New Report on Supporting the Emotions of Equity Leaders and Beyond
June 12, 2023

In a new brief, Emotional Labor in Shared Equity Leadership Environments: Creating Emotionally Supportive Spaces, the sixth and final report in the On Shared Equity Leadership series, researchers explore how the impact of emotional labor on college and university leaders can be lessened when responsibility for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leadership is broadly distributed and shared across multiple campus stakeholders.

Rather than keeping DEI work siloed or isolated in a single person or office, the Shared Equity Leadership (SEL) model aims to include a variety of people on college and university campuses in this work. Even though the challenging emotions and emotional labor that accompany DEI work do not disappear in SEL environments, the report did find some evidence that the burden is minimized by working in community with other leaders who share the labor. The paper was published in partnership with the Pullias Center for Higher Education, University of Southern California.

Emotional labor, according to the report, is often borne by equity leaders, who must navigate daily microaggressions and resistance from colleagues who hesitate to have open dialogue. These leaders are often expected to serve as experts on racial issues by virtue of their race alone and to educate privileged groups by using their own deeply personal emotional traumas and experiences.

The brief offers several recommended steps institutions can take to support leaders’ emotions and ensure that emotional labor does not become overly burdensome—which the authors say requires support from senior leaders, such as presidents, cabinet members, and trustees. Some of the main strategies include:

Center people of color in decision-making around emotional labor support strategies

  • While it is important for White leaders to step up and participate, they should not be making decisions about the best ways to support this work without contributions and leadership from colleagues of color.

Create intentional spaces for honoring and processing emotions

  • Institutions should make time during regular meetings, particularly ones focused on equity work, to provide the time, space, and emotional support to process emotions.

Establish healing circles

  • Institutions can support emotional labor by offering intentional and structured healing circles that are open to the campus community to help students, staff, faculty, and administrators come together and process deeply felt emotions and traumas. 

Formalize and reward coaching and mentoring programs

  • Institutions can also formalize and reward one-on-one coaching or mentoring programs that leaders often already do informally with little to no recognition or reward.

Repair broken relationships and rebuild trust

  • As a result of years of broken promises, lack of action, and little real change in terms of equity work, leaders of color can be distrustful of the institution’s intentions—senior leaders must acknowledge its impact on relationships and understand that trust must actively and intentionally be rebuilt.

The reports in the On Shared Equity Leadership series are based on findings from a three-year multiple-case study of eight higher education institutions across the country. As part of the data collection efforts, researchers collected and reviewed thousands of pages of documents and interviewed over 100 leaders across the eight campuses, including presidents, provosts, and other executive leaders; DEI professionals; student affairs staff; faculty in a variety of disciplines; and staff in facilities, alumni affairs, development, and fundraising.

This report will be the focus of a webinar on June 15, from 1-2 p.m. ET. Expert panelists will discuss what emotional labor looks like in an environment where responsibility for DEI leadership is broadly distributed. Click here to register.