What do diversity and inclusion mean to you these days?
Honestly for me, they mean different things depending on the context in which I think about them. Cathy the Cynic thinks diversity initiatives too often feel trendy and superficial, like a knee-jerk response to the social pressure to check a box. Cathy the Optimist believes that those who direct such initiatives honestly see the communal value in a truly diverse and inclusive work environment.
A wise friend recently pointed out to me that inclusion can be a challenge even in a homogeneous group. “You could have 25 white men in a room and everybody may not feel included.” So, he said, perhaps we should work on inclusion first, and diversity will come more naturally as a result. Brilliant! If we make it safe for everybody to be themselves, no matter who they are, then they feel free to bring their best, authentic selves—it’s a win-win for each individual and the organization. An inclusive work culture supports and values each person for their unique contributions. In such an environment, diversity is achieved because people value their differences as much as their similarities. They live in curiosity and awe, always in a learning stance. Inclusive cultures seek more perspectives, experiences, expertise, and backgrounds—they cultivate depth and breadth in the humanity of their workforce. People from divergent walks of life seek to join such cultures, drawn to vibrant cohesion, synergy, and creativity.
This idea marinated in my mind for some weeks until an article from the Wharton School of Business crossed one of my online feeds last Thursday. It says diversity and inclusion are not enough; we need to cultivate a sense of belonging in our workplaces. The article quotes Sam Lalanne, a senior vice president of Global Diversity and Talent Management at Citigroup: “…whereas diversity often gets linked to numbers and percentages, belonging ‘is about how you feel’ when you’re at work. ‘Do you feel valued? Do you feel like you should be there? Do you feel that your insights, commentary and perspectives matter?’”
“Rebekah Bastian, a vice president of culture and community at Zillow Group, said that the superior business outcomes often associated with having diverse teams can’t be achieved without a sense of belonging. It’s not enough to simply include people at the table, she said, but to ‘amplify everyone’s voices, clear barriers … and appreciate each other for our unique backgrounds.’ Both she and Lalanne said that a sense of belonging means that people can bring their full selves to work, and not feel like they’re a different person there than at home.”
A different person. So what I described above as inclusion is really what these leaders define as belonging. We want each person to feel they belong in the work tribe, that their presence and contributions are valuable and worthy, as themselves. When we include, from our hearts, each person in their wholeness, only then will they truly belong. And that is the sweet spot where teams thrive.
So what do we do? How do we create such loving cultures of true belonging? According to panelists quoted in the Wharton article (and we all know this), it comes from the top: “Lalanne also commented on the importance of ‘tone at the top’ toward fostering a sense of belonging. ‘Our CEO, Mike Corbat, has really pushed us on our diversity, inclusion and belonging agendas. And it really comes from, what does he preach, what comes out of his mouth, how does he execute against the things that we see around us.’” Simon Sinek calls us to live our values with clarity, consistency, and discipline. So if you’re a leader who talks about diversity and inclusion, about belonging, then we workers have to see you, to feel you, living these values out loud and in front of us.
Belonging is more about how we are toward each other than how we act or what we do, which is inclusion. This is the key to successful ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiatives—they must be sincere. Humans are intuitively social animals. We smell insincerity and reject it, because it is unsafe. We cannot trust it.
A garden of belonging must be grown organically. There are no shortcuts. It takes time, and the gardener must tend it regularly. Young seedlings require protection from weather and predators. She must bring in pollinators and other helpers—one person cannot do it all. So we can all pick up a trowel and participate. We look to our leaders to set the path, and when we see the shining hope of our collective destination we follow willingly, eagerly, and together.