, wonderful complexity that makes us human. Here’s the key: integral to that process is an understanding and acceptance of our emotions. We need to recognise how emotions show up in our attitudes and behaviours, and understand how to regulate and express them healthily in order to make ourselves feel safe. If we can’t do that, what hope do we have of making others feel safe?

When we start down the road of developing our emotional intelligence, something transformative happens. Instead of solely seeing the differences between ourselves and those with identity characteristics distinct from our own, we start seeing the similarities based on our shared humanity. When we learn to embody emotions, really noticing how they show up in us physically, we understand that despite not sharing others’ circumstances, backgrounds or identities, the experience of feeling emotions is one we all know. For example, we come to know how to recognise the fear or shame we feel when we are excluded, or the frustration we feel when we are interrupted or talked over. We don’t use that shared humanity to diminish the experiences of those around us whose working lives are made more complicated than ours by the systems and structures that disadvantage them. On the contrary, we use it to create space and allow others to feel safe.

Emotional intelligence is also fundamental to learning and growth. The more comfortable we feel with our emotions, the more we can move from a state of emotional rigidity to one of emotional agility. We start to look for reasons why we might be wrong, rather than focusing on being right; we review our embedded beliefs and update them based on new information. That enables us to free ourselves from the grasp of perfectionism and move towards higher productivity. It allows us to be innovative in our thinking and better meet client demands, and it helps us build workplaces which allow individuals – all individuals – to thrive.

Laura Simpson is the founder of Altura Coaching, an EMCC-accredited executive coach and inclusive leadership development facilitator.

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