D&I Not Cutting It? Try Fostering a Sense of Belonging

Approaching diversity and inclusivity from a holistic and humanistic point of view may be the most impactful way to help people feel comfortable at work.

Approaching diversity and inclusivity from a holistic and humanistic point of view may be the most impactful way to help people feel comfortable at work.

In recent years, diversity and inclusivity initiatives have emerged as important organisational tenets for businesses in the UK and abroad. Major companies pride themselves on the implementation of new diversity programs, recognizing that employees want to belong to a team where they can be their authentic selves and feel that their opinions are valued.

The Challenge of D&I

There are of course companies that pay only lip service to the notion of D&I. Creating a policy but taking no action to embrace it, or hiring a head of D&I who has no power to affect change. Many more companies do recognise the value of improving diversity and inclusion, but have struggled to make it work despite genuine effort. Put simply, building a truly diverse and inclusive organisation is hard (even more so if entrenched attitudes need to be changed).

One of the reasons diversity is valuable is that all organisations operate in a diverse world – to meet the demands of the widest possible range of customers, consumers or citizens requires an understanding of the challenges, values and interests of a multitude of different groups. But managing diverse teams is difficult, as different perspectives will bring more challenge and disagreement. Managed well, this can lead to innovation, insight and improved execution. If it’s managed badly, then isolation, exclusion and even persecution can ensue.

New recruitment strategies are often seen as a vehicle to improve diversity. While this goal is laudable, if new hires enter a working environment where they are not included or welcomed, then changes to the recruitment methodology can be counter-productive. Disillusionment can set in which can rapidly spread to other employees, impacting retention and performance.

Even where this not the case, the way in which D&I is perceived can have negative connotations for employees. What they don’t want, says Pat Wadors, Senior Vice President of Global Talent Organisation at LinkedIn, is “to be seen as a number, a gender, or an ethnic box.”

The Concept of DIBs

Wadors coined the term DIBs to refer to the concept of combining diversity and inclusivity efforts with the notion of belonging (hence the “B”). “D&I initiatives are necessary to win the war for talent,” she says, but “to find and hire a diverse workforce, and to ensure fair practices, they aren’t sufficient.” This is, in large part, because people are social creatures who want to be their whole, authentic selves in the workplace. “We are genetically wired to belong,” Wadors says. “Our brains are hardwired to motivate us toward connection and belonging – it’s how we survive and thrive.”

Research from Stanford University psychologist Gregory Walton shows that efforts to reduce or mitigate threats to a person’s sense of belonging, especially among minorities, can significantly reduce their stress levels and change their attitudes about their own sense of belonging in an environment. Over time, such efforts were shown to improve the physical health, emotional well-being, and work performance of those studied.

While an organisation cannot guarantee that every employee experiences the same feeling of connection or comfort where they work, there are certain steps a company can take towards creating a culture of belonging that can significantly improve the overall health of the workplace.

Staying Present

Wadors suggests starting with something as simple as asking your employees, “How are you today?” or, “How do you feel about that?” Soliciting input in meetings, and remaining fully engaged while a colleague responds (instead of checking one’s email or phone), can be an extraordinarily powerful way to encourage a sense of connection and belonging within your workforce.

Collaboration begins from the top down: ask for help in implementing a diversity and inclusivity program, or seek assistance in accomplishing D&I goals through the incorporation of certain recruiting technologies. Likewise, entrusting people with big projects or giving them the opportunity to “own” a certain initiative conveys respect and paves the way for original thinking, task swapping, and diverse perspectives as they emerge.

Being Human

Original thinking, of course, can only take place in an inclusive environment that encourages every team member to voice their opinions. To belong is, at the core, about being able to open up, be vulnerable, and share stories, and neuroeconomist Paul Zak has found that a well-constructed narrative can dramatically change attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours. This is because hearing a strong story causes our brains to release cortisol and oxytocin, which trigger our human ability to connect, empathise, and find meaning. When people can be their truest selves around one another, and can find a way to share the good and the bad with co-workers, it enhances their relationships with one another, and therefore their contributions to the team.

If your company has already implemented an official D&I policy, perhaps it’s time to broaden the conversation by bringing a new focus to your initiatives: honing a company-wide sense of belonging through conversation, delegation and collaboration.

With this environment in place, you can then drive real value from your recruitment process. Using approaches such as video assessment and verification to ensure consistency of decisions, candidates can be evaluated for organisational fit, the ability to work with diverse teams and how they respond to challenge to their own perspectives. Then once they’re hired, they will enter an organisation where their views will be welcomed, they can make a difference and feel they have found a home.