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Belonging and Leadership

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Have you ever been invited to an exciting party and arrived at a fabulous venue, walked through an impressive reception area only to stand there ignored with a drink in your hand, wondering why you are there and how quickly you can manage to exit?

This sense of feeling alone in a group is not uncommon in the workplace as well. It highlights why we need to move beyond early models of diversity and inclusion to create a sense of real belonging. With the huge turnover of staff that many organisations have experienced following Covid, the so-called ‘big resignation’, it is a good time to look at how companies are dealing with the challenge and explore what may be missing from early thinking about how to create a culture of belonging.

Making the Case for Belonging

Increasingly organisations are finding that their D&I strategies are not achieving their intended goals of increased performance and enhanced staff satisfaction. This is despite the 2015 McKinsey report, Why Diversity Matters, showing it is ‘increasingly clear that companies with more diverse workforces perform better financially’. It seems the ability to attract and retain staff from diverse backgrounds to create high-performing teams and deliver better shareholder value is not as easy as many businesses hoped it would be.
Despite concerted efforts to recruit underrepresented groups into fields such as law and finance, many are just leaving again. One law firm I work with recently told me they had only retained one member of the cohort from their social mobility programme beyond five years.

Exit interviews suggest those leaving are doing so because they don’t feel like they belong, they can’t be themselves and work does not support their needs.
Inclusion strategies have tried to address this. Many firms have formed special groups, like a Pride network for the LGBTQI community and women’s networks. They have adopted policies which aim to support their needs like family-friendly hours, gender-neutral toilets, prayer rooms, dress rules and made a huge effort to celebrate cultural occasions like Holi, International Women’s Day and Eid. Yet too often staff report feeling like they are being offered these activities or consulted on policies because it is the right thing to do rather than because it is heartfelt. One of my HR colleagues described it as buying a gym membership and outfit but never working out.

This leads to cynicism amongst workers. Managing a D&I network of some 70 companies across financial and professional service industries, many are facing a challenge in getting staff to self-disclose their diversity characteristics, even after innovative communication campaigns and senior level engagement. Staff simply cannot see how sharing their personal information is leading to genuine changes in the workplace. 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” to appear in an annual report. Similarly, a member of a next-generation leadership group I spoke to recently complained about being ‘wheeled out’ for career fairs as an example of diversity to encourage others to join, but she wasn’t convinced that the overall environment had actually adapted to support young Muslim women. Her day-to-day lived experience had not changed despite all the policies put in place.

Wadors notes, “D&I initiatives are necessary to win the war for talent,” but “to find and hire a diverse workforce, and to ensure fair practices, they aren’t sufficient. We are genetically wired to belong. Our brains are hardwired to motivate us toward connection and belonging – it’s how we survive and thrive.”

There is growing evidence that a lack of belonging can have devastating consequences for staff. Neuroscience researchers like Dr Kipling Williams at Purdue University have found exclusion lights up some of the same parts of the brain as physical pain. When faced with exclusion, staff often respond by trying harder to comply and conform, leaving their real selves at home. Returning to a workplace every day where they don’t feel like they belong leads to negative mental and physical health impacts. Workplace psychologists say staff experience more stress, less sleep quality, poorer concentration, a loss of self-confidence, anger, depression, lower self-care, and a loss of purpose. The result is often a decision to leave or, for those who stay, a failure to reach their full potential.

So What is Belonging?

The case for creating a workplace where people feel like they belong seems clear. So what is belonging and when do we feel it? Dr Britt Andreatta in Beyond Diversity: the Science of Inclusion and Belonging, states ‘belonging is the feeling of being part of something and mattering to others.’

Let me share a few examples from my own experience. I love cricket and while I was living in India I managed to get a ticket to the T20 finals in Kolkata. I flew from Delhi and once I was close to the stadium I jumped out of the car and started walking through the throng of people heading to the game. I was a white foreigner in a sea of Indian faces and certainly the only unaccompanied woman. There were many eyes upon me but I did not feel out of place. We all had the same goal and shared the same excitement about being there. When I found my seat the people around me introduced themselves – we cheered and joked during the match. Although I was different, I felt like I belonged.

However, my colleague had a less positive experience in her workplace in India. Having lived internationally most of her life, she knew she was sometimes lost in translation and had learned to adapt. This time nothing worked. The team rebuffed her efforts to engage, and in one heart-sinking moment she described how everyone stayed on mute when she asked for guidance. After a while, I saw her confidence erode and her growing sense of detachment in the role. She felt her contribution wasn’t valued and within six months she resigned.

A good example of making people feel valued and part of a group was the work done by the Australian Trade and Investment Commission with its staff profile. Staff were asked to list the expertise they had developed during their lives. At first people listed languages and degrees but as confidence grew amongst my team in the Americas we discovered our colleagues had been chefs, yoga teachers, ambulance workers, calligraphers, guitarists, game show contestants and much more. When we formed new project teams we looked at the attributes that people could bring to the table rather than simply selecting role titles. The team asked to try new things. We had one of our team lead meditation sessions and another turn our office during Pride into something that could compete with the Moulin Rouge set down on Broadway.

The CEO encouraged leaders to listen to everyone’s individual circumstances. It allowed me to understand what my team members felt they needed. We changed the seating plan for a staff member who wanted to be near the lift after living through 9/11 and invited partners to our after-work drinks so they could meet us all. To this day the team talk about feeling valued and appreciated in a way they hadn’t experienced at work before. Michael Slepion in the Harvard Business Review article ‘Are your D&I efforts helping employees feel like they belong’ sums it up nicely by saying ‘people want their social group to be included and their individual self to belong’.

Is Something Missing from Current Views of Belonging?

But is feeling welcomed and appreciated enough? I would contend it is still missing a vital element of belonging – purpose and shared values. A workplace where everyone feels comfortable but has no shared purpose is like the great party. It is fun but not much more. There is a need for the purposeful leadership which the Møller Institute builds through its global programmes. An organisation with a clear purpose, and leadership which articulates this vision and lives its values, creates the core around which each individual can contribute their experiences, ideas and expertise. The shared purpose keeps the team focused and motivated even if the path ahead is unclear.

This focus on organisational values builds the trust necessary to overcome major disruptions which teams experience. Running a major digital transformation programme in an international decentralised team was not easy. In my team there was scepticism, fear and frustration. The communications from head office sounded like a foreign language. But the team was united in the values they held around client service and collaboration and this was our north star as we travelled the rough sea of changing processes, failed pilots and a digital service that was always just around the corner. The digital transformation may not have succeeded but the team stayed strong together and the client feedback remained stellar.

Ingredients for Belonging

As we develop our understanding of how to create workplaces where people feel like they belong we need a recipe that includes purpose and shared values as well as other elements of diversity and inclusion in our key ingredients. We need leaders who articulate a shared purpose and live the values, staff who feel appreciated and secure, policies which support different social groups and a culture which is open and evolves to reflect its changing workforce.