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Belonging Is a Feeling. Inclusion Is How You Foster It.

Why I don't add "belonging" to DEI, and why companies should never substitute it for "inclusion"

“Bye, DEI. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out”

“Corporate DEI initiatives are facing setbacks and legal attacks”

“Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Under Siege”

“DEI Fatigue: Resistance or Opportunity? Unpacking This Moment and Navigating the Path Forward”

These are just a handful of the recent headlines that illustrate the moment we are in: Organizations far and wide have begun to walk back the diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives they put in place in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the globe in 2020. We’re experiencing a pendulum swing against pro-diversity efforts, as punctuated by the recent Supreme Court decision striking down Affirmative Action.

As a partial consequence of this backlash, many companies have mollified the language around pro-diversity efforts by adding “belonging” into the mix. This means that White people (who have never been systematically excluded from corporate America) can now feel like they are part of the effort to reach all employees. Instead of the acronym “DEI”, companies are now using “DEIB” or simply “DIB”. The various reasons for this are enumerated in the recent article from The New York Times, “Why Some Companies Are Saying ‘Diversity and Belonging’ Instead of ‘Diversity and Inclusion”.

From my perspective, inclusion and belonging are both important in organizations. But as I argue in this newsletter, the key differentiator is that belonging is subjective whereas inclusion is intentional. While belonging is important, companies can’t actually “do” belonging. If they want to make a real difference, they need to keep inclusion front and center. If they do this well, then belonging will naturally follow.

The problem with focusing on belonging instead of inclusion

But what is “belonging” exactly? I would simply define it as the subjective perception that one has been included. On the other hand, I would loosely define “inclusion” as intentional actions undertaken by individuals or organizations to make individuals feel seen, welcome, and appreciated—particularly individuals from social groups that have been traditionally excluded from the space. In short, inclusion is the opposite of exclusion.

One potential disconnect between the two concepts is that feeling included and being included are not one and the same. Just because you feel like you belong doesn’t mean that you are actually accepted by others. Conversely, feeling like you don’t belong doesn’t necessarily mean that other people don’t accept and respect you. 

I have sometimes felt that I belonged in a space only to learn later that others in the group or organization didn’t really want me there. On the flip side, there have been times when I have worried that my presence or contributions wouldn’t be particularly welcome, only to learn how excited others were to have me involved. It’s a bit like imposter syndrome: You can be totally qualified for a role, or have all the experience and expertise you need, and still feel like a fraud even if others admire you. There is not necessarily a strong correlation between our feelings of respect or acceptance, and others’ actual appraisal of our professional or social value.

Activist and author Saira Rao talks about her experience with this duality when she was in college at the University of Virginia in the book White Women, which she co-authored with Regina Jackson. Saira, who’s South Asian, wanted to join one of the sororities on campus. Most of the sororities were historically very White, but Rao didn’t think anything of it. She’d done everything to fit into White surroundings before, so she did it again, donning her pearls and Laura Ashley dress and running full-steam through rush week. Nevertheless, she was, as she describes it, “nixed from Kappa Kappa Gamma after round one, being told with a wink and a nod that [she] wasn’t ‘Kappa material.’” To her surprise and disappointment, she later learned that several of her White “friends” had actually voted against her getting into the sorority. The excuses they offered rang hollow as she realized that she’d spent years feeling as though she belonged to a group that had always viewed her as an outsider. Again, belonging is about perception.

If you’ve read this newsletter for a while, you know that I endeavor to discover the truth. To me, belonging is like a drug. It feels gratifying, and can lull you into delusion because of the good feeling it produces. On the other hand, it also has practical value. If employees feel a sense of belonging, they’re more likely to be productively engaged in their work. But the real question is whether one’s sense of belonging is rooted in true inclusion, or simply illusion.

Source: Miles Peacock on Unsplash

The current, contradictory conversation on belonging

Our feelings are certainly important. However, it’s difficult for organizations to create objective policies around internal states of emotion. Even in the aforementioned NYT article, which focuses on organizational orientations to belonging, belonging is discussed in four distinct, often contradictory, ways:

1. Belonging is about bringing your whole self to work.

This is the compelling idea asserting that people of color shouldn’t have to “cover” themselves (as mentioned in Kenji Yoshino’s work) or downplay who they are when they come to work. To me, this is the essence of what belonging encapsulates.

