Rich in diversity, one in belonging (part two)

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Part 2: From Diversity to Belonging

In my previous post, I tried to make a case for why diversity is important. Normally we think about diversity in terms of categories, particularly categories of people who have been underrepresented: women, migrants, indigenous people, old people, young people. Category diversity is important particularly as you think about representation and wellbeing. But it can obscure thought diversity. In general people from different categories will tend to think or reason differently, have different values, bring different experiences so pursuing category diversity can help you get thought diversity. But it doesn’t always work. 

Often as organisations attempt to bring more diversity they start with people who satisfy category diversity without too much thought diversity. This might mean choosing a non-Western leader who was educated or worked in the west, it might be the local leader who is married to a foreigner, the members of a team who all look very different but all come from the same theological college, it might be the woman who can play by rules in a male-dominated environment and relishes being the only woman in the room. Those kinds of people are often great first bridges for organisations seeking to improve diversity. However, what it can expose our desire for consensus and harmony even in the midst of diversity. The endpoint or goal shouldn’t just be the person who ticks the box yet is the most comfortable option. It should be to get people who really represent diverse backgrounds experiences who will bring challenge and dissent. 

Charlan Nemeth in her book No! The power of disagreement in a world that wants to get along is clear on the value of thought diversity and the need for people to be able to freely and safely dissent:

“Consensus, while comforting and harmonius as well as efficient, often leads us to make bad decisions. Dissent while often annoying, is precisely the challenge that we need to reassess our own views and make better choices. It helps us consider alternatives and generate creative solutions. Dissent is a liberator.”

What do we mean by belonging?

Belonging is a buzzword among organisational and leadership researchers, like Daniel Coyle who studied successful groups and wrote The Culture Code. He found that one key thing those groups do is use signals to generate bonds of belonging and identity which build safety. Many of the groups he studied however were naturally or intentionally pretty homogenous. 

Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy in No Hard Feelings: Emotions at work and how they help us succeed, take this idea of belonging further looking at diverse environments. They say: “Belonging is not the same as feeling similar to everyone else (our desire to fit in often compels us to hide who we really are). Belonging is when you feel safe and valued for embracing what makes you different.” Both Liz and Mollie and Daniel Coyle draw heavily on Amy Edmonson’s idea of psychological safety. This is one of the keys to a culture of belonging. “Psychological safety” means a team environment where people feel safe to be themselves, to say what they think and make mistakes. It means an environment where people feel like they can contribute without fearing they might be embarrassed, dismissed, ignored or punished.

Fostering safety is really important in diverse teams with people from different backgrounds. Without safety, people may feel like they need to behave more like the leader or the majority in the team. It’s not the same as just being nice or not disagreeing with each other. In fact it’s the opposite. It’s feeling like it is okay to think differently or disagree.

Without safety a team might miss out on the benefits of having lots of different experiences in the team. 

Are belonging and diversity mutually exclusive?

We can decide we want diversity as a practical, philosophical and biblical good. We know that we also all want to feel like we can belong and be ourselves. We can want the benefits that come from high performing teams with strong purpose and vision. We can get all these different people into a room together but it isn’t automatically going to produce creativity, it isn’t automatically going to be easy to express ourselves. In fact in the short term at least it is going to make it belonging harder. 

If you think about a time when you really felt like you belonged, there is a pretty good chance you had a lot in common with the other people. If you think about a time when you didn’t feel like you belonged, I would guess there some way in which you were different to the group. That was certainly the case when I first moved to Asia. There were no other Australians, no mothers of young kids, no lawyers, no-one from my church denomination – these were all the communities where I’d felt belonging previously.

In 1 Corinthians 12 it’s clear that we are all part of the body and the body works best when all the different parts are present. Belonging is actually stronger and more resilient when it is built in groups of people who are different. When the group identity becomes more important than the other aspects of shared identity. The challenge is that two of the easiest ways to build some sense of belonging are at the expense of diversity: creating an “other” and prioritising “cultural fit”.

