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How to Create Belonging in the Workplace Without Undermining Diversity

How to Create Belonging in the Workplace Without Undermining Diversity

Belonging entails that everyone will find a place in your organization and fit in by being themselves. Yet to be a company that embodies diversity, we have to allow for such a unique scope of variety that companies may struggle to find a space for their employees to "belong," be counted, be understood, and still speak the same language. If we get it wrong, the strategies we employ for all the right reasons to promote belonging can instead discourage diversity of thought.

The challenges of 2020 and the need to restructure from the ground up have provided us with an unprecedented opportunity to include more equitable systems as part of that corporate rebuild. 2020 was equally marked by a wave of worldwide protests against discrimination, with movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.

Working with clients in recent months, much of our focus has been on recovery and growth strategies, at the same time as endeavoring to embed meaningful and effective DEIB into these systems.

I fully believe in DEIB, yet it is has become clear to me that there is a dichotomy between the foundations of diversity and the point when a culture of organizational belonging becomes assimilation. Companies are walking a tightrope, and it is paramount that we understand and acknowledge this if we are to navigate our way successfully to an empowered, diverse workforce that embraces change and challenge.

[Related: You Are Your Best Advocate]

What is DEIB?

  • Diversity: Who sits at the table.
  • Inclusion: Which voices get heard.
  • Equity: Everyone at the table gets the support they need.
  • Belonging: Allowing every employee to perform at their very best by being who they are.

While a fairly new and strongly pushed phenomenon of late, DEIB has been seen as the best push toward empowering your teams to deliver their full potential within the workplace, by creating a culture where one’s contribution is acknowledged and encouraged.

What is diversity of thought?

Diversity of thought can mean people in a group that do not need to look different or identify with underrepresented groups or populations in order to bring different viewpoints to the table. However, for the purposes of this article, when I reference diversity of thought, it is within the context of opinions and ideas that arise as the result of diverse representation.

According to the Cognitive Diversity Hypothesis:

Multiple perspectives stemming from the cultural differences between group or organizational members result in creative problem solving and innovation.

Diversity is bigger than just gender and race. It includes culture, age, education, socio-economic status, and mindset. True diverse representation, which is a reflection of the company’s customer base and is reinforced by equitable systems and opportunities, will naturally drive the diversity of thought required to stay relevant.

Conversations and solutions should be open to everyone, underpinned by a company culture where every voice is welcome, heard, and respected. People should be free to be themselves, and others to disagree or agree openly and respectfully.

[Related: The Most Common Communication Mistakes Women Make]

What is belonging?

While diversity often has different meanings, the importance of belonging is truly universal across the board. Brands with a high sense of purpose have experienced a brand valuation increase of 175% over the past twelve years compared to an average of 86%, as per Kantar Consulting's Purpose 2020 report.

Employees feel a sense of belonging when:

  1. They understand and are aligned with the organizational mission, values, goals, and business practices.
  2. They respect, and are respected by, their leadership team and coworkers.
  3. They are involved and can contribute to the full extent of their knowledge and skills.
  4. They feel that opportunities and decisions are fair.
  5. Their needs and preferences are represented at everyday gatherings or company celebrations.

How should diversity of thought and belonging work together?

Putting this into practice and getting the balance right is the tricky part. It starts right at the onboarding process. Organizational assimilation is an ongoing and dynamic relationship between the company and individual, where the employee learns the expected behaviors of the organization.

A need by the employee to belong, and their worry about making it through that probationary period, creates their perceived requirement for assimilation, and if that perception is taken too far, it can go against the foundations of diversity.

It’s absolutely crucial from day one that they feel that they are able to propose ideas for change and feel confident to share recommendations for improvement. The reality of their working week then needs to live up to that onboarding "pitch." All too often, creativity and new ideas are stifled by the need to ensure individuals are following the company line and keeping to the processes set out by "invisible" departments.

Here are a few key thoughts to help guide your strategy:

  • Instill an inclusive culture that prides accomplishment and creates an enabling environment, with a solution-based mindset.
  • Be clear up and downstream about your brand mission, values, and purpose, and what you expect from your troops.
  • Ensure that your workforce is diverse and representative of its culture and customer base.
  • Empower learning and development leaders to play a key role in creating an inclusive organizational culture.
  • Encourage open and transparent communication based on healthy debate and discussion, with an open-door policy for leadership teams.
  • Set up structures that encourage input and feedback - cross-function working committees, ERGs, and multi-functional, multi-level project teams.
  • Use an outside-in approach to daily operations and growth strategy.

Jack Welch, American business executive, chemical engineer, and writer, states that hierarchical organizations are places in which "everyone has their face toward the CEO and their back toward the customer." In his definition of an outside-in approach, "the focal point is the customer who defines the organization’s purpose and thus the value work that it exists to carry out."

By keeping your front-line troops at the heart of change and company value, you ensure that you are finding that sweet spot on the tightrope between the support poles of diversity and belonging.

By approaching DEIB issues in a thoughtful, purposeful way, leaders can mitigate the challenges posed by the dichotomy of belonging and diversity, and instead reap the benefits true diverse representation can offer. People should be free to be themselves, and others to disagree or agree openly and respectfully, and we can achieve this by building a culture where every employee is involved and can deliver their best.

[Related: Lessons to Teach Young Women on this International Day of the Girl]

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Audrey Hametner is a global leader in operations, governance, and risk management, drawing on over 23 years of experience as an international operations strategist and NED. A certified Six Sigma Black Belt with an honors degree from the University of Toronto and an MBA from Imperial College London, Audrey has managed teams across the globe, including India, Europe, Middle East, USA, Canada, and Singapore. She is a regular keynote speaker and panelist on business platforms, specializing in best practices that are relevant and responsive to changing customer demands.


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