“True belonging requires us to believe in and belong to ourselves so fully that we can find sacredness both in being a part of something and in standing alone when necessary…But true belonging is not something we negotiate or accomplish with others; it’s a daily practice that demands integrity and authenticity. It’s a personal commitment that we carry in our hearts.”
— Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, 2015
It’s not clear when or where the term belonging started to be used in the context of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI), though my feeling is that at some point, relatively recently, someone misinterpreted Brown’s definition. In my view, using the term ‘Belonging’ in the EDI sphere – across job titles, department names, and most importantly, our thinking is problematic.
My primary concern is that the term ‘Belonging’ is about how an individual feels. By using this term, we place the onus on them and their interaction with their workplace. ‘Inclusion,’ however, places the responsibility on the organisation to address and change the systemic and structural issues.
Many people are quite happy to go to their workplace and be productive in a space where they feel included but don’t feel the need to belong. Indeed many people may prefer to belong at home with family, friends, or even in a solitary space. Whatever a person’s preference, everyone should feel their values, differences and perspectives are respected in an inclusive environment – a responsibility that lies with an organisation’s leadership.
In his book Reinventing Organisations, Frederic Laloux raises a caution that an emphasis on belonging to an organization can suggest that a whole person’s life should revolve around work – socially, financially, environmentally – meaning an individual is psychologically trapped within the workplace; lose your job, lose your life.
There are some organisations, which have made belonging so essential that they’ve been designed so people needn’t go home; there are play spaces, kitchens, and even massages at the desk. Whilst on the face of it, this may seem wonderful, expecting staff to expend all their emotional and social energy at work easily results in burnout. If organisations are framing their EDI policies around belonging, they’re thinking about how they want their staff to feel in the organisation. However, that isn’t up to the organisation to decide. What they should be doing is working towards creating a diverse and inclusive space so that if people choose to belong at work, they can.
The word belonging can come with a sense of ownership too: possessions – ‘this pen belongs to me’; relationships – ‘we belong together; systems – ‘they belong in jail.’ Also disturbing in an organisational context is the historical connection to slavery – the enslaved individuals belonged to their masters.
Whether D&I fatigue is setting in or not, I urge organisations not to be sucked into using ‘Belonging’ in place of ‘Inclusion.’ Rather than opting for a name change that will likely achieve very little and even detract from the core progress we’re working to achieve, I suggest that organisations instead address what might be causing the fatigue.
Perhaps members of organisations can’t see any action, don’t know how to take action, or are simply overwhelmed by the number of issues.
There’s no getting away from it, EDI is a major societal matter. Despite legislation, under-represented groups are described that way because they’re not treated equitably, fairly, or equally, so properly tackling it in the workplace will require time, effort, and resources. Add to it being the right thing to do, the benefits of a diverse and inclusive environment means it makes sense to put in that time, effort, and resources.
Cultural Intelligence (CQ), is an academically researched tool that can help organisations move from awareness to driving successful tangible action toward inclusion. By carefully applying CQ organisationally, workplaces can achieve inclusive change, which counteracts the sense of despondency people can feel, rather than making a superficial rebrand which achieves very little.
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It is processes, procedures, systems that must change for organisations, and individuals need to know how to move from being aware they need to be alert to bias to actual action.
Clearly communicating this and sharing practical tools helps to fight that fatigue because people and organisations can then make real progress and feel energised by this.
Inclusion, not Belonging, is the priority, and that should remain the focus of job titles, department names, and thinking.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Director of Inclusion
Royal Institute of British Architects
England, United Kingdom
About the Cultural Intelligence Center
The Cultural Intelligence Center is an innovative, research-based consulting and training organization that draws upon empirical findings to help executives, companies, universities, and government organizations assess and improve cultural intelligence (CQ) – the ability to work effectively with people from different nationalities, ethnicities, age groups, and more. We provide you with innovative solutions that improve multicultural performance based on rigorous academic research. More information about the Cultural Intelligence Center can be found on our website located at http://www.CulturalQ.com.
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