Pat Wadors, in a previous role as Senior Vice President Global Talent Organization at LinkedIn, talked about the value of DIBs- Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging. Wadors believes that diversity and inclusion initiatives “are necessary to win the war for talent, to find and hire a diverse workforce, and to ensure fair practices, but they aren’t sufficient.” She contends that creating a culture of belonging is the ultimate differentiator. Wadors believes that “belonging moments” can make a huge difference in someone’s life, have a positive impact on your company’s culture, and change the diversity makeup.
This resonates with my experiences working in business. In early 2000, working for a Big 4 consulting arm acquired by IBM, I transferred from the UK back to Australia in a new leadership role as the AsiaPacific BTO Learning Leader. I was feeling like I was an outsider, trying to fit into a more aggressive leadership culture back in Australia. As was often the case, I was the only senior woman in the room, chairing a project deliverable meeting with senior partners and the managing partner. I challenged a fellow project leader- who had dialled in for the meeting and was stonewalling my questions on deliverables- and the discussion soon grew heated. I was driving for answers when unexpectedly, the senior partner put a restraining arm on me – and asked for silence so that the managing partner could cut in and wield his authority. I was puzzled as I hadn’t been ‘cut in on’ hierarchly ever before. I’d never been silenced before. I felt I was competently leading as I had done many times previously in the UK in leadership roles where I worked closely with global partners who provided mentoring and sponsorship in 1:1 coaching conversations. My style was naturally inclusive to achieve results – as mentored by my leaders in the UK- not aggressive as I was finding back in Australia.
Following this project call, there was much frustration expressed by the senior men at the disrespect shown toward me from my fellow male project leader. I felt discomfort at the benevolent concern, but also began to feel that maybe this support was a show that I was in the in-group- we had a shared culture and demonstrated ‘how things get done’ in the call.
Inclusion can happen at the expense of exclusion; we can feel bonded when we are jointly excluding others.
Until- the senior partner abruptly stopped the post-meeting conversation and formally apologised to me. He felt it was inappropriate for a woman to hear swearing. I felt the full gaze of the room as it became clear that I was not in the in-group- but very much on the outer. I had never been called out specifically because of my gender in a professional situation before. I responded quickly with a quip with some swearing thrown in- to show that I knew what the currency of belonging was- and I was prepared to fit in.
The difference between fitting in (where being like the group is better for you) and belonging (where being like you is better for the group) requires psychological safety, humble leadership, and self-awareness.
Following the meeting, I reflected that only months earlier in the UK I was recognised in the Top 10%, promoted, and awarded full sponsorship for an MBA into an accelerated Partnership program recognising my leadership skills (which cultivated a huge sense of belonging). In a few months, my leadership potential and capability hadn’t changed. But transferring to a new country to do the same work in a different leadership culture saw my psychological safety drop through the floor. There were many follow on incidences similar to this- subtle cues from leaders about fitting into the status quo of leadership. This was further reinforced by only one woman ever making it to Partner. Although promised, none of awarded development programs from the UK were transferred across to Australia. Many many months later, I left to find somewhere else I belonged.
You can bring your diversity to the table; you can be included and have your voice heard; be made to feel welcome, but until you feel high levels of psychological safety to challenge and contribute in your own way- your ability to thrive and fully engage is compromised.
Brene Brown’s research found that men and women who have the deepest sense of true belonging are those who have the courage to stand alone and are comfortable to bring forward unique perspectives. Even if there is a negative event, individuals do not question whether they belong. There is an organisation focus on bringing your whole self to work supported by leaders expecting to have their perspectives challenged by all.
If diversity is like being invited to party, and inclusion is being asked to dance- then belonging is dancing to your own beat like no one’s watching.
Many organisations, like Wadors in her time at LinkedIn, see belonging as the ultimate goal of diversity and inclusion efforts. To achieve this, leaders need coaching and support to develop competencies to:
- bring different perspectives to the table- both inherit and acquired diversity
- make everyone feel welcome
- cultivate psychological safety to have voices heard
- engage individuals to contribute unique ideas and perspectives on what works well and what doesn’t- challenging the status quo
- commit to creating an inclusive environment for all in alignment with the organisation’s core values
- create a culture of belonging for all to thrive.
In alignment with Wadors, Mitchell Services finds in our work with clients, belonging is the ultimate differentiator of diversity and inclusion efforts. There are many ways to #buildbelonging- as identified in the story graphic from a recent LinkedIn survey of over 6,000 global professionals. 59 percent said building belonging comes from being recognised for my accomplishments; 51 percent said building belonging comes from having opportunities to express my opinions freely; and 50 percent said building belonging comes from feeling that my contributions in team meetings are valued.
How do your leaders #buildbelonging?