Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging (DEIB) and Skills: What the Literature Says

April 20th, 2021

DEIB & Skills: We Found What We Expected

Our hope (wish? dream?) that we'd overlooked a treasure trove of articles on DEIB and skills did not come to fruition. Instead, as expected, our literature review turned up numerous articles explaining:

  • How leaders can become more inclusive
  • The role managers can play in promoting DEIB
  • The strategies orgs should put in place

But, missing from our lit review: The specific DEIB skills that individuals should or can develop, as well as what role learning can play in the development.

We looked at more than 50 academic and business articles, reports, and books for this lit review. This article summarizes the 5 key themes that emerged from the literature. But before we dive into them, we first want to touch upon a few things that surprised us.

A few things surprised us

We did still find a few interesting nuggets from our literature review, such as:

  • While much is written about DEIB-related courses and trainings, very little exists on the skills that foster DEIB and how they can be developed.
  • We found 2 reports with in-depth research on the skills that impact DEIB (we share details on these publications below).
  • Increasingly, storytelling is becoming more essential for knowledge-sharing and building a culture of trust and collaboration (areas that impact DEIB)—but no existing literature makes the direct connection to DEIB nor sees it as an important skill for it.


In this article, we summarize the key insights we learned:

  1. Traditional diversity training doesn’t work
  2. People look at DEIB competencies, not skills
  3. Skills for DEIB transcend individual roles and orgs
  4. DEIB skills should be part of organizational learning
  5. DEIB skills are in demand, but we don’t know how to teach them

Traditional diversity training doesn’t work

A recurring theme on this topic is the ineffectiveness of traditional diversity and unconscious bias training. In fact, research has shown that this kind of training may result in awareness among underrepresented groups of the bias-driven barriers that exist within an org while having no effect on the behaviors of the majority represented population.1

The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two—and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash.

However, there’s considerable research that also focuses on ways orgs can make such training relevant and useful, by making some crucial adjustments to it, such as:

  • Being intentional about the outcomes and clearly defining them
  • Diversifying the training content
  • Removing the assumption that individuals at all hierarchical levels experience DEIB similarly
  • Articulating specific and realistic expectations
  • Consistently evaluating people to track changes and nudging them to take action

All of these suggestions point toward helping people learn something that they can apply in their work—skills.

People look at DEIB competencies, not skills

We found quite a bit written about competencies that leaders, managers, and employees need to drive meaningful change for DEIB. A common thread among the literature is the need to focus on developing competencies that are both individual- / person-focused, and those that impact the broader team and org. Cultural competency is one of the most frequently referenced areas.

“Cultural competence is the ability to recognize that people have different experiences than you, to understand the social, economic, or political reasons why those experiences are different”2

We found 2 problems with the lit that focused on competencies:

  1. There’s no consensus or agreement on what this set of competencies needs to be
  2. Competencies by definition are too broad to enable taking action to foster DEIB

We think the focus should instead be on the skills that foster DEIB. As we mention in our article Skills for DEIB: Building The Muscles We Need, skills are applied and, thus, enable action-taking. However, the current lit lacks structured research around the specific skills (or a set of them) that can enable people to take action.

Skills for DEIB transcend individual roles & orgs

Some of the lit we reviewed discussed the difficulty in identifying key skills for DEIB, as compared with the way we identify skills for a specific role or job via a job analysis. Skills that foster DEIB transcend roles and orgs.

Everyone needs DEIB skills if they want to work successfully and effectively with diverse individuals or groups, whether it be within their current org or a future one. It should be noted, however, that some evidence exists in the lit about how certain skills are more crucial at different hierarchical levels.

Some DEIB skills are more crucial at different hierarchical levels.

For example, a staff-level employee might find more value in leveraging their collaboration and communication skills if most of their interactions are with diverse peers or supervisors. On the other hand, an executive trying to implement strategic decisions that might impact diverse groups differently should leverage their active listening and / or storytelling skills.

