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The 7 Skills Needed to Create a Culture of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging

December 14, 2021 Talent Management
Stacia Sherman Garr co-founder and principal analyst RedThread Research
By Stacia Sherman Garr

Over the course of the last 18 months or so, senior leaders have had to pay much more attention to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB). Yet, many leaders don’t know what to say or do when it comes to addressing DEIB, which can lead to no action being taken.

Given this situation, we at RedThread Research wanted to understand if there might be an underlying skill issue. Specifically, do senior leaders at organizations with strong DEIB cultures use different skills from senior leaders at less strong DEIB organizations? One reason we were interested: Skills are a common denominator in identifying what people need to do to be successful at their jobs. Yet, the concept hasn’t been applied to what people should do to make their organizations successful at DEIB.

To that end, we developed and published a research study, "Creating a DEIB Culture: The Skills Every Employee Needs," to understand the skills that contribute to DEIB, how those skills might vary by factors like employee level, and how organizations can develop and leverage those skills.

To answer these questions, we embarked on a 6-month research project involving a literature review of more than 60 articles, conversations with more than 100 people, and a comprehensive survey of more than 1,000 people, only half of whom are in HR. In the course of the survey analysis, we created a DEIB Index to measure the strength of an organization's DEIB culture and compare those in the top quartile with the bottom quartile.

The 7 Skills of Successful DEIB Leaders

The analysis showed that the most important thing senior leaders can do is drive action at scale. The skills most important for senior leaders at high performing DEIB organizations are ones that let them fulfill their ability and obligation to effect change. Leaders at organizations with strong DEIB cultures tend to use seven skills across three core dimensions (Figure 1).

  1. Push for change by challenging the status quo, being assertive and showing mental flexibility.
  2. Use actions to speak louder than words via nonverbal communication and rapport-building.
  3. Be socially savvy as demonstrated by calculated risk-taking and persuasion skills.

Senior Leadership Skills at Organizations with Strong Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Cultures
Figure 1: The 7 Most Important Leadership Skills for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & BelongingPHOTO: RedThread Research, 2021

This particular combination of skills is especially powerful: It reflects how senior leaders must be able to understand perspectives that are different from their own (mental flexibility), and then be willing to question the status quo with confidence and assertiveness. They need to project their commitment to this work in their actions, not just in their words, via nonverbal communication and rapport-building. Finally, senior leaders have to know when and how to push for change via persuasion and calculated risk-taking.

What’s important to note is that all of these skills are ones that enable leaders to take action on DEIB efforts. Critically, they are not passive skills, such as empathy or approachability. We actually saw that organizations where senior leaders excelled at those passive skills were much more likely to have weaker DEIB cultures (in the bottom 25% of the DEIB culture index).

Related Article: 8 Steps to Build Meaningful Diversity and Inclusion Analytics

You might be surprised by this finding, as we were until we looked deeper. That revealed that organizations in the bottom quartile only prioritized these passive skills. They didn’t prioritize action-taking skills, such as calculated risk-taking and assertiveness. Organizations in the top quartile prioritized both the action-taking skills and these more passive skills (Figure 2). Passive skills such as empathy are great, but without action to drive change at scale they’re simply not enough.

RedThread Research: Frequency of Negatively Correlated Senior Leader Skills for DEIB
Figure 2: Frequency of Negatively Correlated Senior Leader Skills on DEIB IndexPHOTO: RedThread Research, 2021

Leveraging These DEIB Insights in Your Organization

While it is generally helpful to understand the skills senior leaders have at organizations with strong DEIB cultures, that information is not enough. To that end, here are have five suggestions:

  • Read and share the entire study (Editor's Note: available to RedThread members only), free infographic, or listen to the webinar we conducted to better understand the skills that are most important for senior leaders and employees at all levels.
  • Cross-reference the skills identified with the skills your organization focuses on when hiring, developing and rewarding senior leaders.
  • Identify gaps and prioritize DEIB skills to focus on and make the explicit connection to creating a DEIB culture.
  • Share these insights with senior leaders and share how to adjust existing approaches to enable leaders to have the skills necessary to build a culture of DEIB.
  • Experiment with how to integrate DEIB contexts into current approaches to hiring, developing and rewarding senior leaders.

Our hope is that the insights shared here and in our broader research will enable organizations to proceed with confidence and move beyond ineffective approaches to embrace those that have a data-based foundation.

Taking a skills-based approach to enabling a culture of DEIB will allow you to drive change at scale and with greater speed than has been done in the past.

About the Author

Stacia Sherman Garr is co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread Research and a thought leader on talent management, leadership, diversity and inclusion, people analytics and HR technology.

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