Is “belonging” the essence of a credible diversity culture?

In its recently published report ‘Global Recruiting Trends 2018’, LinkedIn identified the four top trends shaping the future of recruiting and hiring. First and foremost in the list of these trends is diversity – ‘the biggest game-changer’. The diversity paradigm, according to the Report, no longer encompasses only diversity and inclusion but has been expanded to include diversity, inclusion and belonging. These constituents, individually, but also as a composite whole, will be increasingly seen as criteria of whether organisations have mastered the diversity challenge and whether they will be regarded as desirable places to work by employees.

How are these elements distinguished from each other and how do they work together to create an inclusive culture?

Diversity refers to both inherent and acquired differences (different ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, backgrounds and thinking styles etc). Diverse teams of employees whose broad range of skills and different backgrounds are effectively leveraged, have the potential to generate greater innovation and creativity for the companies they work for.

Inclusion refers to a culture which accommodates diverse needs and styles, shows respect and guards against the exclusion of anyone who is different through mutual adaptation and equitable treatment and creates an environment where everyone feels psychologically safe to be themselves and to express their diverse ideas and views without any fear of ridicule or retaliation.

Belonging refers to the fundamental need of all humans to be acknowledged as unique individuals, to feel safe, respected, trusted and valued. When employees feel a sense of belonging they form a bond of affiliation and identification with the organisation, its leaders and their co-employees.


The Need for Belongingness

In a seminal paper (1995), Baumeister and Leary postulated that “human beings have a pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive and significant interpersonal relationships.” This “belongingness hypothesis” has been supported by subsequent research which demonstrates that the desire to form attachments and to belong is a consequence of an evolutionary drive to find security. And lack of attachment is linked to a variety of ill-effects on health, adjustment and well-being. Organisations where individuals or groups are unable to enjoy a feeling of belonging will suffer both in recruitment and retention.

“Our brains are hardwired to motivate us toward connection and belonging- it’s how we survive and thrive… and findings show that belonging and attachment to a group of co-workers is a better motivator for some employees than money” (HBR 2016)

A meta-study of note of 1200 papers (Psychological Bulletin; 2016) dealing with the issue of why so few women are represented in some areas of STEM found that the most important factor of all is a masculine culture which decreases women’s interest in the field by signalling that they do not belong.

Implications for the Evolution of the concept of Inclusive leadership?

While it has been recognised for some time that diversity is incomplete without inclusion, the latter was initially thought merely to involve acknowledging differences and treating everyone equally. But as empirical research in the last decade has inextricably linked inclusion to improved business performance and innovation, inclusive leadership is now seen to be founded on a range of competencies from self-awareness, openness to new ideas, a learning mindset, engaging with difference, embedding psychological safety, boundary spanning and advocating for the value of diversity and inclusion. It is not constituted simply by passive acceptance of everyone but rather actively aiming to achieve connectedness, collaboration and a sense of belonging.

Measuring Inclusion and Belonging

Integrating all these new understandings, Symmetra has designed a model of inclusive leadership which measures 8 headline competencies across 4 dimensions: the self; the interpersonal; the team; and the organisation. Our two inclusion assessment tools, the Inclusive leadership Index and the Team inclusion Pulse Survey, include 12 items which measure a leader and teams’ success in imbuing employees with a sense of belonging, providing our clients with valuable insights as to where leaders or teams need to build their capability in this regard.

What has become clear from the results aggregated through application of our assessment tools across the globe is that belonging and inclusion are interrelated and reciprocal notions- operating in a mutually reinforcing circle. Leaders who display inclusive behaviours foster a sense of belonging in employees. And when employees display a mindset of belonging, leaders are inspired to seek new ways to be proactively inclusive. Ultimately this virtuous circle leads to a workforce which is engaged connected and high performing.

The extent to which diversity objectives are realised will depend more on an assessment of the inclusivity of the company’s culture than a head count. Efforts which focus entirely on increasing the numbers of diverse individuals without at the same time ensuring that the culture of the organisation is authentically inclusive and creates a sense of belonging for all are likely to fall short.

There is hard data to back this up. Globoforce in the USA (2017) conducted a study to answer the question: In a labour market at full employment (which is the case in the USA) and where it is easy for employees to leave their jobs to find a better fit, what would make them stay?

Among the issues canvassed in the study was which D & I programs are most likely to make employees feel included and inspire a feeling of belonging in the organisation. The optimal situation is where a company has both a D & I initiative and human work culture (95% believe they belong and 96% believe diversity is valued). Having a diversity program without a human work culture is perceived far less positively by employees (67% feel they belong and only 62% believe diversity is actually valued). The consequence is, of course, that D& I initiatives standing on their own will not discourage employees from leaving to seek a more congenial work environment.



The conclusion drawn by the authors of the study is “…for organisations to make real strides with their D & I initiatives, a key component moving forward will be a focus linked to belonging and respect…”. Organisations across the globe have accepted that benefits which are nascent in a diverse workforce will not be realised without inclusion. This needs to be taken one step further now by adding belonging into the mix.

If you wish to explore how Symmetra’s Inclusion Assessment tools measure inclusion and belonging in teams and leaders please contact me at

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