DEIB skills should be part of organizational learning

As we mention in the beginning of the article, there’s considerable literature on DEIB training, and the role of L&D in delivering, tracking, and measuring its effectiveness. We did come across a few insightful pieces that see the role of learning extend beyond delivering specific trainings. Because DEIB is foundational to everything that happens at work, it, therefore, needs to be an integral part of org-wide learning initiatives.

Because DEIB is foundational to everything that happens at work, it, therefore, needs to be an integral part of org-wide learning initiatives.

L&D has an important role in doing that, and going beyond delivering trainings and courses on DEIB. From ensuring consistent terminology and definitions to assessing and measuring progress in skills development, the learning function can bring their expertise to ensure a lasting and meaningful impact.

By working with the DEIB leaders, the L&D function can effectively identify skills that have a meaningful impact on driving org-wide inclusion efforts—and make development of those DEIB skills a part of an individual’s overall learning and development.

DEIB skills are in demand, but we don’t know how to teach them

Many articles highlight the rise in demand for “soft” skills. The pandemic, widespread protests for social justice, and climate-related disasters have resulted in people becoming aware of certain skills that can help them survive and thrive during times of rapid change.

Some refer to them as “durable skills”—because they’re not perishable like technical skills that can become obsolete if the tech itself is no longer popular or used widely. For example, collaboration and empathy are increasingly seen as critical skills to function effectively in a new environment. Not surprisingly, these soft / durable / humanizing skills (whatever we call them) are also crucial for building inclusive environments and a culture of belonging.

People are becoming aware of certain skills—soft, durable, or humanizing—that can help them survive and thrive during times of rapid change.

The problem, as some authors allude to, lies in the approach to developing these skills for 2 reasons.

The first reason: It’s difficult to teach these skills individually. As one author put it:

“Historically, if employees don’t arrive “naturally endowed” with these skills, they are often left to develop them on the job. How do you teach or develop skills like mental agility, for example?”3

A suggested approach to this problem is grouping interrelated skills into clusters and investing in a family of skills.

“Rather than targeting mental agility in isolation, you might target its cluster by also addressing skills like navigating ambiguity, working with incomplete information, and developing organizational and self-awareness.”4

The second reason: It’s difficult to ensure whether these skills are being implemented and practiced by people. Some ideas are suggested in the existing lit to address this, such as:

  • Incorporating a microlearning approach and integrating it into the workflow
  • Combining learning with coaching
  • Using nudges and reminders to apply their new skills and practice them

What Caught Our Attention

Of all the literature we reviewed, a few pieces stood out to us. Each of these pieces contain information that we find useful and / or intriguing. We learned from their perspectives—and encourage you to do the same.

Skills for Diversity and Inclusion in Organizations: A Review and Preliminary Investigation

Rosemary Hays-Thomas, Alyinth Bowen, and Megan Boudreaux | The Psychologist-Manager Journal, 2012

This article offers an academic approach to identifying skills for diversity and how they vary, based on the different hierarchical levels within an org.

"Empathy or the ability to take the role of another may be critical to diversity effectiveness at all levels the organizations. Self-awareness and listening skills are likely to be important at all levels as well."


  • Reviews the existing lit on identifying the skills needed for diversity
  • Applies a critical incident methodology to develop a broad-based set of diversity attributes
  • Lays out a model to help understand what values, knowledge, and skills are most important at different org levels (e.g., staff, middle managers, and executives) for effectiveness in diverse environments
  • Highlights the importance of empathy at all levels of the org

Building the Link Between Learning and Inclusion

KeyAnna Schmiedl, interviewed by Deborah Milstein | MIT Sloan Management Review, March 2021

This article provides an example of how DEIB leaders and L&D functions can work together to create learning opportunities that foster a culture of belonging and inclusion among employees. This is an extremely timely article: It provides great examples of how Wayfair is leveraging such a partnership to update its training around inclusion in light of the social justice movements of 2020.

"We’ve … codeveloped ‘culture of inclusion’ trainings with L&D. They had the subject-matter expertise to pinpoint the highly engaging points in the instructor-led, in-person training and recreate those experiences in a different e-learning format."


