With the choice of acronyms around diversity and inclusion continually growing , we must keep focused on the word behind the letters : belonging .
Words : Clare Grist Taylor
hen Sheryl Sandberg ’ s Lean In was
W published back in 2013 , it was rightly hailed as groundbreaking . Since then , debates about gender diversity at work have exploded into the mainstream , often blazing a trail for other under-represented groups and giving even the most unreconstructed leaders pause for thought .
Accordingly , the acronym D & I — as a shorthand for a whole host of initiatives to make organisations more diverse — has become common currency in organisations from the boardroom to the shop floor , with the drive towards more diverse workforces acknowledged not just as the right thing to do , but as a proven driver for business success .
And yet . Despite millions spent on corporate diversity programmes , the countless statistics and reports — let alone the fallout from 2020 ’ s Black Lives Matter ( BLM ) protests — remind us that the road to fully inclusive workplace cultures remains fraught with difficulty . Traditional white , male-led organisations continue to dominate , with progress often sluggish , even the best-intentioned initiatives buffeted by everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to more quotidian concerns around the difficulties of cultural change , and an inability to make real and lasting progress .
The question , yet again , is why ? And what could and should we be doing about it ? Another book , published to much less fanfare in 2019 ( and from a much less renowned techgiant staffer ) offers one insight into why D & I initiatives have failed to gain the traction we need . Lean Out , by Marissa Orr , reminds us that thinking around diversity has moved on since the heady days of Lean In .
For Orr , resolving the gender gap is not a matter of Sandberg-alike women dialling up their assertiveness , or even helping other women along the way . Rather , it ’ s about dysfunctional and outdated cultures that act as a barrier to more wholesale change in organisations .
Tackling a problem that is systemic , deeply ingrained in organisations and cultures , needs all of us to rethink our response and approach
While Orr is focusing exclusively on gender , the idea that we need to move on from laying the responsibility for change at the door of under-represented groups themselves — or even focusing on them exclusively — is compelling . Company LGBTQ + networks or black women ’ s groups have played an important role in recognising and empowering disadvantaged groups , but , on their own , they ’ re not enough to generate the change we need . And there ’ s increasing evidence that singling out groups can even reinforce a sense of them and us ‘ otherness ’. Tackling a problem that is systemic , deeply ingrained in organisations and cultures , needs all of us to rethink our response and approach .
Leading with inclusion
At the same time , that D & I acronym is itself under threat as debates around the focus of activity in this area develop and change , with refined variants , like DEI ( diversity , equity and inclusion ), gaining traction . It ’ s no coincidence that the latest McKinsey report investigating the business case for diversity self-consciously references I & D , giving inclusion top billing — while lamenting along the way that , overall , progress remains slow . It ’ s a trend mirrored at Accenture UK , where inclusion and diversity lead Melanie Eusebe favours the acronym ID , not just to focus on inclusion , but also because of its association with identity .
In a recent Harvard Business Review article , Columbia Business School ’ s Michael Slepian also focuses on identity , in particular , the concept of “ identity threat ”, defined as any situation that makes people feel different from others . Consider , for example , a manager talking to a low-paid employee about international travel plans , or a co-worker who expresses surprise that a black colleague doesn ’ t conform to a stereotype .
Slepian ’ s research found that people from underrepresented groups found themselves in identitythreatening situations on average a staggering 11 times every week . Unsurprisingly , this presents a major barrier to people feeling that they can be themselves and contribute fully at work , to the feeling that they truly belong in their organisations . It ’ s a problem that threatens to derail even the most successful initiatives , reinforcing an awareness that simply attracting and recruiting a diverse range of talent — improving representation — is not , in itself , the answer to true diversity at work .
The importance of belonging is also central to a recent book by Kathryn Jacob , Sue Unerman and Mark Edwards . In Belonging , the authors reinforce the message that the responsibility for creating these cultures is a matter for everyone at work — and needs to extend to everyone too , those pale , male , stale CEOs included : diversity should not be a zero-sum game where if one group gains another has to lose .
In their Manifesto for Belonging ( see p13 ), the authors call for a world of work where “ everyone should feel safe to bring their real selves to work ”, to contribute and belong without having to work hard to speak up for or hide their own identity , or feeling defensive because they already represent the status quo .
Might , then , this focus on belonging be the key to unlocking the D & I conundrum ? And , if so , what does it mean ?
