Working to belong
By Mike Hoffman
It’s difficult to put an exact date of origin of ‘Belonging’ as an HR term, but over the last five years it has started to gain mainstream acceptance among many employers. Though it is not yet widely incorporated into many businesses’ employee engagement activities – with the notable exceptions of Microsoft and AirBnB – it is really the logical outcome of changes to the ways businesses have viewed their employees over the last thirty years.
We have seen a move from Equal Opportunities to Diversity to Inclusion and, ultimately, Belonging – a direction of travel from grudging acceptance of legal responsibility to positive, proactive ways of maximising the happiness, and thus performance, of their staff. But is it a meaningful, helpful addition to the HR and Wellbeing canon?
First, Belonging probably merits a brief definition. It’s the idea that assembling a Diverse workforce is not enough; you need to make everyone feel welcome. More than that, you have to make them feel welcome as them. If, as Verna Myers pithily put it “Diversity is like being invited to party and Inclusion is being asked to dance”, then Belonging is dancing like no one’s watching.*
Probably the most vocal advocate for Belonging in HR circles is former SVP of Talent Organization at LinkedIn, Pat Wadors, making it the focus of her keynote at Talent Connect 2016. “D&I grabs my intellect, but not my heart. D&I initiatives are necessary to win the war for talent, to find and hire a diverse workforce, and to ensure fair practices, but they aren’t sufficient.” In other words, businesses must understand that D&I alone isn’t enough and to avoid the mentality of “checking boxes” for Diversity hiring.
A number of enthusiasts have invoked Belonging’s place in Maslow’s infamous Hierarchy of Needs; sat between “safety” and “esteem”, like it’s a missing piece in the puzzle of how we get our employees nearer to the goal of Self Actualisation. At which point, presumably, HR can pack up and go home.
However, this rather upbeat assessment seems to imply that all that’s required to feel like you belong is to be invited to the sports and social, and to join the lottery syndicate. Perhaps instead of looking upwards at its closeness to ‘esteem’ in Maslow’s pyramid, we should instead think of it in terms of ‘safety’. Shereen Daniels, Head of HR at Caffe Nero talks about Belonging as “Psychological safety”.
For people from minorities, especially marginalised communities, who are used to a lifetime of being guarded in what they tell strangers, this means recognising the difference between Belonging and ‘fitting in’. “Belonging is being accepted for who you are, and fitting in is trying to be like everyone else. So I get to be me if I belong, but I have to be like you to fit in,” according to Daniels.
This is where the challenge of Belonging can come up against the reality of teamwork. Joining an organisation usually means joining a team, whose entire success hinges upon collective achievement. For well-established teams, there are norms that individuals are required to submit to – necessitating a certain blindness to individual needs and differences. A team by its very nature requires people to fit in.
We can recognise individual roles within a team – indeed, according to all management theorists, for teams to be effective it is essential that every member feels visible, valued, and involved. How far does an organisation go to create a sense of belonging that some might see as a risk to team cohesion? Is there an inherent conflict that can be used as cover to suppress the implementation of full D&I policies and practices? To extend our party simile above, how much do you want someone who is dancing to a different beat?
I suspect this may be a barrier to the growth in take up of Belonging as a corporate ambition. It requires both the self-assertion of a new, individual audience, as well as their accommodation within existing norms by the dominant group in a successful team. Essentially, Belonging lives in an unspoken, hard to measure world of compromise and muddling by.
As Dave Ulrich puts it:
“In organizations, HR professionals help people recognize that the price of belonging is being able to disagree without being disagreeable, to have tension without contention, and to move from divergence to convergence and back again without personal enmity.
“In short: Belonging requires effort.”
The question for employers is whether that effort will be seen as compromising their culture. Or going the extra mile to encourage people to truly be themselves will deliver a dividend to their business.
* Though Myers is credited with the party/dancing analogy, the origins of Belonging as ‘dancing like no one’s watching’ are unclear and it’s not safe to attribute its coining to anyone with great certainty.