Big Lessons Learned: Leadership, DEI, and Emotional Intelligence

Regardless if you are an IC or hold a senior management position, creating a more inclusive environment at work falls on everyone’s shoulders to step up, be a leader, and advocate for others. However, just like any meaningful change, DEI can be a scary road to navigate. Aside from rigid systems and unchecked “norms,” discussions can quickly become sensitive when people’s identities are on the table.

At a recent member event, two of the Forem’s Mentors, Kiran Gupta, Leadership Coach and Sr. Human Resources Business Partner at Google, and Jason Dailey, Head of Agency at Meta, convened to share their own experiences and best practices for ongoing allyship. Here are four key takeaways from their discussion to help you do your part in leading your team toward a place of safety and belonging.

  1. Heighten your awareness.

There are infinite dimensions to each person. Even beyond what might be immediately visible, we all communicate, learn, and process information in unique ways. Kiran reflects that while she is a brown-skinned woman, which could be considered an identity vulnerable to discrimination, she is also highly-educated and speaks English as her first language, which she acknowledges as a privilege.

When we step back and take a more holistic view of each person’s identity (apart from what our instinctual bias might tell us about them) we are better equipped to support one another from a place of empathy. 

As a starting point, Kiran suggests trying to identify who the “in” and “out” groups are at your organization. Who gets interrupted vs. who interrupts? Who is a caregiver? What is the primary language spoken, and does that put anyone at a disadvantage? The more we deepen our observations of team dynamics, the more we can identify opportunities where adaptations or mindful discussions could be held.

For example, Jason points out that extroversion is a favored character trait in the tech industry, yet plenty of people have valuable thoughts to contribute that they might simply struggle to interject in a room full of Type A’s. In this case, identifying those people and creating space for them to take the floor (EX: Let’s pause…who have we not heard from yet?) could help to buoy their sense of value and belonging.

2. “Stumble upward.”

Despite both being thought leaders in the DEI space, neither Kiran nor Jason would consider themselves “experts.” Just as everyone’s personal identity is unique, everyone’s working style is just as complex within an equally dizzying array of corporate dynamics. In other words, there is no “one size fits all” approach to creating an equitable organization.

Not to mention: speaking up when you notice someone’s sense of belonging is being compromised (though the right thing to do) can be scary. It can also be terribly uncomfortable to bring up exclusionary practices or areas for improvement to higher-ups.

For managers specifically, who have a lot of power to enact change but, as Kiran points out, “are under a lot of pressure to get it right,” the anxiety around a potential misfire could easily result in freeze-mode.

But: “every time we don’t say something, it perpetuates that [behavior] as a norm in our culture.”

Kiran’s advice? Let go of any expectations of perfection. Start by listening, and don’t define your “allyship” by any one grand gesture. It isn’t an identity, but “an ongoing practice, in the service of stumbling upward.” So long as you are humble and respectful with your actions, you are more than likely to make a positive impact.

Simple ways to practice allyship: 

  • Breaking down terms or acronyms when you present/speak instead of assuming the collective knowledge in the room.

  • Giving others’ your full attention when they are presenting/speaking so everyone feels heard and respected.

  • Sponsoring members of your network or team when you have the power to do so. (Kiran recalls a colleague who turned down whitewashed panel opportunities and submitted recommendations for more diverse speakers to fill his place, which is amazing, but sponsorship can also be as simple as “[X] would be great for that opportunity! Can I introduce you?”)

3. Ask for more from your team.

Beyond making personal commitments, it is also important to hold the people around you accountable.

A frequent struggle for women in corporate environments is receiving vague feedback. You just don’t have an “executive presence,” so we went with John for the promotion. In this case, asking for clarity makes your manager think critically about his reasons and confront the biases that might be behind such a flimsy justification.

EX: What does executive presence mean to you? Here is what I’m thinking… Does that align with what you had in mind?

This kind of vague reasoning is also common in HR throughout the hiring process.

EX: She wasn’t a good “culture fit” or I don’t think he would “vibe with the team.”

As Jason makes clear, “These terms are signals that [people] are leaning on biases.” To get to the root of their rationale, “ask people to be clear and specific about strengths and competencies that [the candidates] do or don’t demonstrate.”

He adds that if you happen to be the one in a hiring position, you can also take steps to combat your own biases (we all have them, whether we are aware of them or not…).

When hiring or recruitment specialists hand over homogenous talent pools, ask them to give you a more diverse slate to choose from (across a multitude of different dimensions: race, age, nation of origin, etc.).

Pro-tip: you can even ask that they remove education or school information from resumes before you view them to ensure you give the broadest possible range of people a real chance.

4. Be transparent and intentional.

Any time you make a motion to advocate for change, there are risks involved. Sure, there are obvious fears that go along with any “shake-up” of a system, but you also have to be mindful of how your intentions could be misconstrued or your actions could be inadvertently harmful.

For example, if it seems like someone on your team could use your help gaining visibility or aligning with the group, always connect directly with that person before jumping to conclusions.

As Jason puts it, “Help people based on how they WANT you to help them.” Sometimes, it is not at all. And other times, it just might not be the “right time.” However, it is never too late to check in and attempt to understand others better.

If you observe enough at your organization to motivate a bigger proposal or discussion with your higher-ups, be honest (with yourself and others) about why and what you want to achieve. Vague initiatives (i.e., I think we need to be more diverse and inclusive here) are far less likely to gain traction and support compared to those that feel curated to your specific organization’s team dynamics.