DEI without the B: Why Belonging Matters

DEI without the B: Why Belonging Matters

Belonging has increasingly become an important part of corporate diversity efforts. To get a closer look at belonging and how it works, we engaged two of Talent Rewire’s employer coaches, Jejuana Brown, the Director of Diversity and Inclusion at the Cleveland Orchestra, and Debbie Morris, the Senior Director of Global Talent Management at Newell Brands, to discuss the importance of belonging and organizational commitment to culture change.

What do we mean by belonging?

Belonging at work means you feel seen for your unique contributions, connected to your coworkers, supported in your daily work and career development, and proud of your organization’s values and purpose.

How do you view the relationship between belonging and inclusion?

Debbie: Inclusion is the precursor to belonging – you can’t have belonging without inclusion. Inclusion focuses on the process and ensuring access to others, whereas belonging is the other end of the spectrum – once given the access, do they feel accepted, valued and celebrated as part of this organization? Inclusion is necessary to get to belonging, but inclusion efforts are more process-based, whereas belonging work is more cultural and harder to measure.

Jejuana: Both belonging and inclusion involve some form of heart work. Belonging involves a deeper level of intentionality and usually is purposefully cultivated. Belonging is also disruptive of power and power dynamics. Think of it like a meal – the more diverse people you bring together with all their experience, that meal becomes richer because they have all been able to add to it. The layers of flavor are not developed with only ingredient additions (inclusion). It is the cooking process that melds the ingredients together (belonging) that results in a great meal. 

What barriers do organizations face in engaging in belonging work?

Debbie: The barrier to belonging work is directly related to what organizations value, which often feels like quicker, short-term wins. The cultural change required to create an environment of belonging is long-term and not easily measured. I think we tend to stay in the inclusion space because it’s an easier sell to leadership. The connection from activities to outcomes is clearer and the work involves logic, process, objectivity, which are characteristics that are celebrated in corporate environments. 

Jejuana: Belonging is a product of an organization’s culture and leadership.  The barriers to belonging will be reflected in organizational culture. Any change to culture involves everyone in the organization and it’s an opportunity for individual self-reflection alongside a collective re-imagining of values and how those values will be reflected throughout the organization.  If the leadership and/or a majority of the staff are unwilling to embrace the dynamic process of a culture change it will be challenging to create a sense of belonging. Embracing a growth mindset, flexibility, curiosity, and a willingness to interrogate what is influencing culture can advance belonging within the organization. 

Debbie: You need buy-in from leadership because they model culture change. At the same time, there’s often a lack of recognition that the leadership currently in place has probably benefited from the culture that’s in place. Everyone needs to have a growth mindset to recognize that what has helped leadership succeed in the past may not be what gets the organization where it needs to go culturally.

Jejuana: Organizations are groups of individuals and belonging and inclusion starts with individuals. If enough people buy into an organizational culture of belonging and create a tipping point then it begins to take root throughout. 

Who is responsible for belonging?

Debbie: It’s everyone’s job, as is talent cultivation. In terms of modeling behaviors and accountability, that’s a leadership role. Leaders need to be visibly modeling those behaviors and incentivizing what they say is important. If you say values are central to the organization, you need to reward, incentivize, and highlight things that uplift those values. 

What do you think current DEIB approaches gets wrong about belonging?

Debbie: The work stays at the process level, where the strategy looks like a to-do list. You want to see long-term strategies, intentionality, and how mindsets and behaviors will change over time. However, there becomes a focus on urgent actions rather than transformative work, which is harder to demonstrate value, cost, and progress.  I think these approaches are reflective of in-the-moment leadership priorities instead of the long term change that DEIB professionals intend. 

Jejuana: When companies do not co-create the vision together with the entire organization, there’s a tendency to greenlight ideas that make sense in the boardroom but not throughout the organization.   Belonging strategies created in a vacuum experience either failure or take a longer time to anchor within the organization. A lack of belonging within the organization did not happen overnight. Taking a forensic look at the current state of belonging and practices that contribute to it will be beneficial for long term culture change success. 

What can organizations do to deepen their belonging efforts?

Jejuana: Be centered in the organization’s values, mission, and vision. Develop a practice of assessing the organization’s culture and belonging strategy and revisit the strategy regularly to respond to the changing needs of the employees and business.

Debbie: Having space for people to initiate new ideas, or create something different, as well as having community and opportunities to contribute outside of their core job. Organizations should support and encourage the grassroots efforts of frontline workers that create spaces for themselves. Organizations should also be intentional about defining a vision for where you want to be, auditing where you are today, and having honest conversations about the gaps in processes, mindsets, and systems that need to change. 

How can organizations ensure belonging efforts reach the frontline? 

Jejuana: The culture of belonging starts with a feedback model where people from across the organization, including the frontline and/or entry-level workers, feel heard and included. While not every idea can be implemented, the process is inclusive and creates a stronger platform for belonging efforts to reach the frontline. 

Debbie: It’s important that frontline employees see the product of culture change. Organizations can be more intentional about exposure to leaders that look like or have similar life experiences as their frontline workers. When everyone has responsibility for belonging, leaders can act as ambassadors and champions instead of just relying on one DEI person or group to lead and manage everything.  

Call to action:

Reflect on these questions, with your team or on your own:

  • Take a minute to consider the DEI efforts at your organization. Can you think of one or more DEI efforts that do NOT contribute to belonging for frontline and/or entry-level employees?
  • What is one action you can take to increase belonging at your organization or on your team? 

Talent Rewire’s recently published How Change Happens report offers a framework for thinking about culture change and mental model shift regarding DEIB. If you are interested in hands-on opportunities to cultivate belonging in your organization, check out our Programs.