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Viewpoint: Belonging Is the Missing Piece in the Fight for Inclusion

A group of people standing in a line.

The year 2020 is more than half over, and the world is still reeling from a pandemic, volatile economic conditions and perpetual social turmoil. Amid the chaos, many employers are asking, "What can we do?"

Black Lives Matter, transgender rights and gender pay equality are powerful movements that have created a surge in demand for diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) professionals. Employers often understand the value in highlighting diversity, equity and inclusion, yet many organizations fall short in creating environments where employees feel a real sense of belonging.

The EY Belonging Barometer study suggests that 40 percent of working adults experience feelings of isolation in the workplace. Despite the $8 billion each year spent collectively on DE&I training, nearly half of working adults feel disconnected from their jobs and have a negative perception of the company where they work.

Research shows that the need to belong in the workplace comes second only to the need to belong at home. Belonging at work is defined as the experience of being wholly accepted and included by those around you. Employer-provided DE&I training often fails to focus on intersectionality, belonging and the critical role both play in authentic, high-performing teams.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, more organizations have made the shift to remote work. With that, there is a much-needed emphasis for leaders to not only communicate the importance of diversity, inclusion and belonging, but also to identify the behaviors that create conditions where employees feel marginalized. Regardless of race, gender and all other characteristics encompassed in diversity, employees need to feel recognized for their contributions, have equal advancement opportunities and feel accepted for who they are.

Leaders who are vulnerable with their teams and use a service-style approach have a more positive impact on the trinity of diversity, inclusion and belonging. With belongingness achieved, companies experience tangible benefits, such as higher performance, innovation and employee engagement.

The Shallow View

Has the hiring of more women or people of color become a numbers game that does little to create a culture of real inclusion? Asif Sadiq, global head of diversity and inclusion for Adidas, thinks it may have. He points out that diversity training efforts sometimes backfire because they acknowledge problems without fixing them. Specific groups still don't feel heard and become more isolated.

Black workers in particular report feeling increased isolation at work. Research released in connection with the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) Together Forward @Work initiative found that over 30 percent of Black workers feel undervalued and disrespected on the job—feelings that are hardly associated with belonging. Similarly, the Cigna Loneliness and the Workplace survey found that approximately 47 percent of Black and Hispanic workers feel detached from the rest of their teams in high-stress situations.

Diversity, inclusion and belonging are sensitive topics for workplace discussions. Some employees insist that diversity has nothing to do with them and refuse to engage in conversations that feel uncomfortable: 37 percent of Black and white U.S. workers say they are uncomfortable discussing race issues at work with people of different races. Discussions around belonging—specifically, those around race—can feel awkward but are necessary for racial equity since an inclusive environment can only exist if everyone is willing to show compassion and communicate openly.

Leaders Make the Difference

Authentic leadership includes courage in the face of uncomfortable conversations and a commitment to communicating that diversity, inclusion and belonging are everyone's business and responsibility. Leaders who are open to being vulnerable and follow a service-style leadership model recognize communication barriers and tend to be more successful in creating inclusive teams. Employee behaviors may begin to mirror those of their leaders, and workers will take on the responsibility to help build an inclusive workplace.

Workplace leaders need to consider the following actions to elevate their DE&I efforts and create a culture of belonging:

  • Think culture add, not culture fit. "Culture fit" is a standard recruitment effort when selecting candidates. Hiring someone with values that align with those of the organization and fit well with the current team may unintentionally create a culture that perpetuates bias and limits diversity.

Homogenous workplaces are typically less innovative and lower-performing and fall into the trap of groupthink. McKinsey & Co. reports that companies in the top 33 percent of gender and racial diversity outperform those in the bottom quartile. Racially and ethnically diverse companies are also 87 percent better at decision making than homogenous companies and enjoy revenues that are 1.4 times higher. Differing viewpoints give those companies an edge in ideation and problem solving that is lacking at those companies that fall into a groupthink mentality.

Instead of paying attention to "culture fit," hiring managers should focus on "culture add," which promotes diversity and challenges the status quo. Organizations with employees who question the current culture often create positive change. Considering candidates based on what they could potentially bring to the culture that is currently missing will pivot the organizational mindset in the direction of walking the talk and increase competitive advantage.

