It's everyone's responsibility to nurture a sense of belonging at work

A new book, Belonging, looks at why progress on diversity and inclusion has been too slow, particularly in the creative industries, and offers some solutions to speed up real change.

It's everyone's responsibility to nurture a sense of belonging at work

Given the focus on diversity and inclusion and the £6bn a year UK businesses now spend on it, why is there so little evidence of change? What is holding back something that is so evidently fair, has proven results on both profitability and revenue and been talked about for years? 

Over the past 18 months, we have been investigating D&I in all businesses, not just advertising. From more than 100 interviews, unique quantitative research, conducted for us by Dynata, and more than 150 talks, we have uncovered why the return on the investment of significant time and money is lagging expectations. 

It appears that, all too often, companies think that by fixing the “pipeline” of incoming talent there will be a transformational effect, even though the time lag between recruitment and achieving diversity at senior levels may be years.

Companies may hold events or temporarily focus on specific areas. But we encountered a sense that these were often seen as transient gestures, where at one time of the year (say, Black History Month) there would be a series of talks, discussions and heightened interest but, at the end of the month, it’s business as usual – as if that would address all the issues people had encountered over the other 11 months.

People are tired of these fleeting attempts to make things “right”. They feel that their voices and concerns are heard only intermittently and that the issues raised at these times aren’t being acted on. 

These initiatives also lead to the D&I equivalent of The Hunger Games, where, in some organisations, underrepresented groups are made to pitch for a slice of HR budget to fund a long-term programme. How do you imagine this makes the participants feel? Who checks the bias of the people who make the decision?

White males dominate the higher levels of business, yet we have spoken to some who feel helpless, ill-equipped to address the situation and, occasionally, under attack. Their sense of being marginalised (ironically) is echoed in remarks by figures such as broadcaster Jeremy Clarkson, who said: “If you have a scrotum, forget it, you won’t get hired by the BBC at the moment.” 

The result of this sense of alienation among white men is a layer of management “tundra”, where, despite the best efforts of others in the organisation, no diversity will thrive. 

Fear is holding back some people from getting involved; those who are so confused as to what they could do without causing unintentional offence that they do nothing. There is a straightforward solution to this dilemma: asking some questions and admitting that you are not sufficiently aware of the sensitivities involved could be a great starting point. Everyone needs to realise we are on a journey together and that it might not be easy all the time. 

Others are holding back because they feel that they don’t have a voice and can’t speak out – in cultures where only certain views hold sway and any alternatives aren’t valued. Too often in companies, there is a one-size-fits-all mentality that obliterates our individuality and stifles the change we need.

Many initiatives focus on creating a pipeline of diversity at entry level. Yet, as McKinsey’s latest research on women in the workforce points out, despite some progress between 2015 and 2020, in women’s representation a “broken rung” at the first step up to manager continues to hold women back – and now the Covid-19 crisis is “threatening to erase the gains of the past six years”.

So where are we now? Sadly, one in three employees in the UK feels as though they do not have a sense of “belonging” at work. If you do have a sense of belonging, and are in a meeting with two other people, one of them doesn’t feel that they belong in your workplace. For black respondents, this figure worsens from one in three to one in two.

You will be disappointed to hear the numbers of people who told us that they had personally experienced bias, harassment or inappropriate behaviour at work: 28% of employees overall, but a third of under-25s, 48% LGBT+, 60% mixed race, 40% black, 34% Asian, 59% of disabled people and 54% of the neurodiverse. 

The figures make tough reading, and we can reveal here that the proportion of those who work in marketing and PR who have had these experiences is higher than average at 31%. And, while more than one-third (37%) of the working population as a whole have witnessed this kind of behaviour, for those in marketing or PR, the proportion rises to nearly one in two (48%).

This has been a particularly sobering experience for us as authors of this book, because we have spent our careers in the world of marketing services and media. Our industry, which prides itself on being a people business, has a problem when it comes to creating and sustaining a culture of belonging, and Belonging is, at least in part, a search for solutions.

Every organisation has to go beyond recruiting for D&I initiatives, and act to positively create a culture of belonging in the workplace for all. 

As Asif Sadiq, former head of diversity at the Telegraph, now running global D&I at Adidas, has said: “Diversity is great but we need to realise difference. Where we really need to get to is creating a sense of belonging for all people.” 

Or, as Karen Blackett, UK country manager for WPP, puts it, we need a recognition that “diversity is not a problem to fix. Diversity is the solution.”

Policy change and training days are not enough. Change won’t come about because KPIs are set or there is a great chief talent officer.

Every single person in the organisation needs to play a role, including those who frequently feel excluded from many inclusion policies – notably, straight, white men. Everyone needs to work at being a champion of belonging, at being an ally, at creating moments of micro-affirmation to countenance the abundant micro-aggressions that our interviewees described. 

