Skills for DEIB: Building the Muscles We Need

March 29th, 2021

Why We Care

Tell us if this sounds familiar to you:

Company ABC: “We’re committed to ensuring diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) at our organization and, to show that we mean it, we’ve recently implemented a new DEIB program. We also aim to increase our diversity numbers from X% to Y% in the next N years.”

News headlines a few months later: “A new report on Company ABC details new employee complaints about the conduct of executives and leaders. The report contains details of a “toxic and exclusionary culture” as described by many employees at the company and includes inappropriate remarks made by people at the company.”

We bet you’re able to name a company (if not 2 or 3) that would fit this scenario, especially given the social justice events of the last year.

Unfortunately, scenarios such as this are all too common. Even though a company might think it’s taking the right steps by implementing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) policies and processes, it could still foster an environment in which people feel left out, discriminated against, and marginalized. A study conducted in 2019 revealed that 40% of people feel physically and emotionally isolated or excluded in the workplace.1,2

At a minimum, a culture that alienates certain sections or groups of employees can make employees uncomfortable with and disengaged from their work, resulting in orgs losing untold hours of productivity. A recent 2020 study into inclusive workplaces found that 45% of the survey respondents didn’t feel included in their workplaces and three-quarters of those felt disengaged from their organization.3

And, at its worst, a toxic and hostile work environment can result in people leaving their jobs or taking legal action, and / or in orgs missing out on critical talent. The same 2020 study found that 39% of the survey respondents reported having turned down or deciding not to pursue a job because of a perceived lack of inclusion at an org.4

Skills: The Muscle We Need?

As we’ve previously written on this topic,5 a holistic DEIB system is one in which every organizational process, action, policy, or decision is reviewed through a DEIB lens. We believe a systemic approach to DEIB is extremely critical to driving equitable change in orgs today. Yet, such a system is comprised of individuals and it’s often the interactions between people that can cause DEIB challenges.

Unfortunately, though, the effectiveness of many orgs in encouraging change in the behaviors of individuals is poor: It’s been well-documented that most diversity training doesn’t work.6 Further, unconscious bias training—which has been the rage for the last 5 years or so—also has relatively little evidence7 to show that it can drive changes in behavior.8

We’ve, therefore, been scratching our heads, trying to identify what org leaders should be doing instead. After a lot of thinking, we’re wondering if by focusing so much on changing behaviors, orgs have been missing something else that matters.

What if, instead of focusing on DEIB-related behaviors, we should be focusing on DEIB-related skills?

Stepping back: What’s the difference between behaviors & skills?

You may wonder what the difference is between a skill and a behavior. Many perspectives exist on the distinctions and, to keep it simple, lets focus on 2 key differences:9

  1. Skills transcend context (or circumstances) while behaviors are context specific. If people have mastered a skill, then they can apply that skill in different contexts, whereas a behavior can only be exhibited in a specific context.
  2. Skills are applied, meaning they’re “how” you do something. Behaviors, by contrast, are exhibited, meaning they’re “what” you do.

For example, someone might behave erratically (the what—behavior) in a situation, by applying illogical reasoning or lack of thoughtfulness (the how—skills).

So, how does that apply to DEIB?

The distinction between skills and behaviors matters because it highlights the problem with a lot of DEIB training: It focuses more on the “what”—the kind of behaviors people should exhibit—instead of on the “how”—the skills they need to develop that then result in desired behaviors.

Another problem with a lot of DEIB training is the focus on helping people understand what their behaviors should be in certain DEIB situations (e.g., a situation that involves sexual harassment or blatant discrimination), instead of focusing on the skills needed to effectively respond to such situations. This issue arises because the same behavior might not be applicable in a different DEIB situation—but, if an employee has the necessary skills, then they’ll be prepared to respond more effectively in any DEIB situation.

DEIB-related skills

Because skills transcend context, they can be applied to different DEIB situations. For example, in an interview we conducted years ago, an enlightened D&I leader told us:

“Managing conflict is critical for D&I. You have to be open to different perspectives, know how to manage the discussion around those, and be able to help the team get to a better resolution. If you can do that, you can be both diverse and inclusive.”

Conflict management is one such critical skill that can be applied in various DEIB situations.

Recently, a number of articles have shown how skills, such as empathy, are increasingly seen as being crucial to fostering a culture of inclusion and belonging. For example, research shows that a combination of awareness around bias and high levels of empathy / perspective-taking can increase feelings of inclusion by up to 33%.10

Listening is another skill that can have a critical impact on feelings of inclusion. Growing evidence shows that leaders who listen to their employees are able to foster productivity, emotional connections, and reduce conflict or misunderstandings.11

“When we listen and celebrate what is both common and different, we become wiser, more inclusive, and better as an organization.”12

—Pat Wadors, ex-CHRO, LinkedIn

In fact, listening became one of the most needed skills by orgs as a result of the changes in work environments brought about by the disruptive events of 2020. According to learning provider Udemy, listening was the most sought-after communication course topic offered by the platform in 2020, with a course consumption percentage growth of 1,650% from 2019 to 2020.

“In a year where we’re all searching for ways to relate to each other and feel connected during uncertainty, it’s completely understandable why listening would be one of the most sought-after skills.”13

—Shelley Osborne, Vice President of Learning, Udemy

Now that we’ve discussed the importance of skills for DEIB, let’s look at the status quo.

Skills & DEIB: Ready to be Understood

Focusing on developing DEIB-friendly skills as a way to increase DEIB in orgs seems like a very obvious solution. However, we haven’t seen much research on this topic.

