I have a huge trigger around all these topics. I’ve never really worked at a place that cared about much beyond the bottom line or sales growth, so I kinda think most people, while inherently well-intentioned, lip service the hell out of diversity and inclusion concepts. I’m also a white male that probably should have achieved more in life to this point relative to opportunities given to him, so I get a little bit skittish about writing on diversity. I have done it though, although I prefer to think about the topic in terms of cognitive diversity as well.
As for belonging, well, that’s a whole different trigger for me. I was never popular as a kid — I went to a high school with 155 or so people, with about half girls, all of whom had Sweet 16s give or take, and I got invited to maybe 3–4 of them — and I’ve struggled with sense of belonging for years, i.e. decades, i.e. my whole life. One of my least favorite work concepts is “the absentee manager,” i.e. some dude/woman who barely cares you exist, and certainly doesn’t give you any sense of belonging. There’s a term for “good management” that Google and others popularized, called “psychological safety,” and sadly most managers don’t come anywhere close to providing it. If you worked on a team that was psychologically safe, you’d have diversity, inclusion, and belonging… well, some white guys only want to be surrounded by other white guys spewing financial acronyms, so I dunno, maybe I’m not right there. But that’s what feels like the ideal.
How could we foster “belonging?”
Workplaces inherently have teams, and silos, and friend cliques. In that way, “belonging” happens naturally and organically. It’s not necessarily the best type of belonging, but it is a form of belonging nonetheless.
We’ve gotten to the point where conferences are being held on these topics, which feels like a step in the right direction, and this gem stands out:
In January, senior executives at Citigroup shared personal stories with the entire global organization, livestreamed in 96 countries. One told how, earlier in her career, she had routinely avoided revealing that she never went to college. She said that any time a group conversation turned to ‘what school did you go to,’ she dodged answering or changed the subject.
“You would not believe how much of a [positive] impact that [story] had on the people in the audience,” said Sam Lalanne, a senior vice president of Global Diversity and Talent Management at Citi. He noted that anecdotes — especially from high-level people — about the struggle to fit in, or to be their authentic selves at work, can be a powerful tool to nurture a sense of belonging among an entire workforce.
Work can be a very fraught place. You often need a job but don’t want a job. One small failure can set you back for months in the wrong hierarchy. The whole deal is confusing and often punitive. People don’t often speak of failure at work, even though failure surrounds us every second — and at work, if often feels like every nanosecond. (Ever met Tom from Operations? Tom fails often.) And hey, some of the most successful companies of the past 35 years have stories largely rooted in failure.
Point being: a lot of us walk around our jobs all week fearful that we’re not good enough, but everyone around us is talking about strength and big money numbers and whatever whatever, and we feel like we don’t belong. That’s where talking about the failure of the upper ranks earlier in their career seems very beneficial.
I pitched this idea at two places and I was laughed out of the room at both of them, so I wouldn’t say this is an idea a lot of people “embrace” per se, but it seems logical to me.
Belonging ain’t on balance sheets
And that’s kind of the main problem. The biggest challenge we have with businesses becoming more “humanized,” if you will, is that a lot of guys start to value signal around their work ethic as they rise up in companies. They assume stuff like:
- “I worked hard.”
- “I grinded.”
- “I did it.”
- “No one held my hand.”
- “No one talked to me about belonging.”
- “I left my mark.”
When you value signal about how much you work, a few things happen. First off, your life sucks and your priorities are totally out of whack, because no one in the last moments of their life wants more work to do. They want more friends and family and connection, and work takes you away from those things.
But when you view yourself in that way, and many senior executives do, it’s impossible for any “soft” concept to become normative in the culture. The idea of “work hard/grind it out/make us money” will always rise above any meetings or ideas about “belonging.” This is just fact at most places, unfortunately, or at least most places above 50 people.
You also need to own your own belonging
I struggle with this at most jobs, because I think inherently I don’t love people as a concept. They’re messy and two-faced and they claim to be on the grind all the time when you know they’re on The Gram all the time, and the grind and The Gram are different things wholly. So oftentimes at jobs, I don’t try to belong as much as I could/should. People need to own their own belonging and find their clique/silo/whatever, and that’s part of this.
That said, we could have a better narrative around failure and real issues and true transparency and that could help drive actual psychological safety and belonging. Would be cool, right?