Belonging

June 01, 2022
By Steve Astle
Snow-covered bicycle leaning on a bridge over a canal, with historic city buildings in the background.

A number of years ago, my family and I lived in a small European country that was famous for being politically tolerant. I thought it was an odd thing to be famous for – the word tolerance being rooted in the Latin for endure – and in the time we lived there I was reminded repeatedly by the proud citizens of that country that putting up with the likes of my family and me was a kind of moral victory.

As an American living abroad, I suppose this shouldn’t have surprised me. Many people around the world oppose my country’s policies and actions, and they naturally generalize those to us as individuals. Some of them even tolerate us.

I’m reminded of this when I participate in contemporary discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion. In the context of ESG, “DE&I” have become important measures of organizational effectiveness and value. And while the intentions behind DE&I initiatives are nearly always good, the actual experience of them can feel a lot like tolerance.

As a result, the notion of belonging is increasingly recognized as an essential element of DE&I programs. Belonging speaks more to the experience of a place than its features. As at least one observer has noted, "Diversity is a fact. Inclusion is a behavior. But belonging is the emotional outcome…”

 

Diversity is a fact. Inclusion is a behavior. But belonging is the emotional outcome.

 

My family’s experience living abroad was rich, yet we never felt as though we belonged there. We – along with many other expats and immigrants – contributed to the diversity of the place (not to mention its economic vibrancy). The laws of the country applied equally to us as to the country’s citizens. We had access to the same health care as the local citizens, sat next to one another at concerts, shopped in the same markets.

Yet we were continually reminded that our presence was being tolerated. Sometimes these reminders were direct – as when one day, in a public park, a man walked up and offered his well-reasoned yet unsolicited criticism of U.S. policy as we struggled to buckle our young children into their strollers. Other times it was more subtle – a look of disapproval, or a condescending tone of voice (actions that have since come to be known as microaggressions). Often these reminders were well-meaning, as when people approached us in restaurants or other public places to express their sorrow for the events on 9/11. While I appreciated the sentiment, I often felt the burden of representing an entire nation when I was simply trying to enjoy a quiet meal with my family.

As a white male, my experience in that country was nothing compared with what millions of people in my own country and around the world experience throughout their lifetimes. Yet it cultivated in me an appreciation for the experience of belonging. In our ESG work with clients in a wide range of industries, we see many successful efforts to increase workforce diversity, equity and inclusion. But I also know from experience that the true measure of these initiatives’ effectiveness is not just employee engagement scores, but people’s sense that they belong there. That, ultimately, needs to be our priority; if it isn’t, our talented co-workers will do what my family and I did after a few years living in a place that tolerated us: pack up their belongings and move someplace where they feel welcome.