Can Emotional Intelligence Training Help Workplace Microaggressions?

Focusing on emotional intelligence enables leaders to acknowledge and overcome their own biases before holding others accountable.

Training Magazine

In October 2020, we saw employees infighting due to political differences while on the job. In May 2021, we watched sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson compete on the U.S. stage and win only weeks following her mother’s death. Two months later, we watched her Olympic dreams end–her efforts nullified because she used cannabis (legal in her state) to help cope with the emotional weight of that loss. In June 2021, we learned that a customer attacked an employee because she was dissatisfied with her slushie and that the employee fought back!

What is this behavior a sign of…, and why should it matter to today’s organizational leaders?

Leaders are uniquely positioned to recognize, identify, and (if necessary) address the emotional state of their team members before the point of disruption.

Whether coaching someone toward their Olympic dream or engaging with an upset customer, today’s leaders must be able to perceive the emotions of others. Remaining oblivious to peoples’ emotional states can lead to an eventual eruption of feeling that, in turn, can cause individuals to lash out or find ways to cope that may not yield desired outcomes. In worst cases, leaders who lack the necessary emotional intelligence to recognize and assist with budding issues can disrupt the culture of the organization.

This is especially true when addressing microaggressions in the workplace. Emotions profoundly influence our cognitive processes; when a repeated pattern of behavior, like microaggressions, occurs at work, our ability to reason, problem-solve, and accurately perceive situations becomes limited. Over time, that buildup of frustration can manifest as a “sudden” outburst, despite being preventable.

Failure on a leader’s part to identify and unpack their own biases and how they impact the policies and structures they influence leaves the door open for a severe decline in employee well-being and organizational culture. When employees perceive discrimination in the organization, the result is typically disengaged workers, loss of top talent, and a lack of innovation.

Improving “EQ” by adding “DQ

According to Reuven Bar-On, Ph.D., emotional intelligence (EQ) pertains to the emotional, personal, social, and survival dimensions of intelligence—rather than one’s ability to learn, recall, think, reason, and abstract—including a person’s mental health and ability to deal with daily environmental demands. Training in EQ can enable a leader to fulfill their innate responsibility to:

  • Oversee emotional health in themselves and those they lead
  • Create an environment focused on physical and psychological safety

An emerging measurement called Diversity Intelligence (DQ) is revealed when diversity is considered alongside emotional intelligence. Introduced by Dr. Claretha Hughes, DQ focuses on how leaders value differences in their employees. It is calculated through a Diversity and Intelligence assessment that measures the leader’s cognitive and behavioral actions toward protected classes. When a leader’s DQ mindset is unknown, passive-aggressive behaviors or microaggressions can go unaddressed.

Leaders with high EQ are better able to recognize when their actions unintentionally hurt others. When DQ is added to the mix, these same leaders can strengthen the culture of protected class groups within the work environment.

Where to Begin?

Leaders drive the culture of an organization. To change organizational culture, leaders must be skilled at assessing human behavior – which is often unpredictable. But knowing how to navigate and influence the unique needs of the team and individual team members can foster a respectful, safe and engaging environment for all. Here are a few tips on how it’s done:

  1. Practice self-awareness. Awareness is a crucial EQ competency and the first step toward behavioral change. If a leader can’t acknowledge their own bias or catch themselves making assumptions about people, the likelihood of them being able to see discriminatory behavior in others is greatly diminished. Ask yourself, “How am I doing?” “Do I have a bias against this person or group?” Would I make the same decision for another member of my team? Was I consistent and fair when writing this assessment review?
  2. Listen to Your People. Take time to ask questions and listen. It’s important to avoid conflating information through the filters of your own lived experiences. Watch for nonverbal cues and actively engage in the conversation to assess: Is the presented issue creating stress for a co-worker? What is the subtext below the issue? Have they brought a similar problem like this to me before? Leaders who listen with intention create a culture of care.
  3. Assess Leader Diversity Intelligence. Leverage an instrument like the DQ to assess leader behavior toward protected class groups. Do the leaders in your organization know what the protected class groups are? Do they know the implications and policies affecting protected classes? Have they been trained to lead diverse groups effectively? Do your leaders value and respect visible and invisible differences?
  4. Introduce Behavior-Based Training. Training that focuses on behavior change is designed to help reduce the frequency of unwanted behaviors. Seek programs that address emotional and biased behaviors through practice and coaching. Taking an implicit bias training course that focuses on impact vs. intent, the concept of microaggressions, and practical ways to identify, challenge, and respond to bias can change the way you approach behavior in the workplace.
  5. Encourage Cultural Accountability. Use a pulse or engagement survey methodology to assess its cultural state to hold leaders accountable for behavioral change. Reassess leaders who score poorly by conducting interviews or focus groups and allowing them to shift behavior. Surrender the idea that there is one right way to build accountability and entertain new ideas to ensure a successful result.

Research confirms that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams. But since diverse teams include people who bring their biases and emotions to work daily, those who lead the teams must recognize, model, and assist in developing inclusive behaviors. Focusing on EQ and DQ enables leaders to acknowledge and overcome their own biases before they attempt to hold others accountable for doing the same.

LaTonya Jackson, Ed.D. is the Vice President of Services and Operations at Media Partners, an award-winning people skills and compliance training content producer. LaTonya is the co-author of the book 5 Blinders to Seeing Color. A thought leader in DEI, she is driven to develop a more equitable, inclusive world.