Case study: creating a better, kinder team

There are many case studies in our book that show exactly how you can help to transform the workplace, to make it a better, kinder place. 

Here is just one example: James is a director of a worldwide team in a manufacturing business. He spoke to us about going on a team-bonding away day. There was a task that involved a great deal of running around. He was given a team to lead that included lots of bouncy, outgoing people and one older woman, who was introverted and not particularly physically able.

James says he could immediately tell that she felt threatened. He said: “I couldn’t bear… that the team-bonding exercise was actually making her feel excluded. She was upset that she might not be helping us win, but she really wasn’t physically up to most of it, not compared with the other people around (it was a very young team, generally).

"The exercises included literally climbing through hoops and jumping on trampolines among other things. I took her aside, before she could properly get upset, and asked her to do whatever she felt comfortable doing. And nothing else. I suggested that she be the go-to person for the rest of the team when they needed advice or to check in with someone. And I could feel her relax immediately – there was an antidote to her anxiety.”

The team didn’t win the task, but they didn’t score badly. As far as James was concerned, those in the team were winners because they succeeded in ensuring everyone belonged. Remember, the actual objective was bonding, not winning a plastic trophy.

As Matthew Syed points out in Rebel Ideas, it is only when you have different points of view that you get the benefit of diverse thinking. And diversity comes in many forms. James demonstrated real empathy for difference and, by doing so, unlocked the sense of belonging for the whole team. 

A practical exercise: take a deep breath

It isn’t easy to champion belonging. It takes thought and mindfulness, so in the book we have included a series of exercises to help you.  

One of the key messages of Belonging is that it is everybody’s responsibility to create an inclusive workspace. In the past, too much responsibility has been placed on the underrepresented groups to do this hard work on their own. Now, there is a growing understanding that the rest of the workforce needs to be involved, too. This is a job for everyone. 

With this understanding has come a welcome focus on allyship. And one of the most obvious ways in which one can be an ally is to call out inappropriate behaviour and comments. It is also one of the scariest. So, in Belonging, when we talk about ideas like this, we try to walk you through specific tips and techniques that will make it easier to do it.

Let us suppose you are in a meeting, and someone has said something you believe is inappropriate. You think that you should say something. But how are you feeling at this moment?

Let’s take the worst-case scenario: the person who has made the comment is much further up the hierarchy than you. You know you are supposed to use your privilege to help others – but right now, your privilege seems massively outweighed by that of the person who made the comment  At this moment, you may be angry or upset at the comment or behaviour. You may also be anxious and worried about the consequences of speaking up.

All of these feelings are valid, appropriate and understandable. But if you speak from these feelings, so that your anger or fear are evident, you are quite likely to achieve the opposite of what you want. What you hope is that the person you challenge stops, listens, reflects, acknowledges what they’ve done and, ideally, apologises and commits to behaving differently in the future.

If you speak from a place of anger or fear – however valid these emotions – you’re maximising the chances that the person will instead immediately become defensive or aggressive, to justify their position, and will not truly listen. They will feel attacked, so they will defend.

So what do you do? You breathe. US military personnel are taught a technique called The Combat Breath. It is designed to be used when you come under enemy fire to bring you back from a place of shock and fear to a calm state of mind, where you can make clear and appropriate decisions. If it works when people are trying to kill you, it can certainly work in even the most stressful business meeting.

It’s this simple. Breathe in for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of four. Breathe out for a count of four. Hold your breath again for a count of four. Repeat that three to five times and you will notice that you calm yourself down.

If you speak now, you will do so more calmly, authoritatively, assertively, powerfully – not aggressively nor with overt anger; the person you speak to will be more able to acknowledge your point and take it on board. They will feel less inclined to go on the defensive and justify their words.

To wait a few moments before commenting also helps to defuse the aggression from the situation. In fact, you may decide after this moment’s reflection that the comment would be best received outside the meeting. Remember, our aim is not to put someone down, but to change their behaviour. 

Conversely, if someone in the meeting is directly targeted, upset or offended by the comment, you may feel that the issue absolutely must be addressed there and then. It’s a judgment call. And your judgment will be better after The Combat Breath.

Everyone acknowledges that the move towards greater diversity in the workplace will involve some awkward conversations. One of the aims of Belonging is to equip the reader with the emotional-intelligence tools and techniques to be able to handle those moments so that they are also productive conversations that move us in the right direction.

Our industry needs more diversity. It is important that every single one of us plays our role in creating this new, better world of work. There is a huge opportunity now, during the immense disruption we all face, to build a better way. 

Belonging, the Key to Transforming and Maintaining Diversity, Inclusion and Equality at Work, by Kathryn Jacob (pictured top, right), chief executive of Pearl & Dean, Sue Unerman, chief transformation officer at MediaCom UK, and Mark Edwards, writer and journalist, is published by Bloomsbury.

See more at: www.bloomsbury.com/belonging