The quickest way to create a sense of belonging is to create a sense of other. There are lots of ways that this happens. Companies compare themselves to the competition. IBM compared itself to Apple and that othering of Apple created a sense of belonging among the IBM team. Other kinds of groups do this too; church denominations define themselves by their difference to another denomination. There are lot of other ways that we intentionally or unintentionally use othering that I think we should be aware and perhaps wary of. Commonality in identity or shared experience are powerful ways to quickly build belonging but they can end up excluding or isolating those who come into a group without those points of commonality. In economically diverse groups, access to shared experiences like social outings or conferences may be limited by a discrepancy of resources.

The other easy way to build belonging is the thing called “cultural fit”.  For a while leadership and recruitment experts talked a lot about cultural fit, but I am pretty uncomfortable with it for a number of reasons. On the positive side it ensures that people who join the team have an alignment of values or vision. Every mission agency has a set of doctrinal principles that people have to align with in order to join. In my organisation I had to write thousands of words on a doctrinal assessment which was then checked and commented on by an expert.  Lots of organisations have other ways of looking for this ideological alignment and it is important to avoid unnecessary friction and keep the team focused on the vision. The danger is that cultural fit becomes code for people who look the same, think the same or have the same background. People end up going beyond ideological alignment to looking for people they would want to get a coffee with, or take a family holiday with. 

Creating an “other” or prioritising “cultural fit” raises two questions for two different groups. For the people who might be in the majority, that group for whom cultural fit is easy: What do they miss out on? For the group for whom it’s much harder work to fit in: What is the cost to them of trying to belong?

When you belong you should feel like you are able to “bring your whole self to work”. But even authenticity, something that feels like a universal good or maybe even a right, something that leadership gurus harp on about is something that looks different in different cultures. This is true for both national cultures and for other subcultures like generational or professional subcultures. I found in my cross-cultural team that my colleagues all had different ideas, often influenced by their national culture but also influenced by other parts of their identity or background. For my Asian colleagues steeped in an honour-shame culture, vulnerability, admitting ways they had messed up, was really hard. They were so accustomed to gossip and harsh judgment even within their Christian contexts that they were not sure how to take or respond to my upfrontness and honesty, my desire to conduct post mortems and dissect failure. And while their honour-shame culture presented challenges to my ideas about discipleship and Christian accountability, I learned so much about the gospel from the way they read the Bible, from the way that they wrestled with grace and understood the gospel’s power to free them from shame. 

On the other hand a lot of the younger American interns I worked with were all about authenticity, but hadn’t really experienced it from older leaders and so were confused and probably a little bit overwhelmed when I was honest about the realities of living and raising kids across cultures. They didn’t expect leaders to show vulnerability and, at least initially, it didn’t break down barriers like I thought it would.

If we had gone down the road of othering or prioritising cultural fit, we would have almost certainly had less friction in our team but we would have missed out on these deep moments of learning that actually tied us together in belonging. 

How you create safety and belonging?

“Be the leader you wish you had” isn’t enough. It’s something, it’s better than nothing but it’s not enough. It doesn’t take into account that people with different cultural or other backgrounds might not want or need the same things from a team environment that you want or need. 

I have three key principles and a few practical suggestions for building a culture of belonging in teams of diverse people.  

  1. Pursue Humility 

The description we find of Jesus in Philippians 2 should be the place we start. This passage should be the model for all of our relationships. When I was conducting interviews last year someone said to me all the leaders talk about servant leadership and claim to be a servant leader but of the people being led not many feel like they are actually being served. It got me thinking about whether fundamentally we misunderstand humility. It’s not how we think about ourselves, whether we think of ourselves as better but how we choose to treat other people. 

As John Dickson says in his little but important book Humilitas: “Humility is the noble choice to redirect your power in the service of others”.  It is a social thing. Humility is looking at people who are different than you, who hold different values, are steeped in different worldviews and seeing in them dignity and value, seeing the image of God and choosing to use any power you may have to serve them.