Everyone needs to be aware of the role they have to play to create more inclusive organisations
This Manifesto for Belonging outlines four key factors that support belonging cultures . For Unerman , these represent a crucial underpinning : “ If you do these things , you will make progress . Without them , your diversity initiatives will be less effective ”. The first two reflect ongoing attempts to put in place diversity-friendly processes and protocols around recruitment , promotion and decision-making , rendering them as bias-free and transparent as possible . The second two focus on organisational and individual behaviours and cultures , focused on psychological safety , emotional intelligence and empathy .
Belonging explores how these principles can be applied on the ground , whether that ’ s ( among other things ) a focus on allyship , balancing a condemnation of micro-aggressions with micro-affirmations , zero tolerance for inappropriate behaviours or the power of reverse mentoring .
At its core , though , Unerman and her co-authors exhort us to “ look after our own emotional states ”, to see diversity — collectively and individually — as a cultural shift towards more human values such as respect , kindness , equality and inclusion . That requires us to work on our emotional intelligence and self-awareness , and to cultivate the empathy necessary for those difficult , but crucial , conversations and to walk in other people ’ s shoes .
For Louise Byrne , vice president , global talent & diversity at IHG Hotels & Resorts , it ’ s precisely that kind of humility and vulnerability that has supported recent progress on inclusion . With a large US workforce headquartered in Atlanta , it ’ s unsurprising that the unrest in the US has had a profound and emotional impact on the organisation .
While some co-workers were able to lean in and ask their black colleagues to help them understand how they were feeling , others found it much more difficult and uncomfortable to engage . “ Some of our people didn ’ t know what to say , didn ’ t want to offend by saying the ‘ wrong ’ thing — and ended up saying nothing ,” says Byrne . “ That was not helpful ; we had to act .”
Byrne ’ s team approached the issue on two fronts . First , they created a one-page guide for managers and leaders , supporting everyone to understand the issues , offering practical conversation starters and encouraging engagement . But what really made the difference was a series of virtual town hall meetings featuring panels of people from across the business and from every level .
The sessions created a safe space to share stories , build understanding and allow people to bring their whole selves to work . Byrne adds : “ It helped all of us to understand better the experience of being black , enabling employees to learn about black colleagues ’ experiences and why racial inequality cuts so deep and is so emotive .”
The benefits of belonging are for everyone and also the responsibility of everyone
One person spoke of ‘ the talk ’ that black people need to have with their young children to prepare them for what they ’ ll face , like being pulled over by the police . Another talked about not feeling comfortable or safe running in his neighbourhood . The series has really helped to peel back the layers and build empathy across the organisation .”
Similar sessions are planned for other communities or tied to occasions such as International Women ’ s Day . Byrne herself participated in IHG ’ s mental health awareness week , sharing her own challenges with imposter syndrome and mental health issues during the COVID pandemic . “ It ’ s important to show that everyone can be vulnerable , and that everyone has a role to play , can contribute , when it comes to modelling behaviours that make others feel safe to share and be themselves ,” she highlights .
While the town halls have had a positive impact , Byrne does not underestimate how emotional it was for black colleagues to step up and share their experiences . It ’ s an issue not lost on Melanie Eusebe , who recognises that BLM has often been “ exhausting ” for black co-workers who have had to help others understand while processing their own feelings at the same time . She hopes , though , that the experience will offer “ runways for change ”.
It ’ s a crucial part of Eusebe ’ s thinking around inclusion that it cannot , and must not , be solely focused on underrepresented groups . For example , Accenture ’ s new leadership development programme is about training the organisation as a whole . So , while that training is certainly designed to support people from disadvantaged groups , it also includes those people ’ s immediate colleagues .
The purpose is to “ teach the organisation about equally distributed leadership behaviours ”. Think , for example , of the way work has traditionally been allocated . Some people who feel they can approach their boss about new opportunities inevitably become ‘ insiders ’, giving them an edge over others who might feel less comfortable putting themselves forward . Instead , Eusebe is building better awareness around these kinds of inequalities .
She also sees a shift away from a solely HR-led responsibility for change . She says : “ Everyone needs to be aware of the role they have to play to create more inclusive organisations — and to walk the walk when it comes to delivering on organisational values around inclusion .” ID leaders will still have a crucial role to play in things like collecting and analysing diversity data , which needs to be qualitative , about people ’ s experience , as well as quantitative , but it ’ s “ for each and every one of us to act on the results ”.
In Netflix ’ s first inclusion report , published earlier this year , the inclusion team is similarly clear that it cannot crack inclusion and diversity on its own . Instead , the report exhorts each employee to look at “ every issue , decision and meeting , inside and outside the company , with inclusion in mind ”.
