For more than 30 years, Fortune 500 corporations, global organizations, government agencies at all levels, and nonprofits have been focused on improving and expanding their diversity and inclusion efforts. 

They have learned that increasing diversity (the variety of differences between people in their workforce) and inclusion (helping those employees feel a greater sense of belonging) creates a more engaged workforce and greater competitive advantage.

Unfortunately, while diversity (at least ostensibly) seems to be improving, not all organizations have been as successful in adopting a mindset of inclusiveness and a strategy that supports it. A Deloitte study shows that while 71% of organizations aspire to have an inclusive culture, only 12% have achieved this objective. 

Inclusion, therefore, appears to be much more difficult to achieve than creating a diverse workforce. How can organizational leaders move past the basics of “classify and count” metrics, such as the number of women or Hispanics in leadership, to build organizations that encourage every employee to bring their best self to work to do their best work? By ensuring workers have a sense of belonging.

What is belonging in the workplace?

In order to make diversity work for an organization and its people, it is critical to also emphasize inclusion—and the newer concept of belonging. If diversity is what makes you unique, and inclusion is how you feel treated, then belonging is how you feel when you are fully accepted for being your unique self. 

While belonging is generally talked about in the context of social bonds (do you have friends at work?), Glint’s research has found belonging in the workplace is fostered through a shared sense of purpose, being accepted fully within a community of people where members identify with each other and share a sense of personal relatedness, and where they genuinely care about one another. And it results in a willingness to invest emotional energy for the benefit of the community.

How leaders can promote belonging in the workplace

Here’s where your leadership wisdom comes into play: Bringing people in who have more diverse backgrounds, unique experiences, and individual differences, without developing a culture that engenders a respect for and appreciation of those differences, will mostly backfire on you.

At work, as in life, people want to feel that they belong. Therefore, having inclusive practices in place is foundational to the overall success of a workforce diversification strategy. Essentially, if you build a process to recruit diverse talent, you’d better have a way to retain them, too.

Take a moment to step into the shoes of your employees. Now, ask yourself: 

  • “Am I able to bring my whole self to work in a way that balances what I do with who I am?”
  •  “Do I feel appreciated and valued for who I am, not just what I do?” 
  • “How much of my true self do I have to leave ‘at the door’ each day on the way into work?”
  •  “Do my opinions and ideas count?”
  •  “Do I feel that I belong among my peers?”

Belonging requires an environment of compassion and empathy where employees feel heard, cared about, and supported. These nurturing workplaces are much more likely to foster an environment that enables individuals to bring their authentic selves to work every day—workplaces where an employee does not have to “cover” up part of themselves in order to be accepted and belong.

Authenticity and belonging at work

For me, belonging is about being able to “be real” on the job—it means bringing all my unique gifts and talents as well as freely expressing my passions, concerns, and opinions. It means having the courage to speak up, have difficult conversations, take risks, disagree, and step beyond what feels safe to express my truest feelings, hopes, and even my fears. 

In some cases, it may mean being able to talk about the wholeness of my life, my outside interests and affiliations, my friends and family relationships, and the causes and passions in life I care most about.

Being this open, do I feel vulnerable at times? Of course! Vulnerability at work can be scary, but it’s actually essential for our healthy growth, change mindset, creativity, and innovation. Fostering an inclusive environment where everyone feels they can speak up and challenge assumptions is good for business.

Being intentional about inclusion and belonging requires an organization to move beyond simple tolerance or passive acceptance of people’s differences to embrace and celebrate the rich dimensions of diversity contained within each person. And it’s not just about the surface-level demographics—it’s about differences in education, experience, exposure, mindset, approach, and much more.

Changing the conversation on diversity, inclusion, and belonging

To achieve better outcomes, we need to reframe the conversation on diversity and inclusion (D&I) to incorporate a few important things:

Reframe the why 

To combat an “us vs. them” and the “whose problem is this to solve, anyways?” mindset, we need to find a common “why” that everyone can anchor on, regardless of which group they identify with. In Glint’s research, we have found that belonging is that anchor. Belonging is a fundamental need, so much so that lack of belonging registers in humans as acutely as physical pain. 

Furthermore in Glint’s research, belonging is one of the strongest drivers of engagement. Our research with almost one million data points shows that employees with a strong sense of belonging are over six times more likely to be engaged than those who don’t. That is to say, when employees feel a strong sense of belonging at work, they are over six times as likely to bring their best selves to work and do their best work. And as we know, greater engagement drives better individual and organizational success.

Integrated strategy 

Experiences of inclusion that impact an employee’s sense of belonging are rarely driven by a one-time event or interaction. Business strategy and talent practices that are designed to intentionally promote diversity and foster inclusiveness will ensure many moments of belonging in an employee’s work experience. 

As leaders, we need to ask: How do we promote inclusion from the moment someone walks into the organization as a potential hire, to when they are onboarded, to how they get their work done? Are we intentional about how employees build their career at the organization, how people are promoted, and how they receive feedback and coaching? 

Taking a people-centric approach to diversity and inclusion ensures a more holistic strategy that puts employees and their success at the center, integrating engagement, performance, and learning. This approach signals diversity and inclusion is more than a check-the-box initiative or CEO sound bite; it is part of an organization’s policies, practices, and ways of working.

Feedback and action at all levels

We’ve known for some time now that frequent and focused feedback is crucial to an organization’s success. We can’t change what we don’t measure; and what we care about needs to be measured often so we can monitor progress and make course corrections. Glint’s extensive experience consulting with organizations on building more agile survey programs has taught us that we have to democratize feedback, and empower managers and teams at all levels of the organization with the feedback they need to drive behavior change.

A core part of Glint’s approach to measuring diversity and inclusion zeroes in on everyday inclusion experiences; dynamics influenced by managers and workgroups. Ensuring focused, ongoing employee feedback about these dynamics will begin to grow diversity and inclusion capability at all levels of the organization. This will also give people ownership of the conversation rather than feeling like diversity and inclusion is a compliance activity or someone else’s problem to solve.

The ultimate measure of an inclusive workplace

There is little question about the benefits to building a more diverse work environment. Differences in experience, background, and thought are the wellspring of new ideas and innovation. For that strategy to succeed, people need to feel included, valued, and fairly treated. And when all that is going well, the ultimate measure of an inclusive workplace is when employees can confidently and comfortably say, “I belong here.”

Learn more about Glint’s diversity, inclusion, and belonging feedback program here.