All the ways that people differ, their practices, values, worldviews, expectations, personalities, those differences will probably drive you crazy as you try and work together. However, approaching those people with humility, trying to learn from the way they do things and the way they see the world, giving up your rights, your need to be in control will demonstrate Christ’s love and actually grow your understanding of the richness of God’s kingdom.

2. Cultivate curiosity

As you try to work out what kind of culture you want to build in your team, the first thing you need to understand is your own cultural values and the cultural values of others. Self-awareness is the first step in curiosity and interpersonal and intercultural awareness is the second. Formal leader or not you can set the tone in your group or team by being curious about people, the experiences they bring, the stories they carry and the values embedded deep in themselves.  Amy Edmonson says “Curiosity creates the necessity for voice”. Creating space for everyone to have a voice is the first step toward belonging. 

3. Embrace discomfort

Getting curious about other people is inevitably going to lead to some moments and conversations that take you out of your comfort zone. Each of those moments is a decision-tree moment. When someone shares something hard and you don’t know how to respond there are different forks in the tree you could take. You could offer a platitude in the hope that it would reassure but probably mostly so you can move on with whatever it was you were planning on getting done in that moment.  You could try a bit of empathy and tell your own story. Which might make them feel like you get it and they are not alone or just as likely will make them feel like you don’t really want to understand. Or maybe you could rush into fix-it mode and try and suggest a solution for them. 

All of those options are the fork of the tree that is less uncomfortable. The better alternative is to choose to go deeper into the discomfort, inviting the other person to tell you more, asking questions to clarify and understand the impact. It is these moments where you choose to sit in discomfort with people that will do the most to build belonging.

Practical strategies 

Curiosity will move you closer to understanding and to knowing people, humility and discomfort will allow you to choose to do things in ways that serve other people’s needs and will deepen bonds. There are a few practical strategies that will help as you strive to build a team culture that is rich in diversity and one in belonging:

1. Promote awareness: Self-awareness and interpersonal awareness and intercultural awareness are all critical in diverse team. Read widely and ask a lot of questions. There tools to help like personality assessments, strengths finders and cultural maps, but be aware that there might be one that you love that others feel alienated by. Use them lightly not expecting they will do all the work of figuring people out. 

2. Invite stories: Making space for people to tell and hear each others stories will make a huge difference for both self-awareness and interpersonal awareness. Stories are a part of every culture and there is nothing that builds belonging like your story being known. It doesn’t mean hearing everyone’s entire life story the first time you get together but building regular space for personal experience into the life of your group.

3. Go deeper in listening: The less people have in common with you the more important it is to listen, to be slower to respond and more willing to check your understanding. In decision tree moments choose to listen more deeply and to invite others to keep speaking in order to build understanding and belonging.

4. Use microactions: People from underrepresented groups will be all too familiar with microagressions. Counter them with microactions, small visible moments that invite connection and signal belonging. Notice when people are not speaking and take active steps to invite participation. 

5. Strive for clarity: Take the time to understand what makes each member of the group feel psychologically safe.  Maybe you love an all-in group discussion, but it might not work for the introvert, or the non-native English speaker, the person from a hierarchical culture who thinks it’s rude for them to disagree with their boss, or the person from a different educational background who doesn’t have all the right vocabulary. In really diverse groups it can be a good idea to be really explicit about the team norms. For example when you have people who have different ideas about decision-making, spelling out how decisions will be made is important. Even if you are in a group that has been together for quite some time, spending some time compiling a list of “How we do things here” can be really helpful. 

6. Do it all in love: 1 Corinthians 12 presents a compelling picture of unity in diversity. The chapter ends with the verse “And now I will show you a more excellent way”. That more excellent way is the focus of Chapter 13 – the way of love. Love both requires and enables us to be uncomfortable. Let us not be resounding gongs or clanging cymbals who know all there is to know about diversity and different cultures, who have read all the tips in the Harvard Business Review about how to build a good team culture, but aren’t prepared, in love, to sit in the discomfort with people who challenge us, baffle us, disagree with us. Let us patient and kind, not boastful or proud, not easily angered, keeping no records of wrongs, always persevering. 

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