Effectively creating belonging: Why diversity efforts fall short

Belonging is created at the intersection of authenticity and acceptance. We can only find our way there when we spend time in self-reflection and move into self-acceptance.

Any talent professional who has been around for the past 10 to 20 years has watched an evolution around diversity, equity, inclusion, and the more recently added concept, belonging (DEIB).

I was digging through old materials recently and found a workshop kit I delivered more than 15 years ago. On the front, it proclaimed to contain the “…award winning Tolerance scale.” In the workshop, we reviewed pictures of people and were tasked to make up stories about them. After fully developing their stories, we’d watch a VHS tape that contained their “real stories,” conveniently different from the archetype their appearance might suggest. My favorite photo was a white man who was often pegged with the name Bob, the profession of insurance salesman, driving a 1980s Buick. Who doesn’t have fun playing through some stereotypes? Though by today’s standards, you might find this a bit cringeworthy. 

In the program I facilitated back then, we talked about bias as a “bad thing” and how we needed to eliminate bias and accept everyone. Thankfully the collective knowledge and beliefs around bias have shifted, and we understand bias more now. Bias isn’t bad. The place in our brains where bias lives keeps us alive on a daily basis. 

That said, it also can get in the way of some of our modern decision making. I like the way Daniel Kahneman describes how our “slow-thinking brain” works in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” He also explains our “fast-thinking brains” are where our biases live. Our fast-thinking brain helps us make quick decisions, but it doesn’t always account for the complexity of our modern lives.

There are two core problems that continue to persist when designing DEIB efforts.

Problem #1: We’re never the villain of our own stories. 

When we believe that bias is bad, we don’t see ourselves as bad, so it can be hard to admit our own bias. I prefer to shift bias away from good or bad language. You’re human, so you have bias. We have biases that help us, and we have biases that may be counterproductive to the outcomes that our slow-thinking brains want to create. The best way to overcome issues that arise from our biases is through self-reflection and acceptance.

Problem #2: When we only focus on including others, we exclude ourselves.  

A lot of diversity efforts focus on inclusion. Without it, any effort focused on diversity is pointless. I was recently reading the results of an employee engagement survey and found a comment stating, “sometimes inclusion can be exclusive.” You must sit with that comment for a moment and appreciate that it is someone’s perception. What this comment validates for me is that many DEIB efforts are heavy with the external focus of ensuring we’re including others. However, some might feel lost in the equation as a result.

To overcome this, we need to ensure any inclusion-focused program also includes the individual. When you combine that with self-reflection and self-acceptance as mentioned above, we can start to make movement.

A 2016 article describes studies that showed white men felt greater stress and threat in organizations with pro-diversity messaging than those with neutral messaging. This deserves highlighting because white men are still in positions of power in most organizations. If we plan to make any progress, we need to help all people in positions of power understand the benefits of diversity and ensure all individuals feel a sense of belonging in their organizations. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we need to make white men feel more comfortable, but if someone doesn’t feel a part of a solution, they’re likely to work against it.

A second article, titled “Unlocking the Benefits of Diversity,” describes that there have been two primary approaches to diversity initiatives in organizations. The first is a color-blind approach, where everyone is deemed equal regardless of differences. This is problematic because systems and identities of power are left in place, and marginalization continues through the guise of egalitarianism. The second approach is a multi-cultural approach, which emphasizes employee differences as a source of strength. The negative side effect of this approach is similar to the article cited above, 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’ve done the deep work described, and maintain it as a practice, we can show up 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 must understand and accept that not everyone is like us and invite others in to understand them more. And, if we don’t understand them, it doesn’t mean we can’t accept them.

Acceptance: the act of recognizing someone as they are without imposing one’s own values or trying to change them.

When we have the right balance of authenticity and acceptance, we can fully realize belonging in the communities in which we operate. However, when these two things are out of balance, we might find ourselves in one of three other places.

Recluse: When we’re low on authenticity and acceptance, we are withdrawn from the community. There might be reasons to sit in this position. For example, you may be showing up as a recluse at work, but it’s because you have heavy things happening at home, and you need to withdraw and move into survival mode.

Overbearing: When we’re high on authenticity and low on acceptance, we steam roll the identities of others. This often happens because we enter a community with a lot of assumptions. Perhaps we have a lot of blind spots. I grew up in a small farming community in rural Iowa. I appreciate the shift moving into a larger, more diverse space, when you’re used to living in a space where the people mostly look and act like you.

Minimizing: When we’re overly concerned about making room for others, we don’t allow our true selves into the space. Sometimes this happens when we’re vastly different from others and are trying to fit in. Anyone who has a marginalized identity can probably think of a time they’ve been in this space. It’s also possible that we sit in “minimizing” because there’s a community we need to be involved with, and we feel the need to minimize for safety. It’s good to recognize this and find an exit if possible.

When we’ve done the deep work ourselves, we’re ready to show up and improve outcomes for everyone.