As a CEO, I put a lot of focus on DEI. It helps that as a women's health organization, it's baked into our DNA and into the work we do. We expend tremendous amounts of effort trying to ensure that families of all types have access to the care and resources that will allow them to be happy and healthy. So we've been able to internalize those values and make diversity, equity, and inclusion priorities within our organization as well, all without too much friction.
But even though DE&I has been a renewed and important focus in boardrooms and at organizations across the country, it doesn't go far enough. Specifically, the "inclusion" part of that formula doesn't go far enough. A better vision is one that adds a "B" to the DEI equation: for "belonging."
It might seem pedantic—calling out the difference between inclusion and belonging—but it's actually really important. Someone can certainly be "included" in an organization without feeling as though they truly "belong." The idea of inclusion, obviously enough, is centered around including or welcoming everyone in your existing group; in your existing culture. People may be invited to be included, but the onus of truly fitting in lies with them—they need to adapt and transform to fit in with an already existing culture.
When we talk about belonging, however, we talk about workplace cultures in which a person feels as though they truly belong there, enabled by the culture you create. This happens when organizations think critically about how their workplace might be perceived by everyone—and make thoughtful accommodations and adjustments.
What inclusion looks like
I was lucky enough to go to an elite college on full financial aid, an opportunity I'm eternally grateful for. I had to do work study, and while other students were assigned tasks like office assistant, or tutoring, I was scraping trays in the cafeteria, where my peers often assumed I was a service worker there. My wife, who also went to an elite college on financial aid, was placed in a dorm with six other kids, all of whom were also attending on financial aid. These are incidents in which institutions are carving out a space for "others," but doing so in a way that clearly maintains a certain central culture that actively excludes some people. This type of inclusion can actively accentuate or highlight that sense of "otherness."
We see the same kinds of signals sent in the workplace. New arrivals might see quiet indications that your organization is a place "for them." Or, they might not. So what are the messages you're sending? Do you have all-day kegs on tap? The "tech bro" culture, rife with foosball, ping pong, late-night work sessions, and after-work happy hours, that permeates so many businesses, especially here in start-up-heavy Boston, can feel a lot like frat culture. And that's a culture that can be exclusionary to many people.
The end result? Employees who feel like they can't bring their true selves to work. In fact, a Deloitte study found that 61% of employees "cover" at work – that is, they hide some element of their identity, alter their appearance, don't speak up as loudly on issues as they may want to, or hide who they associate with. For LGBTQ+ team members, that rate is even higher, at 83%. For Black employees, it's 79%. For women of color, it's 67% and 66% for all women.
What belonging looks like
Belonging, simply put, means existing in a culture that invites people to be themselves: that encourages anyone to feel comfortable in their own skin. Critically, it means providing an environment in which people feel the psychological safety to bring their entire selves and their best ideas to work.
Creating an organization that truly values diversity and belonging means completely shaking off the traditional white, male archetype of the American workplace. It means having uncomfortable conversations. And it means finding ways to actively differentiate from environments that aren't welcoming to everyone.
So how can you bridge the gap between inclusion and belonging in your organization? First, it requires a commitment to listen and have open conversations. If your company looks like most organizations in America, chances are the people on your executive team don't reflect the levels of diversity you might be aiming for company-wide. Without knowing inherently what belonging might look and feel like to those from different backgrounds, it's important for organizational leaders to first listen, and then lead based on those insights.
That means investing the time to hear from stakeholders across the company—and asking the right questions. Leadership and HR teams need to learn from everyone in the organization through surveys, focus groups, and other forums, but the onus to diagnose issues and chart a path forward can't be put on those who might be feeling "othered." Through smart questions, like, "What do you see as your barriers to growth here?" or "Are there leaders here you feel you can relate to?" HR leaders can glean insights by digging into responses. Armed with that knowledge, HR and executive teams can get to work on creating workplaces that fire on all cylinders when it comes to innovation and collaboration.
There's a business case here, too. Masking your true self is exhausting. The upside of a culture of belonging is creating psychological safety to share new ideas, take risks and explore creative ideas without fear of embarrassment or rejection. This ultimately results in higher employee engagement, lower attrition, fewer sick days, improved collaboration and execution, and teams that have the prerequisite skills for innovation and change.
So really, making the change from inclusion to belonging isn't only about making each and every employee comfortable—although in my mind that's a worthy enough end goal in its own right. It's also about acknowledging a fundamental human need—the feeling of belonging that creates the trust that fosters sustainable innovation and opportunities to realize individual potential.
Paris Wallace is the CEO of Ovia Health, a women's health platform.
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