Is ‘Belonging’ A Thing?

Sometimes buzzwords actually represent deep truths

Stowe Boyd
Jan 10 · 3 min read
Photo by Amer Mughawish on Unsplash

Is belonging complementary to diversity and inclusion, or is it just some sort of withdrawal from the hard work and deep change that D&I requires and replacing it with something squishy, something like community, and maybe something like conformity. Jena McGregor turns over all the rocks in her quest to find out:

Move over, “diversity.” Make room, “inclusion.”

Today, the hot corporate buzzword in the diversity field is “belonging.”

The word is popping up everywhere. LinkedIn, Nordstrom, HubSpot, DoorDash and other companies all now have executives with job titles such as manager of “diversity, inclusion and belonging” or vice president of “global culture, belonging, and people growth.”

Earlier this year, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School hosted its first lecture panel focused on the topic. Harvard and Yale have also been getting in on the idea, hiring faculty or staff with “belonging” in their titles after launching related task forces or campus-wide initiatives.

The latest lingo — most prevalent among Silicon Valley companies — reflects millennial and Gen Z employees’ expectations about work, diversity experts say, as well as the impression that other concepts haven’t made enough progress retaining diverse employees.

She talked to skeptics and adherents of the new belonging mantra. For example,

“There’s this sense of fatigue around talking about diversity and inclusion, and people are feeling frustrated about a lack of progress,” said Jessica Hyman, a head of strategy and sustainability at the software firm Atlassian, which has begun describing its diversity efforts as “balance and belonging.”

She cites The Value of Belonging at Work which lays some groundwork for the idea, and some hard numbers, based on research the authors conducted at BetterUp:

If workers feel like they belong, companies reap substantial bottom-line benefits. High belonging was linked to a whopping 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days. For a 10,000-person company, this would result in annual savings of more than $52M.

Employees with higher workplace belonging also showed a 167% increase in their employer promoter score (their willingness to recommend their company to others). They also received double the raises, and 18 times more promotions.

This analysis places belonging as a necessary step after diversity and inclusion efforts. Think of diversity as being about who you hire, and inclusion is about giving everyone the right to speak. Belonging goes further, where the company takes action to make people feel they are accepted as a full member of the community. In the authors’ words,

Even the most effective recruiting strategy for diversity won’t lead to long-term change if new talent isn’t supported to succeed. Fortunately, our findings show that we are not powerless in the face of exclusion.

Individuals coping with left-out feelings can adapt these new evidence-based tools of gaining perspective from others, mentoring those in a similar condition, and thinking of strategies for improving the situation. For team leaders and colleagues who want to help others feel included, our research suggests that serving as a fair-minded ally — someone who treats everyone equally — can offer protection to buffer the exclusionary behavior of others. They can also share stories about how they have coped with similar challenges and see what suggestions teammates have for improving the situation. These strategies would help workers not only navigate tricky workplace dynamics,but also drive their own version of change, especially when the system isn’t working for everyone. Leaders and organizations should invite employee feedback, and take it seriously; this behavior is a cornerstone of inclusive companies. Workers need to feel like they belong to something they value — and that they have the power to bring about change when it’s needed.

Ok, just like with the new term return on experience, I am sold that belonging adds to the discussion about the relationship between workers and workplace, and is not empty anthropologist-speak.

Work Futures

Exploring critical themes of the ecology of work, and the…

Stowe Boyd

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

Work Futures

Exploring critical themes of the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

More From Medium

More from Work Futures

More from Work Futures

More from Work Futures

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade