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The push for greater diversity and equality in the workplace usually leads to a focus on numbers: How well represented are various groups in the organization as a whole as well as its leadership? But in many ways, it’s really about feelings. Everyone in the workplace should feel included – that they belong.

So, many readers, like me, may feel surprised when the first group singled out as feeling excluded in a new book, Belonging, was straight white men. If your response to this is to roll your eyes, consider that Kathryn Jacob and Sue Unerman, two of the book’s authors, co-wrote an earlier title about the challenges women face in the workplace, and that Belonging explores inclusive workplace culture from a variety of perspectives.

But the opening chapter highlights an important reality that many conversations about inclusivity ignore: Even if white men are often in the majority in companies and in power positions, many don’t feel as if they belong, the authors maintain. They feel under attack, victims of diversity politics. They feel judged – negatively – for their gender and skin colour.

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“If people working at an organization feel judged for who they are then they are not going to be able to do their best work. You get an organization that has translated one form of conformity – to a white straight masculine norm – to another form, where everyone has to work on exhibiting their minority credentials. This is the opposite of belonging behaviour by management and creates more divisions than before,” the authors write. (The book’s third author is journalist Mark Edwards.)

The authors, let me stress, aren’t oblivious to the many others who feel excluded in organizations and urge giving that attention as well. But they start with white men. That some white men – perhaps many – feel badly treated in the workplace is not startling. But the suggestion that belonging efforts may have to begin with this group is unusual.

They note many men feel the risks attached to saying what they really feel are higher now than before. Increased convergence of the sexes has given men the opportunity to embrace new responsibilities yet traditional masculine pressures remain. Men are adrift, without role models. They feel misunderstood, but struggle to talk about their true emotions. That leaves them poorly equipped for the gender challenges in the workplace.

“Given this cohort is still actually on top, in terms of both pay and status, if they feel attacked they will understandably take measures to defend themselves, at the expense of those by whom they feel judged,” the authors state.

As we seek an explanation for why there has been so little progress despite all the diversity policies and investment in training over the years, this is one reason. Unless we confront this issue – men feeling they don’t belong in their workplace – the authors argue we won’t get inclusion for others. They have to understand the benefits to all of greater diversity.

It won’t be easy. They note that the sense of belonging is innate. It can’t be imposed by a chief executive or HR director. You can’t put everyone through a training program and leave it at that. Belonging has to be felt by everyone. They have to look out for each other. “It is everyone’s job to make sure that everyone belongs,” the authors stress. That goes beyond gender and colour, they point out, to the geeks, the introverts, the confident, the timid, the optimistic and the anxious.

Executive coach Soo Bong Peer worries that the labelling accompanying diversity efforts is a damaging force preventing human connection. Out of good intentions we are developing stereotypes that hinder belonging. “Successful diversity is about comfortably connecting to people who are different from us,” she writes in The Essential Diversity Mindset.

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Cross-cultural consultant Laura Kriska sees the objective as pushing past we-them barriers. Everyone at times has felt like a “them.” How can everyone share a sense of “we”?

The gap won’t be closed by training programs, although those are helpful, nor by proximity – bringing people of different cultures, gender and ethnicity together in our offices and teams, in the expectation that will magically reduce tensions and misunderstandings. She says it will only come from honest self-reflection – people in your organization acknowledging their actual integration with and understanding of other groups – and a genuine willingness to actively build trust with others. That means face-to-face interactions of increasing depth over time with people of different backgrounds.

She tells in her book The Business of We of the manager of a Canadian IT service centre who got his team talking about Christmas traditions. To his surprise, the next day an employee of Chinese heritage volunteered to be the person needed to staff the help desk on Christmas Eve, realizing that colleagues had a greater hungering for the time off work than he did, given the traditions they had shared.

While in that case it was differences highlighted, she says you must also give employees chances to discover common factors they share with colleagues – an interest, say, in chess or table tennis – so they can build connections, breaking past other barriers.

Building belonging and togetherness is like any other change process, although perhaps more volatile. She suggests you identify gaps that need to be bridged and come up with solutions on a worksheet that lists individual actions, organizational actions and other suggestions related to physical space or visual messaging. The ideas for each of those categories might be safe (private, with no risk of vulnerability), challenging (face-to-face interactions, some vulnerability and risk) and radical (continuing face-to-face interactions of increasing depth that might make people feel uncomfortable and might be risky).

That takes diversity beyond numbers – which are important, of course – to the deeper, even more challenging goal of belonging.

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Cannonballs

  • Adding women to the top management team leads firms to be more open to change while at the same time less open to risk, and shifting focus from M&As to R&D, a study of 163 multinational firms found.
  • A leader who doesn’t seek input has a ridiculous ability to misjudge what others think, says executive coach Dan Rockwell.
  • When we were all in the same office, people were usually honoured when they were voluntarily leaving their job. The NOBL collective urges you to keep that up if you haven’t with virtual meetings so everyone has a chance to say their goodbyes.

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