  • Acknowledge unconscious bias. Leaders are human, and, by nature, humans have biases based on their experiences and viewpoints. Rather than pretending to be all-inclusive all the time, leaders must again tap into their vulnerability and openly acknowledge their own biases—no more claiming color, age or gender blindness. Recognizing unintentional bias helps create learning moments that move organizations toward inclusion and environments where employees feel they can be authentic and still belong.

Because it's challenging to recognize implicit bias, Harvard's Project Implicit has put together a self-guided analysis useful in determining underlying preferences. No human is free of unconscious bias due to life experiences and upbringing. But people can learn what their blind spots are and use powerful new tools to interact with others and behave in deliberate, conscious and inclusive ways.

From a leader's perspective, it is vital to understand that affinity bias—the process of like seeking like—is a real phenomenon that must be consciously avoided in diverse and inclusive environments.

  • Be diverse in sponsorship and mentorship selections. Equal opportunity for career advancement is a critical part of inclusion within organizations. Research suggests that racial and ethnic minority groups are consistently excluded from sponsorship and mentorship opportunities. Affinity bias influences whom leaders choose to mentor or sponsor, and vice versa—employees often seek mentors and sponsors who look like them.

But leaders must work to change that narrative and develop both formal and informal mentorship and sponsorship relationships with diverse people, focusing on women and people of color to close the gap in leadership positions.

  • Deliver on stated values. A trickier action to follow through on is studying the data and ensuring that spoken values are being delivered equally to all teammates. That accountability sometimes means asking hard questions and pushing back on the organization, analyzing pay gaps and fixing them, and asking for feedback from people leaving the company. It also means communicating on severe issues, like racial and gender injustice, where all employees can express themselves in an open forum.

Research released with SHRM's Together Forward @Work initiative revealed that only 1 in 10 organizations make a point to delve into these topics with employees. True leadership goes beyond finding diverse employees to include acting on the promises of open communication, change and equity.

  • Promote community. To create a space where everyone belongs, organizations must think community first and company second. Intentional leadership practices can illuminate employees' behaviors to emulate and contribute to an inclusive community where everyone feels a shared purpose, valued for who they are and loyalty to the organization as a whole.

A sense of community is just as crucial for remote teams made up of members of different races, cultures, locations, disciplines, backgrounds and functions; working at a distance may present more barriers than working face to face. A risk with fully or partially remote teams is that it may be easier for teammates to fall through the cracks when there are few in-person meetings. Behaviors that exclude teammates may go unnoticed by leaders, and feelings of isolation may escalate. Leaders, formal and informal, must continue to include everyone in organizational activities via Zoom or other virtual methods.

Encouraging check-ins between employees solidifies the sense of community for both virtual and face-to-face teams because it reinforces that they are part of a team and not alone. Almost 40 percent of employees surveyed in the EY Belonging Barometer study said they feel a strong sense of belonging when a teammate takes the time to see how they're doing professionally and personally.

  • Continue learning and offering learning opportunities. Learning happens in a multitude of ways—through conflict, organic conversation, formal training and everyday experiences. When leaders assume positive intent in everyone's communication, despite how they may come across, initial reactions and emotions remain stable. Driving open conversation provides the opportunity to strengthen relationships and cultivate belonging. For leaders, this means acknowledging an employee's feelings of exclusion rather than brushing them aside. Service-style leadership entails taking on some of the burdens to help an employee overcome the hurdle of exclusion until they perceive that they belong.

DE&I training within organizations that want to move the needle on employee belonging should consider other aspects of diversity not often discussed in the workplace. These include intersectionality and cognitive difference.

The fight for diversity and inclusion in the workplace isn't going away. The need for inclusion is amplifying as workforces move toward globalization and virtual teams. And as the workforce modernizes, employees are beginning to realize that work/life balance and a sense of belonging are necessities for psychological and physical well-being.

"Diversity is a fact. Inclusion is a behavior. But belonging is the emotional outcome that people want in their organization," said Christianne Garofalo, a partner at Heidrick Consulting and a diversity consultant.

Executive-level leaders have to figure out how to manage the business and the human side of the organization. Diversity, inclusion and belonging must coexist to create a culture where employees feel they can be authentic and are supported equally by leaders, who are vital in creating inclusion within organizations. Biases and stereotypes at work must be challenged. There is a growing need to see beyond the needs of the business, to focus on the people, and to encourage and accept diverse views. When diversity, inclusion and belonging are frequently discussed, they become a shared language and commitment to all within an organization.

Holly Althof is a freelance writer based in Cedar Falls, Iowa


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