Belonging: the missing ingredient in Diversity and Inclusion
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) considerations are becoming firmly embedded in the policies and practices of future-facing businesses. But if HR leaders are to optimise the employee experience over the long term, they need to expand the remit of their DE&I provision to ensure that these important initiatives also help to create a more widespread culture of belonging.
One of the stumbling blocks to fostering belonging is that it’s not the automatic by-product of increasing diversity; in addition to widening representation, any inclusivity strategy must also inculcate the behaviours that prove it’s more than a tick-box exercise. Finding ways to move the conversation away from the theoretical and towards the practical is crucial – HR must take the lead in creating a workplace where people feel encouraged and empowered to show up as their authentic selves.
Recognising and addressing bias
Naturally, it’s easier said than done. If inclusion can best be evidenced in the behaviour it engenders, belonging can be seen as the logical outcome of a desire to feel part of a wider community – something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.
By recognising that people have different and intersecting needs, we’re laying the foundations to create an inclusive workplace that reflects and celebrates the diversity we see around us. But prioritising diversity isn’t enough on its own. To establish a workplace where everyone belongs, we must first acknowledge and address bias.
Bias is problematic – even when it’s not deliberate – and is as much a collective, as an individual, responsibility.
Without intervention, organisations often evolve social conventions that establish unwritten rules for belonging which, in turn, create a climate in which some individuals will achieve ‘belongingness’ while others find themselves excluded. It’s not necessarily an all-or-nothing situation: some employees may feel as if they belong within their team, for example, but don’t connect with the company’s broader cultural values.
Recognising that biases exist, that they unwittingly affect our responses and that we can take action to reduce their impact on our workplace interactions, are all key to developing our individual and social identity in a more intentional way.
It’s worth taking it seriously; belonging delivers benefits for businesses and employees alike. The EY ‘Belonging Barometer’ shows that people who feel like they belong are not only happier, but are also more productive and engaged – and are motivated to fulfil their potential.
And, while experiencing a sense of belonging encourages people to feel good, show up authentically and thrive, the opposite is also true.
A Deloitte review of companies’ inclusion strategies revealed that many people still felt they had to ‘cover’ – to mask those qualities that defined them as different from the dominant culture – in order to fit in. The study showed that a majority of employees (61 percent) covered to some degree in the workplace, with even higher numbers being recorded among black (79 percent) and gay (83 percent) respondents.
That some people feel compelled to behave inauthentically to find a cultural fit with their organisation should be a red flag for any business committed to innovation. Rather, companies should cultivate the climate of psychological safety that enable employees to bring 100 percent of themselves to the job – to share ideas and even to make errors without fear of censure. This aspect of belonging may be more nuanced, but it underpins the trust that’s essential if organisations are serious about tapping into their talent pools.
Harnessing the power of belonging
If leaders are committed to making belonging a core element of their team’s culture, they must honestly reflect on whether their employees feel safe, supported and cared-for.
They should also be prepared to model the behaviour that helps to forge a sense of belonging – sharing stories, celebrating achievements and talking transparently about mistakes and vulnerabilities, for example. Quashing the sterile quest for perfection by admitting that no-one knows everything, by exploring options openly and creatively, and by giving everyone permission to fail, as well as to succeed, is the only way forward.
It goes without saying that HR should take a lead on diverse representation, inclusivity training and on building a strategy for belonging to help bring value and meaning to each employee in their own right. It’s worth thinking of DE&I as an organisational challenge, while viewing belonging as a more fundamental human need.
Leaders can work hard to attract a more diverse workforce and to create an inclusive culture, but if people don’t feel they belong, they’ll never achieve their full potential.
Nobody wants to be seen as a quota. Most of us want to bring our best – and most authentic selves – to work and long for managers to see us as more than the qualifications we have, the communities we represent or the roles we’ve filled. Creating a culture where people feel they can belong – and where they can be uniquely themselves – isn’t easy but it has the power to transform the way we work for ever. We should give it our best shot.