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Diversity and inclusion

corporate culture

How to create a culture of belonging in the workplace

21 April 2023 in Diversity and inclusion

Fostering curiosity and considering people’s lived experience can increase well-being, motivation, and productivity in the workplace....


Despite a proliferation of diversity and inclusion initiatives across organizations, progress on this front has been patchy. One reason is that the terminology often fails to capture the human experience of being in the workplace. By focusing on belonging – a primal human need to connect with others and feel part of something – organizations will have a better chance of maximizing the wellbeing, motivation, and productivity of their teams, said Helen May, author of Everybody Included, in an I by IMD book club webinar with Heather Cairns-Lee, Affiliate Professor of Leadership and Communication.

Research has shown that when a person feels they don’t belong or can’t be consistent in their identity in different contexts, the pathways in their brain break down, the hippocampus shrinks, and their self-esteem plummets. May said, “If people are not included in their workplace, it affects not only their mental and physical health, but also their performance.”

Individuals need both agency and communion to belong. Agency involves the capability to choose and direct their actions to reach their goals, and communion involves empathy and connection with others. As US professor and author Brené Brown said, “The opposite of belonging is fitting in.” Yet too often people feel that they have to behave differently in a work environment to how they would elsewhere, which can have negative repercussions for their mental health.

The opposite of belonging is fitting in.
- Brené Brown

This is partly because organizations are structured around a certain hierarchy with a defined set of processes, behaviors, and standards to which people feel they have to adhere. This environment can create a “corporate straitjacket” which prevents people from bringing more of their identity to work. By contrast, a community tends to be more democratic with people having a greater say in defining how the group behaves.

So how can we create a culture of belonging in the workplace that enables people to thrive and develop?

Focus on the behaviors, not the processes

Too often organizations design their D&I initiatives around targets and processes rather than behaviors, said May, as she identified agency, curiosity, and a lack of judgement as three core human behaviors that organizations should seek to foster in the workplace.

She cited the example of a company in the UK that had set itself the target of increasing the number of autistic employees. It organized a recruitment drive without carefully considering the ways in which their working environment or leadership might have to change to accommodate those workers. As a result, the new hires didn’t feel like they belonged – with disastrous consequences for their mental health.

One way to ensure success is to host conversations about curiosity and judgement to understand the lived experience of others. Another approach is to have a checklist of three questions that leaders can ask themselves at the end of meetings or before making a decision:

  1. Who might we have excluded from this decision?
  2. Have we considered who this will impact, and what is their lived experience?
  3. Are there any gaps in our knowledge where we should use somebody else to verify our decision?

Conduct belonging audits

Many people will be familiar with employee engagement surveys, but too often these fail to properly capture how staff might be feeling.

This understanding of the lived experience of people around us is generally quite low
-Helen May

This is because companies phrase the survey questions in a positive or neutral way so as not to elicit negative responses, said May. Instead, progress can be made when companies ask people about their full lived experience and view the data as a means to understand the behaviors that need to change.

Some questions to consider asking include:

  • At any point have you have felt excluded and has that had a detrimental impact on your work?
  • At any point have you felt that you have been disrespected by leadership?

Connect to others’ lived experience

Lived experience refers to an individual’s personal and subjective encounters, perceptions and interactions with their world. Exploring the lived experience of marginalized people is a helpful way to explore and understand their identity and reality.

“This understanding of the lived experience of people around us is generally quite low,” said May. “And it begs the question: should we rethink leadership?”

While it’s impossible to walk in someone else’s shoes, as a leader you can listen to your team’s stories and believe them. Take the example of a miscarriage. Even if this is not something you have not personally experienced, you can connect to the emotions behind that experience, such as sadness and loss.

The growing emphasis on individual resilience in the workplace risks denying a person’s lived experience said May. “People don’t choose to not have resilience; people might have low resilience because of things they have experienced in the past or because of mental health issues,” she said.

As a result, leaders should be much more careful about their choice of words and the tone of their delivery. Both May and Cairns-Lee stressed the power of words and micro gestures that can convey either a sense of acceptance and belonging or exclusion.

“It takes a nanosecond to welcome someone and it takes a nanosecond to exclude them.  And this choice is in our hands,” said Cairns-Lee.

Simply asking, “How can I make your life better?” is one-way leaders can enhance belonging and give permission for team members to share their lived experience, added May.

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