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Sustainable Innovation

Building belonging

Building belonging
Published: August 28, 2019
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Navigating through complex times requires distributed leadership that has the humility to take into account a wide variety of perspectives before deciding what action to take. In light of this, I’d like to pose a provocative question: has the time come to ‘Ditch D&I’? To move on from the traditional Diversity & Inclusion agenda?

This is the question that a group of us gathered to explore one sunny afternoon at Learnfest, Impact’s annual three-day festival of learning, adventure and inspiration. I co-hosted the session with Susie McKirdy, Head of Talent and Development at Hitachi Rail, following a powerful learning journey we shared on this topic.

Belonging attracts, develops and retains diverse talent. Diverse talent brings diversity of thought, which is clearly linked to innovation, agility and effective collaboration. In this sense, the value of belonging is increasingly evidenced and understood, so I can’t help but wonder why, after all the attention given to D&I, so few companies are investing in belonging? Why do we still have pay gaps based on gender and location? Why is there still a lack of women in board rooms? And, dare I say it, why is there still a racial hierarchy? These questions are the reason why Susie and I found ourselves opening up this inquiry to a room full of like-minded, curious people.

As soon as the notion of belonging was out there, an energetic debate on inclusivity versus belonging was sparked. The atmosphere in the room heated as individuals battled out the differences between the two concepts. I sat patiently, eager to hear which side would win, or indeed, if there needed to be a winner. A breakthrough moment came when Jen Thompson, Global Lead for Sales, Skills Training and Development at Google, offered the following:

'Diversity is being invited to the party,

inclusion is being asked to dance,

belonging is feeling free to dance how I want.'

Suddenly, everyone stopped talking and the room filled with joy. 'Belonging is what the world, organisations and people need', exclaimed one participant. Susie and I exchanged warm expressions, silently celebrating the deeper difference between inclusivity and belonging that had been evidenced that day, not only through this elegant elucidation, but also by bringing a diverse group of people together in a collaborative and constructive discussion.

Ready for round two, I took it up a notch and asked: 'So do we ditch the D&I agenda in favour of belonging?' There were numerous conflicting and varying views in response to this, all valid in their own right.

One participant shared that D&I often drives the wrong dialogue and ends up in compliance-led discussions and minority-based initiatives that some feel defeat the point. For example, some women do not want a ‘women in leadership’ programme and reject the labelling inherent in this. Others explained that although D&I does get things going, there is so much political correctness and fear around it that they often wonder whether it gets the right things going. Susie built on this by sharing her experience at Hitachi Rail and how working with Impact on belonging had been a far more welcomed and inclusive initiative than D&I had ever been.

As a group, we collectively acknowledged that whilst the compliance elements associated with D&I are important, some of the language and associations around the term have become unhelpful. Equally, D&I is about people, and each organisation’s people mix is different. Hence, one cannot but question whether success is really guaranteed by emulating another organisation’s best practice. Organisational leaders need to create best practice based on their own organisations and their own people. I wonder if this is one of the reasons why many such change initiatives fail to truly deliver?

Through our work with clients, we have found that framing the importance of diversity in terms of belonging drives a different kind of conversation and a different kind of action. Whereas D&I engenders tactical and compliance-based action, belonging encourages a much wider and more inclusive conversation. In turn, this drives more collective responsibility, as everyone recognises their part to play in the creation of belonging. Shift the language and you shift the ownership, actions and impact.

The result of the debate was the agreement that D&I and belonging go hand-in-hand. With that in mind, I was left wondering: ‘Is D&I even possible without belonging?’ Organisational leaders should be looking to role model and embody this spirit of belonging, but the responsibility to create this culture lies with us all. In a culture of belonging, every person in the organisation feels ignited and enthusiastic about their work, and cares deeply about the business as well as their own job. Belonging goes beyond personal performance and individual leaders; it is a deeper conversation, generating collective momentum, buy-in and action. In this volatile and unpredictable world, belonging becomes more and more important every day.

What have your experiences with D&I and belonging been? Are you simultaneously shifting towards belonging? Are you even thinking about it? Let’s start a conversation!

Qudsia Karim - Head of Consulting, UK