2. Belonging is about bringing White people, particularly White men, into the conversation.

The argument is that White people have been traditionally excluded from DEI, so framing the conversation in a way that brings them in and makes them feel comfortable will presumably increase their sense of belonging. To me, DEI work is not about comfort. It’s about working through discomfort, as this is where learning occurs. Others argue that discomfort can make people shut down. For example, the NYT article talks about one comedian, Karith Foster, who leads DEI conversations using humor and a “we all stereotype” approach to make White people in the room feel less threatened or guilty.

People generally tend to land in one of these two camps on this point. The first lines up with the criticism Stephanie Creary, an assistant professor at the Wharton School of Business, shared in the article. In her view, changing the focus from inclusion to belonging makes the important topics addressed in DEI more abstract and the conversations less likely to tackle the real issues around power as well as the resistance those issues bring up in White people. “The concern is that we are just creating new terms like belonging as a way to manage that resistance,” she said.

The other side of the argument, for which Foster advocates, is that if White men in power feel excluded from DEI, we risk isolating them and losing support for DEI initiatives and the chance for real change entirely. In other words, she believes that it’s important to make White people feel comfortable when doing this work. On the surface that may seem like a smart thing to do. However, is it realistic to believe that White people who place such a premium on comfort will ever do this work in a meaningful way? Sometimes discomfort can operate like a filter, weeding out those who aren’t really serious about doing the hard work of bringing about structural change, or those who are more concerned about social harmony than social justice.

3. Belonging is about avoiding social identity labels. 

This speaks to the criticism that inclusion focuses too much on labeling people by their social identities, which in turn, people argue, may activate stereotypes associated with those identities that don’t actually apply to the individuals involved. The article referenced a Muslim woman, Irshad Manji, who expressed this concern. “I happen to be Muslim, and a faithful Muslim,” Manji said. “But that does not mean I interpret Islam like every other Muslim out there.” So, the argument goes, best to not use labels at all. The problem with this approach is that many people see their social identities, labels and all, as an important part of who they are. Erasing the label “Black woman,” for example, runs the risk of erasing an important component of how someone views themselves.

4. Belonging is about leadership providing support to traditionally marginalized social groups.

The NYT article shared a story in which the CEO of Autodesk decided to move the company’s new office from Denver to Atlanta to attract more Black employees. He also decided to serve as the executive sponsor of the Black employee resource group. According to Autodesk’s surveys, these sorts of efforts increased belonging for people of color but decreased them for White males. To me, these efforts all fit more in the realm of “equity” than “belonging,” although some clearly view them as an example of the latter.

As you can see, “belonging” is a concept that can be highly varied, and even contradictory. For example, if belonging is about getting rid of social labels (point #3) then someone who strongly identifies as a Black woman cannot bring her full self to work. Similarly, if Autodesk takes efforts to increase the sense of belonging among African Americans by moving from Denver to Atlanta (point #4), this may decrease the sense of belonging among White men. In fact, according to the article, “Autodesk regularly polls its employees about their experiences at work. After the culture shift took hold…belonging scores increased for women and employees of color and decreased for white men.” And in point #2, there is debate about whether creating warm and fuzzy feelings for White males actually leads to more systemic change, or benign acceptance of the status quo.

You can’t “do” belonging

I want to be clear: Belonging is good. It’s important for people to feel like they belong. One question, though, is how we pin down what it means for any given person. A different question is whether leaders or organizations can actively “do” belonging. It seems to be more of a state of mind than an action. What leaders can do is proactively include people and hope that belonging will follow. Leaders often ask which policies to implement, but it’s important to keep in mind that much of inclusion is about the culture—things you can do to impact what the organization feels like.

Source: Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

3 things organizations can do to improve inclusion (and belonging as a result)

Every organization is different, each with its own culture, policies, and needs when it comes to fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. As a result, I could probably list dozens of things leaders could do to improve inclusion in organizations, but I’ll start with just three:

1. Start talking about the moral case, in addition to the business case for DEI.

This might sound counterintuitive. The business case for DEI is that having more diverse teams, inclusive cultures, and psychologically safe environments for employees of all backgrounds improves employees’ productivity and companies’ bottom lines. Contrast this with the moral or fairness case, which argues for investing in DEI programs on the moral basis that they make the workplace fairer for all employees. Between the two, far more leaders tout the business case—about 80% versus just 5% for the fairness case.

