• Skills and diversity needed to drive innovation, performance and value but many organizations are falling short on both.
  • Study shows there is no single set of skills that make a company succeed at diversity, equality, inclusion and belonging (DEIB).
  • Instead different skills are valued at different levels of an organization, and employers should take these into account when improving diversity.

As organizations explore ways to become more diverse and inclusive, what skills might help them be more successful?

After all, there is a strong body of research highlighting how diversity in the workplace can lead to increased profitability and creativity, stronger governance and better problem-solving skills. Boston Consulting Group found that companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation.

My company, Degreed, sponsored a study exploring the skill make-up of organizations that are doing particularly well at diversity, equality, inclusion and belonging (DEIB). The research included a comprehensive survey of more than 1,000 people across a variety of industries.

It asked them a series of questions to determine whether they feel a sense of belonging, included, and respected by their employer; if their unique background and identity are valued; and whether they believe people of different backgrounds and identities are represented and have equitable opportunities at the organization.

RedThread Research, which conducted the study, used these responses to create a ‘DEIB Index’. It then looked at which skills are more highly valued at companies higher on the index, compared to companies lower on the index.

The study mostly involves what we at Degreed call 'power skills', sometimes referred to as 'soft' or 'interpersonal' skills. It found there is no simple set of skills that automatically makes a company succeed at DEIB. But in companies doing better at DEIB, people are more likely to value certain key skills at each level in the organizational hierarchy.

For senior leaders, empathy skills aren't enough

It’s up to executives to treat DEIB as a central business function, instituting and scaling their efforts. Degreed CEO Dan Levin, for example, describes it as a strategic imperative to integrate DEIB into all aspects of how we operate as a business, including at board level.

The survey found that at organizations ranking high for DEIB, 30% of employees say executives must show mental flexibility, compared to only 21% of employees at the lowest ranked companies. Similarly, 31% of employees at top ranked companies cited rapport building, compared to 24% of low ranked companies.

Top executives are often called on to show empathy. But our study found that when respondents put heavy emphasis on leaders being skilled at empathy, their organizations rated lower on DEIB.

That's because it can be even more important to prioritize executives’ “action-taking skills”, like being assertive in guiding change and building rapport among colleagues.

For managers, ability to influence is key

When asked about important skills for managers to have, 38% of respondents at organizations ranked high for DEIB cited negotiation and 35% named influence – in both cases substantially higher than respondents at low ranked companies, who cited these skills at 29% and 24% respectively.

skills required for fostering diverse workplace environment
The skills required at all levels of organization to foster a diverse workplace environment.
Image: RedThread Research/Degreed

Managers need to take big picture initiatives from the C-suite and use them to allocate work and opportunities in new ways. Those adept at these skills help their staff resolve conflicts and open their minds to new ideas.

Senior leaders need to excel in persuasion

Two skills are especially important for both senior leaders and managers, study authors Stacia Garr and Priyanka Mehrotra write in the report. Respondents at higher-ranked companies for DEIB were more likely to say that people in both positions should excel at challenging the status quo and persuasion.

I’ve seen leaders and managers faced with the task of convincing those under them to reconsider how their behaviors or words might make someone else feel excluded. Those who excel at these types of challenges have the skills to do so.

Authentic, courageous employees are needed

In organizations doing better at DEIB, respondents said individual employees must show authenticity (49%, compared to 39% of low-ranked companies), empowering others (46% vs 38%) and courage (34% vs 29%).

Courage, in this respect, can mean calling out an act of prejudice or a microaggression when you see it. This can mean having difficult conversations about sensitive topics, rather than shying away from them.

It can also mean taking feedback seriously, so if someone points out something you did that bothered them, you take action to improve.

Actionable skills for a more inclusive workplace

This survey marks the start of a new, skills-based approach to building diversity, equality, inclusion and belonging. We plan to explore the issue further.

Based on these findings, organizations committing to make positive change should assess the skills of their employees at these different levels, and begin training to upskill and reskill them. These are also areas of expertise to look for in hiring.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle inequity.

The Forum's work on Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and Social Justice is driven by the New Economy and Society Platform, which is focused on building prosperous, inclusive and just economies and societies. In addition to its work on economic growth, revival and transformation, work, wages and job creation, and education, skills and learning, the Platform takes an integrated and holistic approach to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, and aims to tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity.

As our Chief People Officer Janice Burns put it, the results offer “a tangible way to build the foundations for an inclusive organization ­– one skill at a time”.

Based on what we’ve found, businesses that commit to these changes will have an edge in achieving DEIB – not to mention the improved innovation and performance that come with it.