From Diversity and Inclusion to Belonging

Over the past two decades, many organisations have launched programs in Diversity and Inclusion. In many sectors, however, data shows that these programs have largely failed. Data shows that especially in the technology sector, the number of Women and minorities employees is not growing. 

In a famous article appeared on HBR. a few years ago, Pat Wadors mentioned the following:

I realized that D&I grabs my intellect — it’s an organizational challenge that must be addressed — but not my heart. D&I initiatives are necessary to win the war for talent, to find and hire a diverse workforce, and to ensure fair practices, but they aren’t sufficient.

Pat Wadors, Diversity Efforts Fall Short Unless Employees Feel That They Belong, HBR August 10 2016

The reality is that, although much evolution had happened from when Diversity was merely treated as a numeric exercise, and Inclusion has seen growing attention from organisations, the fact is that in many ways D&I initiatives fail to realise value at the individual level truly.

The Power of Belonging

There are too many instances in which you are diverse, you might be included, but still, you don’t feel as to belong. There are many reasons why this negative feeling can appear. So the question is how to move up to a definite sense of belonging. 

What I really wanted was those moments when I feel that I belong to a team, I matter, and I’m able to be my authentic self. I don’t want to be seen as a number, a gender, or an ethnic box.

Pat Wadors, Diversity Efforts Fall Short Unless Employees Feel That They Belong, HBR August 10 2016

I was introduced to his concept during the Workforce Digital Transformation Summit in Amsterdam last year. And it has been an eye-opener. 

From my point of view, the critical issue with the reasoning in terms of Diversity iOS that we end up putting every person into a box. That candidate is a Woman, that manager an Ethnic Minority, that employee is LGBT+, that collaborator is “diversable”. With this, we immediately create an issue with the fact that many people belong to multiple boxes. Any solution that pushes us to fit into a box and be labelled through a category will risk increasing the risk of stimulating the opposite of belonging.

I recently took part in a closed Focus Group on the topic, held at a company that possesses one of the most advanced D&I strategy in Europe. I’ve anonymised all the data of the people, but I think it will derive the point.

  • John’ is 28, very talented professional. Has entered the Company through its graduate program. Local national from generation, white caucasian, fits all the skills requirements to get a fast career. He’s assigned a key role in a significant project. During a team meeting after vacation, some of the colleagues start sharing pictures of their holidays, with their partners and kids. They ask if he also has something to share. John feels bad because he still isn’t explicit about his sexual orientation
  • Aziz is 35 years old, graduated in Engineering in Syria and has quickly specialised in the Company’s product, becoming a team leader in the innovation department. He’s assigned to a critical innovation project, but the team is late. Because of how the testing is planned, he has to work very long hours for about two weeks. Aziz feels bad because his body is strained, the work happens during Ramadan, and he follows the fasting ritual.
  • Joanna is 45 years old and is a senior leader in the HR function. She has had a great career in the Company and is a great presenter and motivator. She is asked to support the organisation and introduce the Family Day organised by the Company at their headquarter: all employees can invite their family and kids for one day. Joanna feels bad because she never had kids, her marriage did not succeed, and she is afraid to try a relationship again.

It’s just three examples, all characterised by the fact that all the people have mentioned that those cases made them felt like they did not “belong” to that team, that moment, that situation. 

The Negative Gap created by Not Belonging

The problem about all the people that don’t fee; to “fit” and “belong” into their workplace, is that they will slowly start creating two versions of themselves. This will create a widening gap between their “work-life” and “non-work life”, which is going to be a source of growing stress. To better fit-in, people will try as best they can to conform to the dominant culture. If that means downplaying a part of themselves, that’s what they’ll do. A Deloitte study of more than 3,000 people found that 61% of people cover at work on at least one dimension. More so if they are black (79%) or gay (83%).

But here comes the real problem: this widening gap will create an emotional fracture for the individual. Covering becomes an exhausting activity. Precisely the opposite of what we need at work. Especially for people in leadership positions.

The future of work is emotional. Today, the top skills employers seek are already the ability to work on a team and the capacity to communicate verbally with others. Both of these require emotional fluency. This is a quote from an interview with Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy. Two introverts, who met and were able to bond together. Immediately realising how they had difficulties in belonging in a work environment. Their article 6 Illustrations That Show What It’s Like in an Introvert’s Head was viewed by over a million people. And what they have done was correctly characterising a need for belonging they had. 

Purposefully Creating Belonging

As we define the concepts we have been discussing, we can state that Diversity is a fact (the numbers are what they are), Inclusion is a choice (you decide whether to include someone or not). Still, belonging is a feeling that can be enforced by a culture that you have to purposefully create

Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard.

Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work

We have already seen how much Diversity is critical to allow for more creativity and innovation. Matthew Syed Rebel Ideas shows how much value bringing in any diversity of perspective adds. But we have also seen that Diversity needs to be intentionally built. Iris Bohnet has made her case pretty strongly in her book “What Works“. But precisely the complexity of this work, even on the most visible Gender diversity, shows that purely looking at Diversity from a numeric aspect is not enough. 

Again, we need to be intentionally defining a culture that allows for a strong sense of belonging. We have seen that this is a crucial building block, for example, in the creation of creative culture. How can we build Authenticity and Candor without a strong sense of belonging?

And you? Have you ever faced a situation if which you did not feel you belonged there?

Cover Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

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Sergio Caredda

Digital Knowmad | Multipotentialite | HR Leader | Transformation Agent | Future of Work thinker | On a mission to re-embed Human into HR.

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