What Does Emotional Intelligence and Diversity Have to Do with Unconscious Bias?

One of the hottest Diversity and Inclusion topics being discussed lately in organizations across the country is unconscious bias.  In education, law enforcement, health care as well as in corporate America, the impact of this phenomenon is more and more being recognized.  Acknowledgment that unconscious bias exists, the first step in dealing effectively with it, is necessary but not sufficient.  Managing it is the next step.  In this regard, Emotional Intelligence and Diversity has much to offer.

Affirmative Introspection

The first component of EID, Affirmative Introspection, provides the tools to examine yourself to gain insight about your own biases and areas of comfort and discomfort.  As one of our best teachers, Dr. John E. Jones, used to tell us, “Awareness precedes choice.”  Having the courage to acknowledge and explore one’s biases, assumptions and preconceived notions is critical to managing them.  Questions that may help your exploration are:

  • With which groups am I more or less comfortable?
  • Which groups are part of my circle of friends and associates?  Who is left out?
  • When have I been surprised by my assumptions about or reactions to others?


Self-Governance helps you develop the self-management skills to deal with the biases you have acknowledged.  This aspect of EID helps you increase your comfort with the change and ambiguity you encounter when dealing with differences.  It also gives you methods to alter your self-talk when having encounters with those who may be initially challenging.  And, it helps you deal with frustration, anger or fear that may emerge.  Questions to consider in increasing your Self-Governance skills are:

  • How can I face ambiguous situations with curiosity?
  • How can I find the gains as well as the losses in changes I’m called on to deal with?
  • How can I reframe the negative and exaggerated self-talk messages I may have when I’m challenged by differences and use more affirming and realistic ones?

Intercultural Literacy

Intercultural Literacy helps you deal with biases by challenging you to get beyond your knee jerk assumptions about what behaviors mean.  Developing the skill of seeking alternative explanations is critical in challenging your initial biased viewpoint.  It also helps you develop a key skill in dealing with differences, that of empathy.  It makes sense that as we get to know people of other groups, we understand them better and get more comfortable with them.  This aspect of EID helps you do that by providing ways to develop that empathy.

Contact Theory, the body of research developed after WWII when the US military was integrated, provides critical insights about how connecting with and understanding others impacts bias.  What the research tells us is that contact between groups reduces prejudice under certain conditions:  when contact is voluntary, when there are common goals and no competition between groups, and when authority sanctions the contact.  The benefit of emotional intelligence becomes clear when the research shows that knowledge of other groups does little to reduce prejudice.  However, decreasing anxiety has the most positive impact on reducing prejudice.  Contact increases empathy which lessens anxiety and therefore, reduces prejudice.  Key questions to ask in developing your Intercultural Literacy skills are:

  • What else could a particular behavior mean?
  • What might be the reasons for the person’s behavior?
  • How might it feel to be in that person’s situation?
  • When have I been in a similar situation and felt that way?

Social Architecting

Finally, the fourth aspect of EID, Social Architecting, gives you the tools to take action to make connections and communicate across differences.  Giving and getting feedback and engaging others in developing an inclusive environment are key skills.  In addition, Social Architecting also provides methods for resolving conflicts that emerge when differences clash.  In such open, safe and inclusive environments, biases and micro-inequities can be openly addressed without defensiveness or blame.  Questions to stimulate the development of Social Architecting skills are:

  • How can I make it comfortable for others to share their perceptions of biased treatment?
  • Who do I include and exclude in getting feedback?  How can I encourage them to share more?
  • How can I work with those with different views to find solutions that work for all?

Gaining EID skills can be a great help in developing your ability to deal effectively with differences and manage your biases, the conscious and unconscious ones.