Creating Belonging Effectively: Why Diversity Efforts Fail
Belonging is created at the intersection of authenticity and acceptance. We can only find our way there when we spend time reflecting on and accepting ourselves.
Any talent professional who has been around for 10-20 years has seen an evolution around diversity, equity, inclusion and the more recent concept of belonging (DEIB).
I was rummaging through some old materials recently and found a workshop kit that I delivered over 15 years ago. On the front, it claimed to contain “the award-winning scale of tolerance”. In the workshop, we looked at photos of people and were tasked with making up stories about them. After fully developing their stories, we watched a VHS tape containing their “real stories,” conveniently different from the archetype their looks might suggest. My favorite photo was of a white man often referred to as Bob, the job of insurance salesman, driving a Buick from the 1980s. Who doesn’t have fun playing through certain stereotypes? Although by today’s standards, you might find it a little goofy.
In the program I hosted at the time, we talked about bias as a “bad thing” and the need to eliminate bias and accept everyone. Fortunately, collective knowledge and beliefs about bias have changed, and we understand bias better now. Bias isn’t bad. The place in our brain where prejudice lives canned makes us live every day.
That said, it can also hamper some of our modern decision-making. I love how Daniel Kahneman describes how our “slow thinking brain” works in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. He also explains that our “fast-thinking brains” are where our biases live. Our fast brain helps us make quick decisions, but it doesn’t always take into account the complexity of our modern lives.
Two fundamental problems persist when designing DEIB efforts.
Problem #1: We are never the villain of our own stories.
When we think biases are bad, we don’t think of ourselves as bad, so it can be hard to admit our own biases. I prefer to remove the prejudices of good or bad language. You are human, therefore you have prejudices. We have biases that help us, and we have biases that can be counterproductive to the results our slow brains want to create. The best way to overcome the problems that stem from our biases is through introspection and acceptance.
Problem #2: When we focus only on including others, we exclude ourselves.
Many diversity efforts focus on inclusion. Without it, any effort focused on diversity is futile. I was recently reading the results of an employee engagement survey and found a comment that “sometimes inclusion can be exclusive”. You have to sit with that comment for a while and understand that it’s someone’s perception. What this comment confirms for me is that many DEIB efforts are heavy with the external goal of making sure we include others. However, some might feel lost in the equation as a result.
To overcome this, we must ensure that any program focused on inclusion also includes the individual. When you combine this with self-reflection and self-acceptance as mentioned above, we can start moving.
An article from 2016 describes studies that found white men felt more stress and threat in organizations with pro-diversity messages than those with neutral messages. This is worth pointing out because white men still hold positions of power in most organizations. If we plan to make progress, we must help all people in positions of power understand the benefits of diversity and ensure that all individuals feel a sense of belonging to their organization. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we need to make white men feel more comfortable, but if someone doesn’t feel part of a solution, they’re likely to. oppose.
A second article, titledUnleash the benefits of diversitydescribes that there have been two main approaches to diversity initiatives in organizations. The first is a colorblind approach, where everyone is considered equal regardless of differences. This is problematic as power systems and identities are left in place and marginalization continues under the guise of egalitarianism. The second approach is a multicultural approach, which emphasizes employee differences as a source of strength. The negative side effect of this approach is similar to the article quoted above, namely that non-marginalized identities feel left out.
Belonging is created at the intersection of authenticity and acceptance
Authenticity means self-reflection and self-acceptance means understanding our own unique identities. It also means deeply understanding our own biases, what might trigger them and how we can overcome them. When we have done the deep work described and maintain it as a practice, we can appear in the spaces we occupy with greater authenticity.
Authenticity: being true to one’s own identity, personality, spirit and character.
By acceptance, I mean radical acceptance. In the self-reflection above, we need to consider our blind spots and why they exist. We need to understand and accept that not everyone is like us and invite others to understand them better. And if we don’t understand them, that doesn’t mean we can’t accept them.
Acceptance: the act of recognizing someone as they are without imposing their own values or trying to change them.
When we have the right balance between authenticity and acceptance, we can fully realize our belonging to the communities in which we operate. However, when these two things are out of balance, we might end up in one of three other places.
Reclusive: When we lack authenticity and acceptance, we are removed from the community. There might be reasons to sit in this position. For example, you might come across as a recluse at work, but that’s because heavy stuff is going on at home and you need to retreat and go into survival mode.
Authoritarian: When we are very authentic and not very accepted, we steamroll the identity of others. This often happens because we come into a community with a lot of assumptions. Maybe we have a lot of blind spots. I grew up in a small farming community in rural Iowa. I appreciate the move to a bigger, more diverse space, when you’re used to living in a space where people generally look and act like you.
Minimization: When we are too concerned with making room for others, we do not let our true selves into the space. Sometimes this happens when we are very different from others and try to fit in. Anyone with a marginalized identity can probably think of a time when they’ve been in that space. It’s also possible that we’re sitting in “minimization” because there’s a community we need to engage with, and we feel the need to minimize for safety. It is good to recognize this and find a way out if possible.
When we’ve done the deep work ourselves, we’re ready to show off and improve the results for everyone.