DEI professionals all over—myself included—have promoted the business case for many years. But what we’ve learned through several studies published between 2022 and 2023 is that when leaders make the business case for diversity, it can actually discourage women, people of color, and those in the LGBTQ+ community from joining the organization. This is because the business case made people from socially disadvantaged groups more likely to distrust the authenticity of a company’s commitment to its DEI efforts, and therefore less likely to want to work for that company.

Research presenting messaging by prospective employers to job applicants found that people who read messaging promoting the business case for diversity anticipated feeling 11% less of a sense of belonging at a company, were 16% more concerned about being stereotyped there, and were 10% more worried that the company would see them as “the same” (i.e., interchangeable) as other members of their identity group, compared to those who read a fairness case. The negative perceptions worsened when the business case was compared to neutral messaging, in which case participants reported feeling 27% more concerned about stereotyping and lack of belonging at companies presenting the business case, and 21% more concerned about their perceived interchangeability in those organizations.

At the end of the day, the business case can make employees feel that an organization’s DEI efforts, and by extension the people who are supposed to benefit from them, are just a conduit—a practical way to achieve their bottom-line business objectives. If you really want all employees to feel more included, overemphasizing the business case might undermine your efforts.

2. Stop trying to be “color-blind.”

As previously mentioned, some believe that belonging is all about eliminating labels. We’re all just human beings, right? I don’t even see color when I meet someone, I just see a person. These platitudes encapsulate the basic sentiments underlying color-blindness. Color-blindness is something of an antiquated notion among progressive social circles these days, but in many corporate and professional settings, it’s still very common. Some White leaders believe that by not acknowledging racial differences they help people feel a part of the whole. In reality, when you try to “not see” people’s race, you make them feel more excluded and invisible.

To be sure, it’s not possible to be color-blind. Nobody, no matter how much they try to convince you, can not see the race of someone they’re looking at. To purport that you somehow don’t see it comes off as disingenuous. Moreover, you run the risk of ignoring a central part of that person’s identity. Ultimately, colorblindness is quite Euronormative, meaning that people of color must assimilate and conform to the default White “norm.” In contrast, organizations need a multicultural approach, where individuals from different backgrounds are seen, heard, and celebrated.

3. Treat people well and pay them accordingly.

Several years ago, I went on a trip with a group of Harvard faculty as part of a field teaching program in Asia. In the middle of the trip, I found out through a conversation with one of the other instructors that the Asian organizer of the exchange was paying me half of what the White faculty members were getting. We were all teaching the same number of hours, and they didn’t have any more experience or qualifications than I did. Before learning this information, I thought I was completely included, and I felt I belonged there. I had been treated well up to that point—or so I thought. After learning about the discrepancy in pay between all of us, however, all feelings of belonging and inclusion evaporated. Needless to say, I confronted the organizer about the discrepancy and was able to get the situation resolved.

Unfortunately, my example isn’t unique. As research by Emilio J. Castilla has shown, many people in socially disadvantaged groups have found themselves in this position. He calls the phenomenon the performance-reward bias: Even when women and people of color receive the same evaluations and produce the same results as their White male counterparts, they often receive raises at distinctly different (i.e., lower) percentages when it comes to compensation. This is a big problem. It doesn’t matter that everyone gets a raise; it matters that those raises equitably and accurately reflect the work and merits of the people getting them. You can’t have a truly inclusive organization—one that fosters real belonging in its employees—if some people are being valued at unjustifiably and unequally higher rates than their counterparts.

DEI should not be diluted

When organizations and leaders exclusively focus on belonging and take inclusion off the table, there’s a great danger of reducing the gravity of what it means to include—and celebrate—people of different groups, and the importance of everyone learning the ways in which those people have not been included or celebrated previously. Simplifying DEI to make the ideas “go down easy” for everyone involved might sound like a way to get more (White) people on board, but in doing so, you risk keeping the socially disadvantaged groups relegated to the sidelines and losing the real meaning of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the process.

People should certainly feel like they belong. It’s an important feeling all organizations should want their employees to experience at their workplaces. But the only way to see that feeling come to fruition is to include everyone in the conversation, bring them to the table, and celebrate who they are in all their differences.


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