Through this inclusion lens , people need to ask questions such as : whose voice is missing ? Who is being excluded ? Are we portraying this authentically ? As with the Manifesto for Belonging , the report highlights progress on representation and inclusive practices such as employee resource groups , equitable pay and inclusive benefits alongside consciousness building more widely .
We all need to look to individual and collective behaviours , cultures , processes and structures as a new route map to a more diverse and equal world of work
For example , in-person workshops exploring concepts including privilege , bias and intersectionality , and allyship have provided a framework for people to come together . Verna Myers , vice president of inclusion strategy at Netflix , concludes the report with a call to arms : “ The neutral period is over , we need the courageous period ”. But she also recognises that this is not about perfection , Rather , it ’ s about those human characteristics again : humility , vulnerability and “ unlearning as much as learning ”.
Nor is that courage to be restricted to the business ’ s own people ; the ambition is that inclusion in the internal Netflix community will be matched by “ inclusion on-screen ”. At Accenture UK , Eusebe is also looking beyond her immediate colleagues . Inclusion has to be about anyone with whom the organisation has a business relationship , looking to influence everything from procurement practices across supply chains to its clients ’ product design to behaviour across client operations .
Eusebe ’ s philosophy is underpinned by the transformational leadership model developed by James MacGregor Burns in his 1978 book , Leadership , and expanded on during the 1980s by fellow scholar Bernard M . Bass . As the name suggests , it ’ s a leadership style designed to inspire positive change . Transformational leaders look to work alongside team members to identify the change needed , create a vision for that change and identify the steps to make it happen .
They ‘ transform ’ others by supporting and empowering them to become leaders too , acting as role models and mentors to help every member of the group succeed . They respect and welcome difference and are open to new ideas and concepts while also being able to create cultures that align with organisational goals and values .
It ’ s easy to see how this style of leadership might be important for inclusion and belonging . Bass ’ s Transformational Leadership Theory is based on four Is :
• Idealised influence : when the leader acts as a role model and leads by example , considering the needs of the team and creating a clear vision and sense of belonging to create buy-in and performance .
• Inspirational motivation : when the leader inspires a team to achieve , communicating expectations and engaging with team members individually to gain their commitment to shared goals .
• Intellectual stimulation : when the leader encourages team members to think for themselves , creating diverse and open environments for ideas exchange and promoting growth and improvement .
• Individualised consideration : when the leader establishes a strong relationship with team members , respecting and celebrating individual difference and acting as a supportive resource , mentoring and developing individual potential .
Crucially , it ’ s a leadership approach that acknowledges and embraces individual , rather than group , difference . Michael Slepian ’ s research differentiates between what he terms real inclusion and surface inclusion . When people felt included , involved and accepted ( real inclusion ), they felt they belonged in the workplace . When employees felt that others asked for their input only because they were supposed to , or sought their opinion as someone who represents a social group ( surface inclusion ), they felt they belonged less . When being included for surfacelevel reasons , such as seeking a minority opinion , people often felt singled out on the basis of their demographics — actively working against inclusion efforts .
Unerman and her co-authors are similarly clear that there ’ s no one template for difference . While not underplaying the unique — and valid — grievances , issues and needs of under-represented groups , they also call for a focus on the commonalities we all face at work . A sense of otherness can be found in even the most unexpected places .
Belonging is for everyone
A 2013 report from Deloitte explored the concept of ‘ covering ’, the phenomenon that makes us feel we have to downplay or hide aspects of our identities . Alongside less unexpected evidence of widespread covering among women , black , Asian and gay employees , the survey found that 45 % of white , straight men also felt unable to bring their true selves to work . All the more reason why Accenture ’ s whole-organisation approach to inclusion is so necessary : no more insiders or outsiders , whoever they are . “ The benefits of belonging are for everyone and also the responsibility of everyone ,” says Unerman .
She also reminds us that the original fairy tale of Cinderella and her Prince Charming has a darker side than we usually care to acknowledge . In the original Brothers Grimm version , Cinderella ’ s step-sisters do indeed make that glass slipper fit , but only after her stepmother insists on cutting off a toe or two . It seems that the hapless prince only notices when the blood starts to pour . We may not see blood every day , but work environments where we need to cut off aspects of ourselves in order to fit in can have the same painful and counter-productive effect .
It ’ s a stark metaphor , but one that might help us to reframe the way we think about diversity , equality and inclusion . We all need the power and potential to transform ourselves and others without resorting to toe amputation . We all need to consider what we can do to create the conditions where people feel safe to contribute in unique , meaningful ways and to have the courage to admit when that ’ s not happening . We all need to look to individual and collective behaviours , cultures , processes and structures as a new route map to a more diverse and equal world of work . We need , in short , those cultures of belonging .