May 25, 2023

What your DEI strategy is missing

One critical piece turns the performative into the purposeful: belonging.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is more relevant than ever. It’s become part of our daily vocabulary as people leaders, and it’s helped countless companies excel in everything from retention to innovation and business outcomes.

Far more than an acronym or a one-time workshop, DEI is a set of values and behaviors that happen on a daily basis. And like every component of culture, DEI is a mindset that needs to be nurtured patiently.

With something as nuanced as DEI, it can be hard to know if you’re doing it right. Plus, many DEI initiatives are criticized for being showy and overly performative without actually making much change.

Unpacking DEI, and what it’s missing:

DEI = diversity, equity, inclusion. But the order’s wrong. Diversity results from equity and inclusion, which are conscious choices to be made. These choices aren’t always highly obvious, visible ones—they’re more often small but deliberate actions (more on that later).

Some companies have recognized this cause-and-effect relationship, and call it I+E. But there’s still a letter missing: B for belonging. If diversity is a result, equity a decision, and inclusion an action, then belonging is a feeling felt by every team member.

If it doesn’t ultimately foster a sense of belonging within an organization, DEI loses its point. And unfortunately, many DEI initiatives stop short of making people feel they belong, making it apparent that their intent may be performative instead of genuine.

If you’re already going to allocate large budgets, new salaries, energy, and training time on something like DEI, why don’t you go all the way with it? Organizations that invest holistically in DEI see upside everywhere else, including retention, innovation, and engagement.

The missing piece: belonging.

From 2014-2016, Google conducted a landmark study on their most effective teams. To summarize, the most effective teams at Google weren’t necessarily composed of the highest performers or the smartest individuals.

Instead, the most effective teams had by far the greatest amount of psychological safety, an idea originally introduced by Harvard organizational behavior scientist Amy Edmonson.

Psychological safety, related to trust, is the perceived safety to take risks within a team. In different context, this can mean:

Image credit: Rachel Burnham

What is belonging?

Belonging is a feeling. Susie Wise, a researcher, designer, and educator at the Stanford, has spent a lot of time thinking about design for belonging.

She recently published a book called ‘Design for Belonging,’ a toolkit full of activities and tips. According to Susie, the goal of the toolkit is “for people to know and feel they belong,” and “that their perspectives and contributions are sought out and honored.”

Susie identifies a number of ‘levers’ that can be used to create a sense of belonging, including space, role, ritual, and processes. She also identifies culture as an accumulation of everyday behaviors that happen when no one is watching. Because they’re composed of small actions, it takes small but deliberate actions to change cultures.

This is where big-picture DEI initiatives often falter. It’s important to make the right hires, demonstrate diversity, and make public statements about equity. But the stuff that really makes the difference is miniscule by comparison. Some examples highlighted by Susie:

Signs that people feel excluded:

Feeling excluded sucks, plain and simple. We’ve all been there—where we feel like we don’t fit in. But from an organization-level perspective, what are some red flags that there might be a culture of exclusion?

Where belonging fits in

Belonging is an active part of culture and employee experience. It starts when employee experience starts—during the hiring process—and gets formalized during onboarding.

Again, a lot of this comes down to thoughtful, subtle, and purposeful actions that meet people where they are. How do you build belonging during the onboarding process? Some ideas:

How to build belonging:

Remember—belonging is a feeling that comes from purposeful inclusion and a deliberate sense of community. In order to continue nurturing belonging, pay attention to these themes:

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