Too many corporate diversity efforts become numbers games as HR managers count the numbers of people by various categories of gender, race, religion, citizenship, and other such areas. I once asked a senior manager in a technology company about diversity efforts in their organization and he promptly showed me a fancy chart depicting the number of people from minority groups employed. When I asked what roles these people were assigned, he simply said that these people worked in critical roles in the headquarters – it was only later that I discovered that those people served as the night shift cleaning staff! Unfortunately, this view of diversity is all too common!
With all the challenges, complexity, and global nuances associated with diversity, it is not surprising that many business leaders might not have a holistic view. Research clearly shows the value of diversity with results such as improved decision-making, innovation, and psychological safety, but achieving the benefits of a diverse workforce can be a challenge in Asia. Through my research on this topic with the Great Place to Work Institute™ team in Asia, we uncovered the importance of both Inclusion and Belonging in actually making a difference with diversity initiatives.
Many companies are now focused on DE&I initiatives (Diversity and Inclusion) as most have recognized the importance of creating an inclusive work environment. Professor Quinetta Roberson at Michigan State University defines inclusion as: “The degree to which a work environment or culture is open to individuals of all backgrounds – not just members of historically powerful identity groups – so that everyone is fairly treated, valued for who they are, and included in core decision-making.” In other words, if we bring diverse talent into our organization but don’t have an inclusive environment or culture, then we don’t really accomplish the aim of having a diverse workforce.
How do we know if we are creating an inclusive work environment? Research tells us when people are included that they will feel a strong sense of affiliation or belonging. Professor Lynn Shore at Colorado State University and her colleagues define belonging as “An individual’s perception of connectedness and the extent to which they feel that others care about their well-being as an equal part of the group.” In other words, if managers and the organization can create a practice and culture of inclusion then we will know that it is working if people feel a sense of belonging.
The tricky part is that managers must be true in their intent for inclusion to create a sense of belonging. If we examine inclusion measures by gender across Asia from the Great Place to Work® studies, we note that there is often about a 10% difference (men feeling more included than women). However, when we ask about belonging, the gender differences are much more pronounced (men feeling more of a sense of belonging with the group than women).
How can companies create more of a sense of belonging? Professor Paul Green at Harvard highlights that the tenor of day-to-day interactions with colleagues in an organization can shape the individual’s sense of belonging. An employee’s sense of belonging is influenced by factors such as their perception of being valued for their unique contributions and being appreciated. In other words, belonging is fostered when one is feeling included. So, companies cannot create belonging directly – only through an inclusive work environment. In this way, ''inclusion'' and ''belonging'' are two sides of the same coin.
While there are many aspects to diversity for the entire organization, each leader can take actionable steps regardless of where they sit in the organization. Here are five actions to be a more inclusive leader:
- Commit to inclusion – Making diversity and inclusion a personal priority is where things get started. Leaders who state their commitment and enlist the help of others to create an inclusive environment make a bold step forward. Through this commitment, they can challenge the status quo and hold others (and themselves) accountable.
- Practice humility – While many are drawn to the charismatic leader, it is actually the modest leaders who are more likely to create an inclusive environment. By listening to others, admitting their own shortcomings, and being open to the contributions of others make a big difference.
- Show curiosity – When leaders are interested in others they demonstrate an open mindset and are able to listen without passing judgment. Curiosity is not only great for learning, but it is also essential to opening new doors with others.
- Collaborate openly – Finding ways to engage others as a leader helps to create a sense of empowerment, which can help create a sense of psychological safety. When people feel safe to contribute ideas freely they are more likely to feel a part of the team and a strong sense of teamwork.
- Uncover bias - As leaders, we all have blind spots and unconscious biases. The more that we are able to reflect on these personally and help others to recognize bias, the more likely we are to ensure equality in our dealings with others. This can take time and can only come with strong personal awareness.
Of course, these are not easy to do or master as a leader today. However, research tells us that managers that have demonstrated these actions have been able to make significant steps to creating a more inclusive environment. It has been said that when we listen and celebrate what is both common and different, we become wiser, more inclusive, and better organization.
Creating an inclusive environment is critical to harnessing the power of diversity. The next time I am speaking with a corporate colleague about diversity, I hope we are not talking about diversity in terms of the number of minority groups. I would much rather have a spirited discussion about inclusive leadership and the promise of creating a greater sense of belonging for all people. After all, we cannot expect people to feel like they belong until we create a more inclusive workplace.