Are Workplace Inclusion and Belonging Different?

We've written about workplace belonging, and how important it is for your organization. However, inclusion and belonging remain two important pieces of workplace culture that simply can't be overlooked. Let's discuss what this means for you.

If you are like many employers, maintaining an engaged workforce has become a true challenge. For many businesses, the workforce is diverse, often global, made up of on-site and remote workers, multi-generational, and digitally savvy. Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) became the mantra of organizations, triggering a host of new initiatives and leadership training to get everyone on the same page for engaging all employees.

The challenge is that diversity is not inclusion, and inclusion is not belonging. They mean different things, and many managers remain puzzled about the differences. At A Better Leader, we specialize in training for your leaders to help them connect with employees at every level. This will help you develop a strong culture with employees who feel supported, connected, and engaged. We'll cover why this is important in your organization.

Diverse, but Not Inclusive 

To get to the heart of the matter, a company may be diverse but not inclusive. But a diverse and inclusive organization may not cultivate a sense of belonging in some employees. In both situations, the result is usually a stubbornly disengaged workforce and high turnover. Additionally, employees are likely on the lookout for a way to nurture a sense of belonging (like joining a union). Employees who lack a sense of belonging feel they are unable to reach their potential and are not fully contributing. 

For decades, the emphasis had been placed on diversity in the workforce. Diversity refers to the unique traits of people or their demographics. This includes race, gender, ethnicity, sexual preferences, or cultural experiences, disability, age, and veteran status. Millennials expanded the concept of diversity to include people who bring a diversity of perspectives, experiences, and creativity to their jobs. However, these qualities are nearly impossible to add as a metric for describing workforce makeup. 

Inclusion refers to how welcome diverse people feel in the workplace, so it really references the workplace culture. An inclusive culture makes all employees feel respected and supports them, bringing their authentic selves to work each day. It is essential to understand that authenticity is a major element of true inclusion, and inclusion is a step towards belonging.

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Authenticity and Inclusion

"Inclusion means people can bring their whole selves to work – diverse qualities, perspectives, life and work experiences, and personal style."

Authenticity means employees don't have to fit into a mold or keep their true identities hidden out of fear. For example, women have a history of trying to "be like a man" to climb the promotion ladder. They would not show emotion and imitated the assertive leadership style of the white male manager, rather than using a more natural collaborative and personal style. People of color have silently endured expressions of workplace bias because no one promotes a "troublemaker." Members of the LGBQT+ community carefully hid their identities to avoid bias. All these people are technically included in the workplace today. However, they frequently believe it's because they don't bring their authentic selves to work. It's more about what they don't say or don't do – what they hold back.

Inclusion means people can bring their whole selves to work – diverse qualities, perspectives, life, and work experiences, and personal style. The organization recognizes the importance of differences and the contributions diverse people can make, whether it's on project teams, as a co-worker, as a member of an Employee Resource Group, and so on. When ethnic and racial diversity and inclusion are embraced, research has shown companies are one-third more likely to outperform industry norms. Companies that are gender-diverse earn 21 percent more revenue than the other companies in their industry.

Inclusion, but Still Left Out

Diversity means hiring people with different traits. Inclusion means ensuring their invitation to participate on an equal basis in business activities. The mystery is that even diverse and inclusive organizations may have high turnover and low employee engagement. Despite billions spent on D&I training, many employees still feel left out. Some feel like they are in the wrong place, unable to connect with others, isolated, and not entirely accepted by others. They believe that what they bring to the organization is not genuinely appreciated; what they say is not truly heard, and they are not safe bringing their authentic selves to work.

An employee may be included in a variety of business activities, but that doesn't mean acceptance and engagement automatically follow. For example, business leaders have a policy that diverse employees are always included in team projects. The statistics look good. The team is 35 percent diverse, reflecting the makeup of the workforce. 

The people are respected for their differences, but are they engaged? Are they comfortable sharing new perspectives and ideas? Do co-workers actively listen to and value their contributions, or are some employees (diverse or not) brushed off? The same questions could be asked of their managers or supervisors. Do the supervisors make all people feel connected and valued? Employees may receive an invitation to sit at the table (inclusion), but what are they allowed to say or contribute?

Inclusion Statistics

According to research, as reported in The Value of Belonging at Work in the Harvard Business Review, forty percent of people surveyed have said they feel isolated at work, leading to lower employee commitment and engagement. BetterUp research on belonging, defined as a sense of acceptance and being included by surrounding people, demonstrated that:

  • Belonging correlates to a 56 percent increase in job performance, and a 50 percent drop in turnover risk
  • Exclusion leads to employees who are less willing to work as team members to desired results

A frequent expression coined by Verna Myers says diversity is the invitation to the party, while inclusion is being asked to dance. If we carry this idea further, belonging means being able to showcase unique dances and techniques with full audience appreciation. The dancer is not required to dance only expected/standard dances but is encouraged to share creative dances that are valued by others.

Turning the Isolated into True Team Members

People who feel left out are willing to work for their benefit but not the benefit of others. Supervisors can employ some strategies to help the excluded feel a sense of belonging. They include treating everyone equally, inviting and giving feedback, sharing stories of their own experiences that included struggles, giving people opportunities to share their stories with others, recognizing and overcoming personal biases, and engaging all staff. This works to create a culture of belonging where people who currently leave their authentic selves at home, despite being included in organizational activities, and must downplay their identities to avoid exclusion and isolation, are more likely to speak up. 

It is important to understand that discussions focused on diversity made organizations more aware of conscious and unconscious bias and the importance of inclusion. Still, anyone can lack a sense of belonging. It is not exclusive to diverse people, especially in the complex, difficult-to-navigate social environment of today.

The feeling of belonging has been an overlooked quality. But, it plays a role in the stubborn low employee engagement numbers. Belonging is a sense of connectedness. When people are not fully engaged, they may do as little as possible or refuse to cooperate. The low-engagement employees are often the people who first participate in union organizing campaigns.

There is little commitment to organizational success except for wanting to make sure the paycheck continues. These employees who are already lacking engagement won't share creative ideas leading to innovation, join workgroups, share unique experiences, or volunteer for assignments requiring working closely with others. A lack of a sense of belonging becomes part of the employee experience. People will take their experiences to social media and friends and family.

Leadership Courage

Thought leader Mike Robbins, author of the book Bring Your Whole Self to Work, points out that it takes courage on the part of organizational leaders to create a culture where people feel free to be authentic. Without authenticity, there really can never be full employee engagement. Trying to fit in is emotionally and psychologically exhausting. 

Your managers and supervisors need training on how they can encourage people to speak up, and share experiences without fear; connect with others, and engage in organizational success as a team member. Your leaders must also understand how to show appreciation for people as humans as well as recognition for work performance. One of the first selling points of union representatives is, "We appreciate everything you do at work, even if your employer doesn't!" The added benefit of having employees who do feel like they belong is that there is no need to turn to unions to find connectedness with others. Your organization can stay union-free.

Incorporate Inclusion and Belonging

At A Better Leader, we specialize in leadership training that improves employee engagement, retention rates, and employee satisfaction. This also means being proactive and incorporating inclusion and belonging in your organization. Our mission is to provide you with the tools to help your leaders connect with and motivate your workforce. If you are looking to foster strong company culture and provide your leaders with the skills they need to succeed, we'd love to help you with a custom solution.

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About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

With over 25 years in the industry, and now as IRI's Director of Business Development, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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