  • People are making the connection that diversity, equity, and inclusion are not a set of initiatives that operate in a silo
  • DEI needs to be foundational to everything that happens at work, including learning
  • By partnering, DEI leaders and L&D can bring better solutions to people within the org
  • The connection between learning and DEIB should be seamless

Skills in Demand, Skills in Decline

Matthew J. Daniel, Susan Hackett | Chief Learning Officer Magazine, December 2020

This article offers insights into which skills are growing in demand and why, as orgs look to build those that’ll enable them to thrive in a new environment. It also provides suggestions on how orgs can approach developing these skills.

"The most notable trend, perhaps, is the volume of perishable skills in declining demand… platform- or organization-specific tools or languages that remain important for some but are increasingly volatile. Fluency in these programs takes a back seat to more durable and stable skills."


  • Perishable skills—that focus on specific tools or software, and which are org-specific—are in decline
  • Durable skills and stable skills—that are transferable, and which enable people to work in volatile environments—are on the rise
  • Orgs can approach the development of such skills by grouping them into clusters
  • Orgs need to think about broadening and diversifying the durable skills sets of their people

Risky Business: Why Diversity and Inclusion Matter

Celeste Young and Roger Jones | Victoria University and Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, 2019

This article provides a list of skills identified as critical to support D&I practice and the implementation of activities, based on a workshop conducted at Victoria University in December 2018. While the workshop was specifically designed for emergency management orgs (EMO), the applicability and relevance of these skills to all orgs is obvious and clear.

"Communication as a skill is already widely recognized as crucial for D&I practice, but the nomination of listening and reflective skills indicates the need for the development of specific social skills to enhance inclusion."


  • D&I shocks can lead to risks serious enough to threaten the ability of EMOs to perform their functions
  • Results from the workshop showed that listening and reflection were rated as the most important skills needed for D&I
  • Other needed skills for D&I included being collaborative and analytic, and applied skills such as engagement, negotiation, and being able to manage unconscious bias

Storytelling in Organizations: The Power and Traps of Using Stories to Share Knowledge in Organizations

Deborah Sole, Daniel Gray Wilson | Harvard Graduate School of Education Journal, January 2002

This article explains how storytelling can be extremely effective in building or renewing trust and building a collective vision. While an explicit connection between storytelling as a skill and DEIB is not made in the article, we think it’s an important skill as it drives many components of DEIB, such as building trust, resolving conflicts, and generating emotional connections.

"Storytelling has been used in domains to communicate embedded knowledge, resolve conflict, and simulate problem solving."


  • Well-designed, well-told stories can convey both information and emotion
  • Storytelling can especially be effective in socializing new members and mending relationships
  • Storytelling is a means to share norms and values, develop trust, and generate emotional connections

Additional Reading Recommendations

  1. Creating a Competency Model for Diversity and Inclusion Practitioners, The Conference Board / Indira Lahiri, 2008.
  2. What Black Employee Resource Groups Need Right Now,” Harvard Business Review / Aiko Bethea,
  3. Inclusive Workplace Competencies,” Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council, 2017.
  4. “'Soft’ Skills Are in Demand. Can They Be Taught?Fortune / Anne Fisher, May 2019.
  5. Don’t Give Up on Unconscious Bias Training—Make It Better,” Harvard Business Review / Joelle Emerson, April 2017.
Priyanka photo
Priyanka Mehrotra
Research Lead at RedThread Research
Stacia Garr Redthread Research
Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst


  1. “Does Diversity Training Work the Way It’s Supposed To?” Harvard Business Review / Edward H. Change & Katherine L. Milkman, et al, July 2019, https://hbr.org/2019/07/does-diversity-training-work-the-way-its-supposed-to
  2. “Cultural Competence: the skill that underlies diversity & inclusion work,” Crescendo, Anita Chauhan and Daniel Tuba D’Souza, 2020, https://crescendowork.com/workplace-inclusion-blog/cultural-competency
  3. “Skills in demand, skills in decline,” ChiefLearningOfficer.com / Matthew J. Daniel & Susan Hackett, December 2020, https://www.chieflearningofficer.com/2020/12/15/skills-in-demand-skills-in-decline/
  4. Ibid.