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Does DEI need a B? Why Belonging is becoming more essential to today’s equity initiatives

September 2, 2023
Diversity & Inclusion

As social justice movements shape cultural conversation and legislation, diversity as an organizational imperative continues to be in nearly constant evolution. What was once a one-word focus on diversity itself has now been expanded to include equity and inclusion to better reflect the fact that hiring a diverse workforce isn’t enough on its own to impact meaningful change. In more recent months, executives and organizations have debated the importance of adding “belonging” to the mix as its own distinct pillar in DEI strategy, with many already offering open roles for Chief DEIB Officers and its affiliated functions.

Though definitions can vary across organizations, most describe belonging as a sense of psychological safety with others and the environment and general acceptance as feeling part of the group, not separate from it. “It’s a similar concept as trust,” says Christie Lindor, CEO & Founder of Tessi Consulting and Institute for Inclusion, and Professor at Bentley University. “You can tell someone they can trust you but only in your day-to-day actions and behaviors towards that individual is trust really earned. Belonging must be earned.”

The renewed emphasis on this term comes with good reason. The feeling of belonging has been shown to have a direct impact on vital business metrics. According to research published at Harvard Business Review, high belonging was linked to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days.

But the effort entails more than just slapping another letter to the end of an acronym. If you’re considering broadening your DEI initiatives, experts say it’s essential to understand your “why”, and be intentional about its implementation, especially in a political climate that’s seeing pushback against current DEI initiatives.

The Dangers of Dilution
The impulse to widen DEI initiatives is a natural part of the growth and maturity of the practice as a whole. While embracing innovative thinking should be a part of any diversity initiative, leaders need to be aware of the potential pitfalls of making big changes without intentional follow-up, cautions Dr. Jennifer Messina, psychologist and executive leadership advisor.

Some companies have embraced belonging as a way to soften complex diversity issues, especially in the face of a rise in (often male, often White) majority groups who claim to feel left out of DEI initiatives, she says. “If you are telling everyone they belong equally at your company, you need to also recognize the historical inequity that established DE&I programs are in place to address,” said Dr. Messina. “It is complicated to encourage everyone to use their voice while giving voice to those who have historically not had one.”

This might look like a belonging initiative that invites people to “bring their whole selves to work” but fails to integrate initiatives designed to support historically marginalized groups, explains Dr. Messina. If companies roll out a “belonging” initiative without ensuring concepts such as intersectionality, unconscious bias, and the other complex elements of DE&I are addressed, it risks diluting and diminishing other initiatives.

An Outcome Rather Than an Input
One way to achieve this is to start thinking of belonging not as an actionable input like diversity, equity, or inclusion, but rather an output variable that’s affected by these initiatives. “Belonging is a direct result of an inclusive work environment,” says Tiffany Patrick, senior consultant at Perceptyx. “For leaders to effectively track progress on their DEI strategy, belonging should be considered as an outcome.”

Experts echo this when separating inclusion and belonging specifically, reminding that belonging offers inclusion, but inclusion doesn’t always guarantee belonging. “Inclusion is the daily habits that people in an organization take to ensure employees feel valued, safe, and supported, and when employees can speak or show up differently in an organization and still be included as part of the culture,” says Lindor. “It’s possible for employees to feel included but not feel like they belong. The actions and behaviors of those around them (which include representations of themselves) signal whether there is psychological safety for them to feel a sense of belonging.” Employees who experience authentic inclusion are more likely to gain a sense of belonging over time.

Venus Brown, VP and Head of Organizational Effectiveness & Experience at Assembly likes to think of inclusion as being more operational, while belonging is more institutional. “You need both today to be successful,” she says.

At her organization, they added Belonging to their traditional DEI framework, but were intentional about how they positioned it, putting Belonging first, and reframing the total equation to be “Belonging, Inclusion + Equity and Diversity (BI+ED).” This is intended to ensure that the foundation of belonging requires inclusive leadership, with equitable practices and policies that support a diverse population of people and ideas, she explains. “We are specific about all four components with Belonging and Inclusion leading the way,” says Brown.

More Than Just an Acronym
Instead of chasing a specific trend or word choice, equity experts emphasize that any diversity initiative requires a holistic approach to your own organization and its needs.

“The nature and maturity of an organizations’ DEI practice will inform if they can refer to their work as DI, DEI, DEIB, DEB or BI+ED as we have at Assembly,” explains Brown. “It is not a one size fits all.” Leaders who take the time and intention necessary to assess and implement each unique aspect of diversity and equity within their organizations will be well-positioned to create a place of true belonging — with or without the “B.”

By Lindsey Galloway


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