Is “belonging” missing from our discussions about D&I?

Is the idea of belonging lacking from how we approach D&I? Some people believe so, says Michaela Jeffery-Morrison.

In a recent article for the CBI, Asif Sadiq called belonging “the missing ingredient of diversity and inclusion”, adding that “the output of true inclusion is a sense of belonging for everyone”.

As far back as 2015, there have been mentions of belonging in discussions of D&I. But that’s accelerated as we’ve entered a new decade and found that the number of women in the tech sector, for example, has barely changed in ten years.

Moving the needle

Despite the best efforts of events companies, department heads, activists and many others, the needle has not moved as quickly as we thought it would (and how much worse could things be if it wasn’t for those efforts?) More thought is needed. As Karen Thompson of Fujitsu UK&I says, “Fostering a sense of belonging in the workplace will become a key focus for organisations looking to move the D&I agenda forward in 2020 and beyond.”

We all need to feel as if we belong—in our social lives, as well as in our professional lives. We barely have to explain why this is so important to us. Everyone knows the feeling of being left out. But belonging is more than a vague concept. It’s a real human need.

Research shows that social needs and primary survival needs are not all that different: the same neural networks in the brain are responsible for both, and when our social needs are satisfied, the brain responds in a way that’s very similar to the way it responds to rewards that are more easily felt. If we feel that we belong to a group, it helps us to find life meaning, psychological balance and physical health. When we feel excluded, the reverse is true.

The value in belonging

Even from a purely commercial perspective, belonging has enormous value. In the latest EY Belonging Barometer study, researchers found that when people feel that they belong, they’re more productive, more motivated and more engaged. BetterUp found that employees who feel they belong get sick less and are less likely to change jobs. It’s good for business when employees feel like they belong. The most important thing you have in your company is your people, as we all know.

What was interesting about the EY study was that most of the 1,000 people involved in it said they felt they belonged most at work when they felt trusted and respected. Many said they felt the greatest sense of belonging when their colleagues checked in with them, and these regular check-ins were popular across all generations. Also important to this feeling of belonging was being able to speak freely and give opinions, as well to feel that your unique contributions are valued.

One size doesn’t fit all

And this is what it really means to be included; diversity doesn’t get you very far without inclusion. One of the problems with the way we talk about D&I is that we mention them together so often that it’s easy for others to confuse them for the same thing. Another is that the diversity part is easier to measure than the inclusion part: people are easier to quantify than feelings. But we do all understand how it feels to belong to a group and what we need to do to kindle those feelings in other people.

When we think of inclusion in this way, we can see why one-size-fits-all strategies are doomed to fail. The intentions behind them might be genuine and progressive, but they assume absolute knowledge of how to improve D&I, and they strip companies (and therefore the individuals that make them up) of their uniqueness when it’s only by recognising uniqueness that we help the people we meet in our lives to feel included.

But it isn’t for me or anyone else to tell another company how to be. Even if your company is naturally diverse and inclusive, it doesn’t mean you have all the answers. All companies are unique, and every business leader needs to look at D&I in the context of their business, industry, and goals. But thinking about belonging—something we’re all familiar with and understand—can help business leaders to identify what it is that will make their specific companies more inclusive. And that, in my experience, often starts with something very simple: communication.

About the author

Michaela Jeffery-Morrison is the Co-Founder, COO & Head of Production, Maddox Events.

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