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Why communicating organizational identity is the first step to get belonging right in the workplace

March 25, 2023
Diversity & Inclusion

A pulse survey administered to one of my client organizations prior to my engagement asked: How much do you agree with the statement, “I have a best friend at work”? In debriefing the survey results with the full team, I found that question in particular provoked a negative response from many employees. One team member declared, “I’m not looking for a best friend at work. This question doesn’t even make sense to me.”

Why should leadership want to know if someone has a “best friend” at work or not? With the new focus on belonging, I’ve found that not all organizations are clear about what the term means.

The increased attention to DEI since the murder of George Floyd has accelerated the expansion of how we conceive diversity work generally. Following the additions of the “I” (inclusion) and “E” (equity) over the past two decades, many organizations have begun to include a “B” in their diversity and culture work: belonging. These additions are steps in the right direction, moving us away from the add diversity and stir approach to a more comprehensive approach that acknowledges the complexity of diversity in the workplace.

I’ve seen organizations conceive belonging in terms that suggest that colleagues should not merely be colleagues, but friends, with relationships that potentially extend beyond work contexts. In more extreme cases, I’ve seen leaders express that they aspire to create a family among their team members.

There is nothing wrong with members of a work team feeling like family, but company leaders wanting work teams to feel like families as a goal is problematic. Not only does it potentially put undue pressure on employees to fit in, leaning too heavily on friend or family rhetoric can set your DEI(B) strategy up for failure by creating too lofty of expectations among your employees, particularly in the context of potentially difficult economic and external pressures.

Further, there is the possibility that your employees simply may not want belonging efforts to promote a sense of familial closeness, as was the case with the employees at my aforementioned client. For many people, their relationship to work is fundamentally a practical one: a means to provide material resources for themselves, families, or others who may depend on them.

So, how can leaders integrate belonging into DEI strategies without overreaching or using problematic rhetoric? The answer begins, like so much of DEI work, with getting clear about what exactly you mean by belonging, and articulating your organizational identity—what you do, and how you expect your team to do it.

Getting Clear About Organizational Identity and Belonging
Organizations, by definition, cannot be all things to everyone. For leaders, acknowledging this truth should not inspire anxiety. Rather, it should be treated as an opportunity to continually reflect on and interrogate the underlying traits and values that inform your organizational identity.

Second, how you conceive your organizational identity has grand implications for your ability to effectively do DEI work, and especially belonging work. On a basic level, the cultural assumptions that shape organizational identities—including conceptions of professional conduct for current employees, or even who is employable at organizations based on education or other factors—are often laden with bias that disadvantage minoritized people.

In my consulting work, I often find that that problems around how employees understand and respond to belonging statements and rhetoric are rooted in two issues: leaders not acknowledging these truths, and the conflation of two ways that we can conceive belonging:

  • Belongingness, as articulated by psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, is characterized by “frequent, nonaversive interactions within an ongoing relational bond.” This conception of belongingness treats desired, consistent, and stable relationships as a universal need. Our belongingness needs can be fulfilled in multiple contexts, including through family relationships, friend relationships, and colleague relationships, among other sources. In other words, a person’s belongingness needs may be, but do not have to be, met at work.
  • Belonging (without the “ness”), which describes a person’s sense of cohesion and connectedness with a specific group, or formal organization, like a workplace or work unit. Initially developed in the sociology literature and further examined largely in the education literature, this conception of belonging requires a reference—a “to what” the person belongs. Ideally, employees will feel a sense of belonging at the workplace.

At bare minimum, leaders have a responsibility to develop work environments that do not hinder employees’ abilities to fulfill their general belongingness needs. To get beyond that bare minimum, toward belonging (the second definition above), leaders should articulate—both to themselves and their team members—their organizational identity, including underlying traits and associated values. By fostering an environment with such clear expectations, you afford your employees greater agency in their relationship with your organization, with little ambiguity about what you are asking them to belong to.

Here are a couple of examples of the kinds of identity-related questions I mean:

What are your expectations for punctuality? Are you in professional services, where being on time for client-facing meetings is seen as a fundamental norm that is rooted in your ability to attract and retain clients? If punctuality is mandated, not only for client meetings but for internal meetings as well, how do you support employees who are caregivers in another context, who may be less able to meet your expectations for punctuality?
How do you expect your team to engage internal conflict? With direct communication, without the support of a mediator or facilitator? In a way that limits the expression of emotion?
The way you answer these questions is greatly influenced by your cultural perspectives, which can lead to implicit assumptions and unstated premises around which you base your organizational identity.

From a belonging (and equity) perspective, having your cultural perspective affect your organizational identity is not inherently a problem. The problem that impedes belonging, however, is if your team is not clear on how you would answer questions like these, questions along which you stake your organizational identity.

A Few Final Words
A word of caution as you conceive your organizational identity with respect to DEI and belonging: not being able to be all things to everyone is not an excuse to be passive or do nothing in this work.

The way you engage this work need not, and should not, be binary—emphasize punctuality or not, for example. Rather, it is incumbent upon you as a leader to reflect on the importance of punctuality in achieving your organizational goals, interrogate the assumptions that may be baked into how you think about the preceding point, and then articulate and communicate how punctuality fits into your organizational identity.

This is ultimately the first step of doing belonging work—be it about punctuality or other norms and expectations—that is required of leaders who wish to foster a workplace in which team members can feel a sense of belonging, whether they have a best friend there or not.

by: Ahmmad Brown


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