A “Belongingness” Framework for your Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Journey

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In honor of LGBTQ Pride Month, Thought Ensemble’s Culture and People Leader Lauren Malik has compiled a series of thoughts, insights, and learnings developed to support organizations in their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) journeys.

I want to begin by both asking and acknowledging a question that has kept world leaders, CEOs, marketers, and everyone in between up at night for centuries: What motivates human behavior? I believe I have at least one part of the answer…

In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, belongingness sits squarely in the middle, and most psychologists will tell you that social belonging is a fundamental human need hardwired into our DNA. Yet, according to the Harvard Business Review, “40% of people say that they feel isolated at work.” The article goes on to say that companies are in essence “blowing it” and “spend nearly 8 billion dollars each year on diversity and inclusion trainings that miss the mark because they neglect our need to feel included.”

So where are they going wrong?

My hypothesis is that most organizations’ DEI intentions are in the right place, but the actions they are taking are only surface level and do not address the underlying need to belong. Adding pronouns (he/him, she/her, them/they) to email signatures and zoom accounts are trending, but does that make an organization inclusive? Does having a 50% protected class workforce make you diverse? Does taking a DEI pledge without committing to any actions make you a leader in the space?

The reality is, your DEI efforts will not allow you to harness individual talents and unique perspectives if, at the root, your employees don’t feel a genuine sense of belonging. So, how do you use DEI — and more specifically belongingness — to solve challenges, to be more innovative, to improve retention, and to make a difference?

Before I answer these questions, there is a story I need to tell you. As the Culture and People leader for Thought Ensemble — and for many years before as a Strategy and Change Management Consultant — I have received counsel and mentorship from countless amazing minds in the DEI space. And even though I have been intentional about listening, and expanding my knowledge on diversity, equity, and inclusion, there was a moment not too long ago where the world shifted for me.

The shift occurred when I attended a DEI session led by Dr. Nika White where she played the video Inclusion Starts with I.” The video was simple, but the message hit me like a ton of bricks. During this 3:27 minute video, I realized that I — although well-intentioned — have failed to truly see the world through the eyes of others for most of my life. I viewed diversity as race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, and well, that was really it. The video made me aware of stereotypes and assumptions people have made of me and that I have made of others — not knowing that that too was diversity, and I was NOT being inclusive. Hard stop.

At the end of that video, I decided to commit to changing this for myself, for my organization, and for our communities! I am not writing this article because I have succeeded and want to pass along the foolproof recipe for success. I am writing this article because I have learned a lot in my quest, and I want to share a custom framework we built at Thought Ensemble to ensure that we NEVER stop growing.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion aren’t JUST about having a diverse organization with equitable processes that recruits find inviting. It is also about creating a culture where everyone feels valued, where they are safe to share their thoughts and perspectives, where they can be themselves — it is about each of us realizing our full potential and embracing how we get there. There was a critical moment in the video where I realized that this is not just about what the organization is doing for the individual, but also, what the individual is bringing to the organization.

So, how do you create belonging? Where do you start? Before we go there — and yes, we are going there — let’s define what Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion mean to Thought Ensemble, so that we all have a common understanding of how we use these terms.

Diversity: Being aware of, respecting, and celebrating the differences that exist between each of us; valuing what makes each of us unique — e.g., recognizing that no two people are the same and not trying to create cookie-cutter employees

Equity: Allocating tools, time, and resources based on an individual’s unique needs to ensure everyone has access to the same opportunities — e.g., focusing on individuals’ talents and elevating those talents by providing a professional development allowance

Inclusion: Intentionally bringing together every individual and genuinely making each one feel included, irrespective of who they are — e.g., rotating company social activities so that there is something for everyone: painting, hiking, tea tasting, golf, etc. and accommodating individual comfort levels with returning to onsite work amidst a pandemic

When we first set out to define these terms for our organization, we wanted to define them in a way that each of us could relate to. We wanted the terms to reflect our unique perspective on DEI and how it fits into our culture and core values.

As we reread our definitions, we realized the terms were defined from the organization’s perspective — outlining the organization’s responsibility to the individual (the employee).  But it shouldn’t just be up to the organization to make someone feel like they belong. We need to look at the individual level, too.

A friend of mine recently shared this analogy with me and I feel like it helped put my thoughts into perspective: Showing up to practice every day with the right equipment and receiving quality coaching and instruction is half of the equation (the organization’s half). The effort you put in during each practice and contributing fully as a member of the team is the other half of the equation (the individual’s half).

With that in mind, we narrowed in on three key statements an individual needs to be able to say to feel like they belong:

  1.  My uniqueness is valued. I accept my uniqueness and my organization supports my uniqueness. I believe my uniqueness brings value.
  2.  I express myself authentically. I am not trying to be something I am not. I feel a sense of freedom in this authenticity.
  3.  I feel a sense of belonging. People want me here. I feel connected to something larger than myself.

For us, this made a lot of sense and so we expanded our thinking on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) to include Uniqueness, Authentic Self, and Belonging (UAB) — defined below.

Uniqueness: Embracing the combination of different qualities that make you special and remarkable

Authentic Self: Respecting who you are at your deepest core based on what you cannot control — your skin color, disabilities, etc. — while also being true to yourself through your thoughts, words, and actions

Belonging: Feeling that you are part of something bigger than yourself and feeling a willingness to bring your authentic self to your work and share your perspectives

The combination of all six concepts (DEI & UAB) working in harmony has accelerated both individual growth and organizational growth for us — allowing individuals to achieve greater satisfaction, expedited career growth, and have a sense of purpose. Similarly, our organization can solve problems more collaboratively, develop more innovative solutions, and add more value to our clients. But, if we were to lose any of these elements, the puzzle would be incomplete.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Okay, so how do I create belongingness?” The answer is, it takes time, and you cannot create belongingness overnight. But there are things that you can start doing for yourself, and for your organization, to make progress.

In the next blog in this series, we will dig deeper into belongingness — how to measure it, how to assess it, and what actions you can take to start making a difference at your organization. In the meantime, watch Inclusion Starts with Iand start to think about processes or behaviors you have seen that could prohibit you, and/or your organization, from achieving belongingness. This list will help you when we get to the assessment!

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