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The 2023 Workplace, Part 1: From DEI to Belonging

DEI initiatives represented by steps

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs have become the norm for a majority of corporations in the U.S. Because of the benefits DEI initiatives offer a company, it’s been a no-brainer to invest in these efforts. But the way businesses go about such programs varies, and in many cases, results have been disappointing. Traditional diversity training might raise awareness to biases and diverse cultural perspectives; however, these same strategies can sometimes create a dichotomous situation making some feel like victims and other villains. When this happens, workplaces can become more divisive rather than inclusive. And the goal of pairing diversity and belonging often falls short as a result.

People rapping about DEI initiatives
DEI initiatives are good for business, but some “belonging” should be in the mix, too.

Understanding this, there have been recent trends to encourage companies to move beyond to DEI initiatives to DEIB efforts. The “B” of course stands for belonging, which implies individuals feel free to be their whole selves in the work environment. But creating a culture of belonging can be more challenging that one might think. Given national divisions in social and political views, being oneself can create conflicts. Identifying implicit biases that exist can make some feel threatened or offended. This is why current approaches that promote diversity and belonging are pursuing new approaches. And for companies wanting to achieve success, these investments will become increasingly important.

(Tech culture has a diversity problem–read how in this Bold story.)

“The way they’ve rolled out D.E.I. has exacerbated divides even while addressing valuable issues. It has created some hostility, resentment.” – Sarah Bonk, Founder and CEO, BFA

Belonging As a Concept

In traditional DEI initiatives, the goal has been to create an inclusive environment for all regardless of diverse backgrounds. But inclusion is not necessarily the same as a sense of belonging. One may be included in communications, problem-solving opportunities, brainstorming and more. However, they still may not feel they belong and can be their whole selves. Likewise, those trying to create inclusive environments may also not feel comfortable openly talking about their biases. As such, they may offer niceties and accommodating behaviors that aren’t authentic and sincere. This undermines diversity and belonging as well as the real goals behind DEI initiatives.

In trying to better define diversity and belonging, the latter implies the capacity for someone to feel accepted and respected. They do not feel afraid to be themselves or hide specific opinions and beliefs. The desire to belong is something that has grown out of the pandemic and preferences for remote work. Having the flexibility to work from home as well as the flexibility to be oneself is what makes workers feel truly whole. But in order to achieve this fully, it requires a culture where one proactively seeks out others’ unique differences. It’s more than simply tolerating diverse views and beliefs. It trying to identify them, learn from them, and respecting them. As is evident, belonging is more than simply inclusion. Belonging is a deeper concept and is now considered an essential part of DEI initiatives today.

diversity and belonging initiatives being discussed by workers
A snapshot of the 2023 workplace reveals DEI initiatives plus a healthy dose of belonging.

“Belonging is a way to help people who aren’t marginalized feel like they’re part of the conversation.” – Stephanie Creary, Assistant Professor of Management, Wharton School of Business

The Advantages of DEI Initiatives and Belonging

Research has shown that achieving both diversity and belonging in the workplace has clear benefits to businesses. Results demonstrate increased team strength and performance when these measures rank high. In fact, businesses invested in these efforts average 35% higher performance compared to those that don’t. Likewise, diversity and belonging boost creativity and innovation through increased participation and alternative perspectives. But DEI initiatives that focus on belonging also help retain top talent. This is particularly important when talent supply in some business fields is limited.

(Did someone say talent shortage? Here are nine smart tips for overcoming that, courtesy of a Bold story.)

Recent polls also show that employees as well as employers support DEI initiatives that include belonging as a factor. Currently, half of Black and Asian ethnicity workers lack this sense of belonging in their place of business. But roughly 80% expect their company to invest in these efforts to correct the problem. At the same time, more than three-quarters of business executives see diversity and belonging as a top priority. And two-thirds are committed to focusing on belonging in particular in their DEI initiatives. All of this shows that trends in DEI efforts have shifted to included belonging. And it’s likely the benefits such efforts provide that account for this.

“The companies that thrive, now more than ever, will be those that understand that diverse people help a business win.” – Abi Williams, Founder of Lead Not Lag

Pursuing Diversity and Belonging

some people showing diversity and belonging
Business success requires both diversity and belonging.

As DEI initiatives have come to progressively include the concept of belonging. questions have surfaced about best strategies. Several companies offer assistance in this regard. Inversity Solutions takes an approach where individuals are allowed to speak and face their biases without feeling like a villain. By showing it’s human to have implicit biases, their approach creates flexibilities for open discussions and bridge-building. Constructive Dialogue Institute offers online modules and workshops under the name Perspectives. It promotes self-reflection of implicit biases and beliefs while encouraging cultural awareness. Both programs have shown promise.

The key to diversity and belonging programs is to promote a more proactive attitude in seeking different points of view. Because it is precisely these unique differences that drive creative solutions and innovation, these must be sought. And once identified, individuals must not simply acknowledge them but learn from them. This is why company employee resource groups have had much greater success in achieving belonging than traditional DEI initiatives. For companies that want to compete in 2023, it’s essential that both diversity and belonging concepts be considered. While this may require new approaches, the value it will bring the company will be well worth the investments.


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