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Belonging: The Rules of the Game

What is Belonging in the context of work? Different people describe Belonging at work differently. For us, it’s simply the ability to fit in, without having to compromise your own values or identity. Let’s explore that in a bit more detail.

Belonging: The Rules of the Game

What is Belonging in the context of work?

Different people describe Belonging at work differently. For us, it’s simply the ability to fit in, without having to compromise your own values or identity.

(For some, it’s also tied up in mutually caring and trusting relationships or even in alignment to goals, but in our framework, we treat those separately, as Connection and Purpose.)

Let’s explore that in a bit more detail.

Belonging is defined by rules

Fitting in means - ultimately - subscribing to the social norms or values of the organisation: The ‘rules’. And to some people in the diversity and inclusion space, this might appear an unacceptable starting position. However, without some shared framework, there is nothing to belong to.

Any organisation, by definition, has “rules” or it is not, well.. ..organised. And any desire to have a brand identity, to provide some consistency of experience to customers and so on, require some consistency of behaviour.

Similarly, culture and identity are bound up in rules.

If we accept this, the killer question is how tightly bound those rules should be.

And answer is that the tighter they are, the harder it will be for every employee to freely subscribe to them without subordinating their own personal values or identity, whether that relates to their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, or personal style.

And similarly, if you can’t question or challenge those norms in any way, well you’re in cult territory.

The relationship between rules and belonging is paradoxical

This is a paradox:

Rules, in any form, can at the same time enable and inhibit belonging, as can freedom from them.

To voluntarily ‘sign up’ and be part of that bigger whole, people must feel free and safe to express themselves as individuals, as members of a particular community, or as people of a certain heritage. Neither should they be unreasonably excluded from participating, for example because of a disability, when that disability does not inherently prevent them from doing their job.

(Which reminds me that I recently listened to ‘blind comedian’ Chris McCausland describe, hilariously, how he reached the latter stages of recruitment to join MI5 as a spy and joke how relieved he was that we wasn’t selected. ‘I don’t want to live in a country that would give me that job! Sometimes I think discrimination is perfectly acceptable thing…’)

At the same time, if there are no ‘rules’ altogether, there’s nothing that binds the group together, and defines them as members of that group. Anarchy.

So, what do we mean by rules?

Rules are everywhere.

They are unwritten and unwritten, overt and covert, tangible and intangible.

Some rules have to be formalised and reflect the law, like how you deal with data, or whether you can spend company money. Legitimate businesses must demonstrate compliance.

After that..

Well, processes are rules that are there sometimes to enforce compliance, but sometimes to promote efficiency, quality or even (heaven forbid) to make it easier to get things done..

Brand guidelines are rules that help present a certain image.

Standards, structures, physical layout, system design.. ..all imply that we should do certain things, in certain ways or at certain times. …and by implication can mean that you or I may not work here.

Social norms guide our behaviour… …and deliberately or inadvertently state that what you or I believe is perfectly acceptable, is not accepted here.

All kinds of rule can promote inclusion or belonging. But all can also exclude.

Rules can promote fairness and equity.. ..or reinforce a rigged system.

Put your rules under the spotlight

We must be aware of our “rules”, because if we’re not, we’re unaware of how we’re affecting people. Unfortunately, ignorance of those rules probably excludes as often as deliberate action.

Convention, tradition, history, are all sources of unwritten rules… …often overlooked, especially when there is a lack of diversity.

For example:

For historical reasons, we only order our workwear in men’s styles and sizes.. ..implies women need not apply.

It’s our convention to use RAG charts to monitor our KPIs.. ..implies you don’t have the same need to know if you are colour blind.

We have historically only recruited graduates.. ..implies that you have a preference for white, middle class people.

We observe a strict (business) dress codes.. ..says be like us (stale, male and pale) if you want to get on.

None of these things is, necessarily, intentionally discriminatory.

It’s simply that historical practices and conventions have not been adequately put under the spotlight that diversity provides.

And, of course, the less diverse the population, the weaker the spotlight.

A chicken and egg problem, you might say.

Embrace the discomfort that diversity creates

Purposefully investing in diversity will create tensions. It will create discomfort. In small ways and large. It can either be uncomfortable for those that are in the minority, or the discomfort can be shared and used to stimulate change.

When I worked in talent management, I used to get quite annoyed when I saw diversity being described as a numbers game. But my experience in the same organisation, on reflection, was as an outsider.

I was white, British (Scottish) and educated. But I was unconventional in my thinking and was part of a team that was recruited to be ‘counter-cultural’. It was a terrible failure, and we didn’t last. I remember thinking that if I wanted to succeed there I would have to fundamentally change, in ways that I found unacceptable. I could not operate within the rules of the game without, as one director observed, leaving my personality at the door. I didn’t belong.

Which comes first? Diversity or Inclusion?

The route to diversity, in the long-term, is through an inclusive culture.

But I’d argue that you can’t really build an inclusive culture, without a critical mass of diversity, and that any attempt to is, essentially a platitude.

Diversity and inclusion, rather, are mutually supportive. Arguably, the first step should be to seek diversity. By doing so you might go through some pain, but if you listen and act, you will make progress.

But a key stone in building a foundation for inclusion should also be to critically examine anything in your organisation that could be considered a rule, especially unwritten rules that guide behaviour.

I’d encourage you, therefore, to ask yourself and your colleagues some questions:

What are the unwritten rules that exist here, and determine whether you survive or thrive as an employee?

  1. What conventions or traditions are considered to be ‘sacred’?
  2. To what extent do these unwritten rules help or hinder:
    • Diversity, inclusion and belonging
    • Innovation and change, and
    • Performance more generally?
  3. What rules do you have, whether written or unwritten, that do not directly contribute to regulatory compliance or help people to work more safely, efficiently, and effectively?
  4. Why do they still exist?

Take Action

Understanding how your people feel in the workplace, using our (pulse surveys) combined with your organisation data on absence, performance and other key indicators can help you see quickly if you are heading towards an issue with wellbeing and belonging.

If you are interested in learning more about belonging, check out the conversation our People Science Director Rob Robson and guest Dr. Susanne Evans had on building belonging through storytelling.

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