Why Creating a Sense of Belonging Is a Gateway to Diversity and Inclusion

November 2, 2017

Here’s an easy way to understand belonging, a concept that’s often confused with diversity and inclusion. It’s been said that diversity is like being invited to party, inclusion is being asked to dance, and belonging is dancing like no one’s watching—it’s that sense of psychological safety that employees can be their authentic selves without fear of judgment.

On a recent tour of the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, speaking with HR leaders from Singapore to Sydney, LinkedIn’s then-CHRO Pat Wadors realized something: while diversity and inclusion (D&I) may take different forms across cultures, the need for a sense of belonging in the workplace is universal. Pat has long been vocal about bringing “belonging” into D&I initiatives, making it the focus of her keynote at Talent Connect 2016.

Talking to HR leaders and employees across the APAC region, Pat kept hearing the same thing. Over and over, in country after country, people walked up to Pat and told her how much the idea of belonging meant to them. “Every conversation I had seemed to organically turn to belonging,” says Pat. “It was like this huge ‘aha moment’ for so many people who had never thought about it in those terms before.”

Let’s explore why belonging resonates so much across cultures, what makes people feel like they belong, and how companies can foster a sense of belonging.

“Belonging” can serve as an easier entry point to D&I across diverse cultures and countries

Diversity and inclusion has been a major focus for companies in the United States, with an emphasis on gender, race, culture, sexual orientation, and age.

But those concepts don’t always look exactly the same in other cultures and markets. In Australia, for example, D&I initiatives might focus more on indigenous, aboriginal employees. Traditional D&I approaches might not get the same traction in China and other regions. For example, Pat says that “employees in some countries still don’t feel comfortable coming out as gay.”

But the concept of belonging is powerful across cultures and countries. “Belonging has resonated globally,” Pat says. “It’s the one thing you’ll find that doesn’t polarize. Belonging just pulls the team together. That sense of community is central to every culture—it’s part of our DNA.”

What makes employees feel like they belong: recognition, expression, and contributions  

While belonging can seem like a fuzzy concept at first, we can turn to data to make things a bit clearer. According to a recent LinkedIn survey of over 6,000 global professionals, most employees agreed that the following things make them feel like they belong:

  • Being recognized for my accomplishments (59%)
  • Having opportunities to express my opinions freely (51%)
  • Feeling that my contributions in team meetings are valued (50%)

Creating these conditions is easier than you think. Writing for Harvard Business Review, Pat recommends six simple ways to instill a culture of belonging:

  • Introducing someone as a whole person, beyond their roles and responsibilities
  • Asking people how they feel—and genuinely listening
  • Soliciting input from all in meetings—and not speaking over them
  • Delegating tasks in a way that demonstrates trust
  • Paying attention during meetings and avoiding distractions
  • Sharing stories and encouraging others to share their own

That last tactic can be particularly effective in helping people feel like they belong.

Companies like Accenture and LinkedIn embrace belonging through storytelling

Pat believes in cultivating a sense of belonging by encouraging employees to share stories—whether it’s at an organic get-together over drinks after work or an organized team-building activity. Storytelling “releases chemicals in our brains to make us compassionate and empathetic,” Pat says, “I envision myself in that story, so I feel closer to you.”

Here at LinkedIn, employees are encouraged to share stories of their own belonging moments:

While we’re sharing stories about belonging, sharing experiences about feeling excluded can also bring people together—as Accenture proves.

When Accenture set out to create an internal video on inclusiveness, they began interviewing employees about belonging. In the process, the company discovered that “not all of our people are experiencing a sense of belonging,” said Ellyn Shook, Accenture’s chief leadership and HR officer, in an interview with Diversity Inc.

The surprisingly intimate, moving video—in which diverse employees share stories of bias—has gotten a huge response, garnering 100,000 views in just two months.

“This all started with our employees being courageous enough to have a conversation about what it means to truly feel included and a sense of belonging at work,” Ellyn said in an interview with Fairygodboss. “This began as a way to spark discussion within our company about belonging and bias…and it touched our people deeply, helping them realize that bias can appear in both expected and unexpected ways.”

While diversity and inclusion can mean different things to different people across different cultures, the importance of belonging is universal. Cultivating an environment where all employees feel like they belongs is a goal that everyone can embrace.

*Image by Jo Chou

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