Most of the articles we’ve seen so far seem to focus on a single skill—such as vulnerability14 or empathy15 or openness16—and how each can impact DEIB. Relatively little has been written on groups of skills that can impact DEIB. Of the articles we’ve seen, there seems to be a lot of anecdotes and opinions, and too little structured research, either quantitative or qualitative. (But if you’ve seen good articles, send them our way!)

Further, we haven’t seen research on how to holistically approach the identification and development of these skills, nor have we seen any focus on the role technology can play in supporting the development of these skills.

We believe this lack of data and insights results in orgs not focusing on improving DEIB-friendly skills. In some instances, orgs are providing one-off efforts—such as offering single-skill training sponsored by an employee resource group (ERG) or the learning team—but those are hardly comprehensive approaches to improving the DEIB skills of the entire org.

Our hunch is this: If organizations approached DEIB skills holistically, then we might see some meaningful movement on critical DEIB outcomes—plus a lot of others that we care about.

Our Hypotheses

We have the following hypotheses for this research:

  • A subset of skills are critical to fostering an environment of DEIB
  • Orgs in which such skills sets are present, along with a clear DEIB strategy,17 will have stronger DEIB, talent, and business outcomes than those that don’t
  • Employees / managers and HR / DEIB leaders will have different opinions on what those skills sets are
  • Orgs can build into their talent practices a focus on these skills, effectively weaving DEIB and talent efforts together
  • Tech plays a role in scaling the development of these skills

What We’ll Research

Through this research, we seek to answer the following questions:

  • What are the skills that contribute to DEIB, specifically fostering diversity, enabling people to feel included, and building a culture of belonging in the workplace?
  • What can orgs do to develop these skills, including specific approaches, modalities, etc.?
  • How can orgs leverage those skills to drive DEIB?
  • What is the role of tech in enabling this to happen?

We plan to include the following groups of people in the research:

  • DEIB leaders
  • HR / learning leaders
  • Operational business leaders
  • Managers
  • Employees (especially ERG leaders)
  • HR tech vendors (focused on this topic)

How to Participate

We’ll be conducting this research over the next 3-5 months and invite you to participate in the study. Currently, we offer you 4 ways to participate:

  1. Answer this short questionnaire. Help us understand which skills you think are most critical to fostering DEIB and what specific questions you think we should address in our study.
  2. Let us interview you. We’re looking to interview 4 groups—if you're in one of them and are up for a 30-45 minute interview, reach out to us at [email protected] and we’ll schedule you at your convenience:
    • DEIB leaders
    • HR / learning leaders
    • ERG / BRG leaders / other business leaders involved in DEIB efforts
    • HR tech vendors (focused on this topic)
  3. Join the conversation. We’ll be conducting roundtables on this subject starting in April. Keep your eyes open for information on the specific dates—or reach out to us at [email protected] and we’ll send you an invitation.
  4. Share your thoughts. Read our research and tell us what you think! Shoot us a note at [email protected]. Your comments make us smarter and the research better.
Stacia Garr Redthread Research
Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst
Priyanka photo
Priyanka Mehrotra
Research Lead at RedThread Research


  1. “The Surprising Power of Simply Asking Coworkers How They’re Doing,” Harvard Business Review / Karyn Twaronite, February 2019,
  2. The bias barrier: Allyships, inclusion, and everyday behaviors, Deloitte / Terri Cooper & Eliza Horn, 2019,
  3. “Understanding organizational barriers to a more inclusive workplace,” McKinsey & Company / Peter Bailinson & William Decherd, et al, June 2020,
  4. Ibid.
  5. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging: Creating a Holistic Approach for 2021, RedThread Research / Stacia Garr & Priyanka Mehrotra, November 2020,
  6. “Companies Need to Think Bigger Than Diversity Training,” Harvard Business Review / Alexandra Kalev & Frank Dobbin, October 2020,; and “Diversity Training Doesn’t Work,” Harvard Business Review / Peter Bregman, March 2012,
  7. “A call for grounding implicit bias training in clinical and translational frameworks,” The Lancet / Nao Hagiwara, PhD, & Frederick W Kron, MD, et al, May 2020,
  8. “The Problem with Implicit Bias Training,” / Tiffany L Green & Nao Hagiwara, August 2020,
  9. “Did You Know That Skills Are Not Behaviors?” Cornerstone OnDemand / Tom Tonkin, PhD, October 2015,
  10. “The Key to Inclusive Leadership,” Harvard Business Review / Juliet Bourke & Andrea Titus, March 2020,
  11. “Developing the Art of Active Listening for Inclusive Leadership”, Community Business,
  12. “How LinkedIn’s HR Chief is Changing the Diversity Conversation with “Belonging”” LinkedIn / Kete Reilly, January 2017,
  13. “These are the top skills people are seeking out while working from home,” / Jennifer Liu, February 2021,
  14. “Vulnerability Is A Critical Skill For Inclusive Leaders,” / Simone Morris, February 2021,
  15. “Empathy: The First Step Towards Inclusion,” / Dr. Adetoun Yeaman & Dr. Sreyoshi Bhaduri, July 2020,
  16. “Open to diversity: Openness to experience predicts beliefs in multiculturalism and colorblindness through perspective taking,” Journal of Individual Differences / DJ Sparkman & S Eidelman, et al, 2019,
  17. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging: Creating a Holistic Approach for 2021, RedThread Research / Stacia Garr & Priyanka Mehrotra, November 2020,