Diversity and inclusion are not sufficient; you need to create a culture of belonging

20 July, 2020

The importance of creating a work culture that embraces uniqueness and individuality

We often fail to recognize that just because someone is included in our organization, certainly doesn’t mean they feel they belong. – Anita Sands 

What does it mean to truly belong to a team, a workplace, an organisation?

 A growing number of corporate leaders and researchers are trying to address this question. Belonging goes beyond diversity and inclusion. While diversity is about numbers and inclusion is a behaviour, belonging is a feeling. Just because someone is part of a group doesn’t mean they feel like they belong. It’s only when employees feel a sense of belonging that their full potential can be realised. Without it, the people we work so hard to bring on board can only operate at partial capacity.

In her article for The Inclusion Solution, Na Shai Alexander notes that companies need to look beyond diversity and inclusion to belonging.

To move to the next level of maturity, beyond basic awareness and understanding of diversity, organisations must work to integrate and embed inclusive principles into day-to-day processes, policies, and activities. Some might argue the next stage of that maturity model includes belonging.

So, my message this week focuses on the benefits of belonging. How can we create a culture that embraces the uniqueness of all our team members, enabling them to find joy in the workplace and unleash their talent?

At some point in our lives, all of us have felt left out – whether at school or university, in social situations, or in a new city or country. Such moments leave us hurt and vulnerable; you can probably recall the feeling clearly even years later. Social rejection and isolation activate similar areas of the brain as physical pain. Now, imagine feeling that way every single day at work. Even if you might not have experienced this sense of un-belonging personally, some of your colleagues probably have. In her excellent Medium piece on this topic, Dr. Anita Sands asks you to put yourself in their shoes:

Have you ever wondered if the colleagues who sit around you feel like they have to filter significant parts of their identity out of their professional persona? If they check a part of their life at the door each day? How painful must it be to tolerate that sense of exclusion every day just to make a living? And yet it happens all the time.

When people feel excluded, they hide or downplay parts of themselves that don’t fit in with the perceived culture at their workplace. This is mentally and emotionally exhausting – and it invariably takes a toll on engagement and performance.

Minorities, for example, can spend 20-30% of their time worrying about how they fit in. Lack of belonging also dampens innovation. The fear of being unfairly judged or criticised silences employees and makes them less likely to take risks, resulting in a culture that actively discourages creativity.

The feeling of not fitting in is widespread, but hardly talked about. You might feel like you’re the only one who doesn’t belong – but in reality, many of your co-workers could feel the same way. In a survey conducted by EY, more than 40% of respondents felt isolated in their jobs. At the same time, a report from Deloitte showed that 61% of employees “cover” some part of their identity to assimilate better. Ironically, a vast majority of these respondents work in companies that pride themselves on being inclusive.  

It’s only when people feel psychologically safe and valued for their authentic selves that they can truly thrive. The acceptance and celebration of their whole self brings confidence and intrinsic motivation – the kind that money can’t buy. The benefits for business are dramatic. According to research by BetterUp, a high sense of belonging is linked with up to:

  • 56% increase in job performance
  • 50% drop in turnover risk
  • 75% reduction in sick days
  • 136% jump in employer promoter score (recommending the organisation to other people)

Belonging has been the missing ingredient in D&I efforts by companies.. Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends report highlights that a shift is underway:

Seventy-nine percent of survey respondents said that fostering a sense of belonging in the workforce was important to their organisation’s success in the next 12–18 months, and 93 percent agreed that a sense of belonging drives organisational performance—one of the highest rates of consensus on importance we have seen in a decade.

There is a danger, of course, that “belonging” could become just another buzzword. People have become sceptical of such fuzzy feel-good terms since progress is often slow or non-existent. According to research by Gartner, only 36% of D&I leaders feel their organisation has been effective at building a diverse workforce. That’s why it’s crucial to implement thoughtful strategies that fuel genuine change.

Citigroup, for example, has been driving DIBs (Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging) by linking it with their senior leadership. As part of the effort, high-level managers shared personal stories, live-streamed to employees around the world. One leader related how, for years, she hid the fact that she never went to college. Another expressed his struggles as the only Asian in a group of white colleagues. Sharing such experiences builds a sense of ally-ship and belonging through the workforce. The company has even designed a toolkit for budding allies who have good intentions but don’t know exactly where to begin.

How can we instil such a culture within our teams and organisation? How can we create valuable moments of belonging for our co-workers? Here are six recommendations to get started.

1. Begin a dialogue

The term DIBs was coined by Pat Wadors, who introduced several ground-breaking policies at LinkedIn during her tenure as head of HR. (Watch her video – The Power of Belonging – https://youtu.be/xwadscBnlhU). Wadors suggests three questions for leaders and their teams to reflect on:

  • How does your organisation celebrate differences?
  • As an employee, do you feel safe if you make a mistake?
  • Does someone at work care about you?

Use these questions to foster a discussion around moments when team members felt like they belonged and moments when they felt left out. Invite everyone to contribute (including yourself!), then think of ways in which you can collectively make things more inclusive. Simply creating a shared awareness of “belonging” is already a step in the right direction. Keep in mind that this dialogue requires a psychologically safe space. The discussion may get uncomfortable at times, so people should know they won’t be penalised for expressing their views honestly.

2. Pass the mike

Nurture a sense of inclusivity by proactively asking for input during meetings. Take note of team members who might be getting side-lined, and make yourself an ally by inviting them to share their views. Hear them out fully – don’t interrupt or talk over them – then respond with a follow-up question, so they know they’ve been genuinely heard. Don’t underestimate your own influence: research shows that even a single ally who helps level the playing field can make a huge difference.

3. Share stories

Stories are a compelling way to generate a sense of belonging, especially when the storyteller shows vulnerability. When leaders share anecdotes about how they coped with feeling excluded, others realise that they’re not alone in their struggle and feel encouraged to tell their own stories. In her article for Harvard Business Review, Pat Wadors explains why storytelling is such an effective tool: 

We, as humans, are also wired to respond to stories. Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist, has found that hearing a story with a beginning, middle, and end causes our brains to release cortisol and oxytocin. These chemicals trigger our human ability to connect, empathise, and make meaning. It is through our storytelling that we find our way to belong.

4. Check in with sincerity

Go ahead: connect, reach out and catch up. There’s really no better way to show people that you value and care about them. In the EY study mentioned above, nearly 40% of respondents said they felt the greatest sense of belonging when their co-workers checked in with them. Leaders should make it a priority to connect regularly with their team members, professionally and personally. Do so with sincerity: take the time to listen to their answers, then follow up after a few days on any noteworthy points.

5. Appreciate the Whole Self

Despite good intentions, you may forget to show appreciation for the person as a whole and acknowledge their importance within the team. For example, how do you introduce your co-workers? Do you simply refer to their role, e.g. ‘Ray is an analyst’? Or do you talk about them as one of the gang, e.g. ‘Ray is part of our analytics team’? Do you volunteer other unique information about them – such as a project they’re passionate about, a quirk that sets them apart, a hobby outside of work?

6. Mentor and empower

If you personally struggle with feeling left out or excluded, mentorship is one way to improve the situation for yourself. Coaching someone else in a similar position and mapping out strategies for inclusiveness can actually enhance your own sense of belonging – not to mention driving positive change through the team.

Belonging doesn’t spring automatically from diversity and inclusion – it requires intentionality and work. This is something that deserves attention from senior leaders and culture-shapers, especially in organisations where bringing the whole self to work is a key value.


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