Inclusion and Belonging – Sisters Not Twins

Diversity, inclusion, and belonging are often grouped together in an effort to encourage fairness in today’s workplace. Specifically, inclusion and belonging are usually exchanged for one another. In fact, upon hearing that I was writing my dissertation on “Belonging in the Workplace,” one of my professors said, “ah, belonging. That’s the new, fashionable buzzword for inclusion,” to which I replied, “inclusion and belonging are ‘sisters not twins.” Eyebrow enthusiasts are well-versed in this topic. You see, each of your eyebrows has different muscle movements, and while eyebrows look the same, like inclusion and belonging, they are not the same. 

What makes inclusion and belonging seem the same? Belonging is achieved by being part of something (self or others) and can be experienced when fostered through inclusion. The need to belong is hardwired in the DNA as a means of survival, and according to cognitive psychologists, when brains sense social rejection or exclusion, neural and physiological patterns similar to physical pain can occur. Being excluded is painful and threatens one’s sense of belonging, eliciting a negative response triggering our “neural alarm system” (Eisenberger and Lieberma, 2004), which fights very hard to protect us against the isolating consequences of social separation–again, it’s about survival. Both inclusion, belonging, and lack thereof elicit strong feelings that can trigger the same feeling.

What makes inclusion and belonging different? Let’s postulate that belonging comes down to self. Others determine inclusion. In 2015, Januszek Wilczyńska and team determined that belonging is something that we negotiate at the individual level based on interpersonal motives influencing behavior, emotions, and thoughts. This is the point where some may argue that other people dictate belonging, so here it is. In 2000, Dory Gasorek researched inclusion and belonging in social groups, particularly how institutions and social groups set the rules for belonging in a way that functionally precludes individuals from membership, resulting in exclusion. Gasorek concluded that while institutions and social groups may or may not include individuals, it is not enough that human beings are allowed or invited to have membership. They need to feel like they belong to feel valued and connected.  

For example, let’s take a look at the college admissions process. As a child, Johnny always dreamed of playing basketball at Kansas University. All of his life, he felt like a Jayhawk. He knew all of the school chants and never missed a game. Johnny worked hard and got good grades, and while he stopped playing basketball, the dream of attending KU stayed with him. He applied and was devastated when he was not accepted. Johnny felt like he belonged, and when he was rejected, Johnny decided not to give up. He felt it in his bones, which led me to question, just because we are being told we don’t belong, does that mean we don’t belong? Making it even more interesting, when Johnny applied a second time around, he got in. Does that mean he belonged less or not at all the first time since someone told him he didn’t? Admission changed their minds about Johnny but did it make his belonging any less real?

Belonging is a feeling, and while someone may tell us we belong or don’t belong, we may feel different. Just because you are included doesn’t mean you feel like you belong. If you don’t define your own sense of belonging and feel a sense of belonging to yourself, you will remain beholden to someone else’s definition, which is inclusion.

So what, who cares? In the workplace, inclusion and belonging are typically treated the same when they need a separate plan of attack. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can disregard balance altogether. There needs to be a deeper consideration and plan of attack for fostering inclusion and belonging since, like eyebrows, both have different movements (sisters, not twins). Fun analogies aside, here are the reasons to take this seriously and why I encourage your crowdsourcing to solve these challenges:

  • In 2017, Gallup reported that disengaged employees have 37% higher absenteeism, 18% lower productivity, and 15% lower profitability. Likewise, disengaged employees quit at a higher rate than engaged employees. 
  • Recruitment and legal costs for replacing employees come at a high cost for companies, with the total cost of losing an employee ranging from tens of thousands of dollars to 1.5 to 2 times the annual salary (Bersin, 2013). 
  • According to a study conducted by Ernst & Young (EY) in 2019, spanning generations, genders, and ethnicities, more than 40% of the 1,000 Americans surveyed said they felt physically and emotionally isolated in the workplace resulting in lower engagement and commitments to their organizations. The cost associated, immeasurable.

What do all of these challenges have in common? 

  • All of them point to the astounding costs associated with the ambiguity of workplace belonging which in some cases are immeasurable, limitless.
  • In two of the three workplace studies, most companies reported that they don’t know where to start while they want to do something about it. Most point to this issue being that belonging is just too hard to measure.
  • All of these reports were pre-pandemic – a lot has changed.

What can we do about it? I am interested in hearing from you. Why is this confusing in the workplace (aside from what’s mentioned above), and what do we do about it?

Instagram: @belongingatwork 

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