Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) means belonging


Vanessa Fudge, CEO and Founder

Tell us about your thinking about the diversity, equity, and inclusion movement. 

We have been through a huge amount of rapid social change when it comes to people’s sense of belonging and their identity within organisations. Some of it makes sense to some but not to others inside certain organisations so it’s important that we don’t leave anybody behind.  

With diversity, equity, and inclusion, there’s a new language, and for some people there’s a struggle to speak this new language. The best way for me to speak about is to talk about belonging, and wonderfully, there is a movement to actually bring belonging into the whole DEI conversation and movement. Belonging is an essential linchpin in this whole area because what we could have been just a new version of us and them. We see this in many organisations that we are in working with at the moment, where those that were previously the majority are feeling very much in the minority. 

It’s not topical to be talking about the minority anymore because the conversation has shifted. But once again, we don’t want to leave people behind. Why would we want to leave anybody behind when it comes to the talent and retention of key people in organisations? There is a shift of power going on, but it’s really important that we take a holistic, complete view on this, and not zooming in to only look at specific dimensions. 

If we consider belonging first, belonging is a core principle for healthy organisations.  We learn belonging in family and so it’s wired into us from our very beginning in life. That’s why belonging is quite a complex concept to appreciate and relate back to DEI. It’s been incredibly helpful because we’ve been relating back belonging in our diversity programs for some time now, and it routinely settles people into healthy relationship and dynamics in the programs that we run. 

We learn belonging in the family and it’s fraught. The reason it’s fraught is belonging in family is unconditional and permanent. If you picture a newborn baby, they are so dependent on belonging to survive, it’s wired into our sympathetic nervous system.

It’s wired into our fight or flight response. If we feel we don’t belong, we get incredibly triggered. We take this sense of belonging, that hardwired instinctive sense, into the organisational context.  

But guess what? Belonging in our workplaces is not permanent and it’s not unconditional. Indeed, in an organisational context, belonging is temporary and conditional. So can you see how fraught this is in terms of our own anxiety and stress response when it comes to belonging. And now with the conversation shifting quite significantly into new languages of belonging, unless we take everyone on the journey, we will leave some people behind. 

It’s unusual to be saying this because I’ve always been outspoken for the minority and suddenly I’m in a mentoring program for women in a particular industry, and men are telling me they don’t feel welcome there, but they’re really important mentors in this program. Men are telling me that people are indicating that they don’t have a place anymore. Interestingly, we are talking about a very masculine industry like defence. This is raising huge curiosity about the dynamics we’re unleashing and how vital it is when we strive to include everyone, that we make sure it is everyone, and that we’re not creating a new caste system of who matters and who doesn’t because humanity is essentially one big whole, and what we want to welcome is all of it and not to exclude anyone. We are finding ourselves in some very strange conversations because we are seeing very rapid social engineering happening. 

We are seeing people struggling to keep up, and their identity is on shaky ground in some respects. We’ve got people not wanting to use personal pronouns. Should we exit them? I’d argue absolutely not. No one should use terms they don’t yet understand as it relates to their core identity online or otherwise. Much education is needed, and the big critical piece is healthy debate and balanced critical thinking on the ethics at all levels when it comes to DEI with the importance of belonging.  

New perspectives 

The other way organisations can think about DEI is to become educated on belonging and how it works in a company context. This has been supremely helpful in our diversity programs because when we come in, what we don’t want to do is make the system wrong or make any individuals wrong. We want to bring people together and we want to remove judgments. We want to remove biases and all the things that block connection, and belonging is a beautiful connection concept to work with.  

Can you describe how belonging works in a company context? 

It’s important to understand when somebody enters a new role in a new organisation, there are two questions they ask, “do I belong here”, and “where is my place”? Both questions need to be answered specifically and distinctly in the equation of healthy belonging. 

1. Do I belong here?  

This is where we see people ask, is this a culture that I can be happily absorbed into? When we are absorbed into cultures, we prefer to do so with our integrity intact and with our authenticity at the forefront because we don’t want to become who we are not. We want to be who we are. That’s going to relate back to, ultimately, the belonging rules in your culture. Not just the stated belonging rules, but the enacted belonging rules and whether they’re aligned or not. Typically, we get gaps. As soon as we say we’re all about fairness, what’s going to show up? Unfairness. It just works like this and it may not be an ongoing issue as long as leaders are clued into the challenge and expecting to necessarily bridge the gap between what’s said and what’s done. 

2.  Where is my place?  

When it comes to place, that’s not derogatively putting people ‘in their place’. It’s giving them the dignity of their very own place. It’s important to look at the role and what’s required for an individual to fully occupy that role and to thrive in that role without unrealistic expectations of over-giving or compensating in some way for what’s missing in the system itself. 

There’s a third point as well with belonging, which is supremely helpful with DEI dialogue, and that’s the fact everyone has an equal right to occupy the role they’ve been placed into. Now, this is nuanced because it’s not saying that every role is equal at all. It’s simply saying from a belonging perspective, everyone has an equal right to fully occupy the role that they are endorsed and salaried to stand in. 

So what do we want to do? We want to not just create healthy cultures, but we want to create healthy roles and healthy places and healthy exchange of giving and taking between roles and between individuals and the organisation.  

What type of advisory can be done in this area? 

We are doing a lot of work clients in this area since the pandemic where belonging was compromised.  

We’ve brought belonging into the heart of all of our leadership programs. The main reason being belonging is a complex topic, and strangely, leaders feel it the least. By the time you’ve got to a senior leadership role, you flexed in and out of your belonging many, many times. You’ve broken belonging, you’ve mismatched, you’ve challenged, you’ve been a rebel. So leaders wear their belonging quite loosely, but staff and particularly junior staff, wear their belonging quite tightly. 

When belonging is threatened, it’s the newer members of the organisation that feel it first and feel it keenest. We’ve actually got an awareness gap working in the reverse direction. A leader can totally mess with belonging in a single decision, a quite strategic decision, feasibly, like everyone needs to be in the office on these days. They could be blissfully unaware that that has set off huge chain reaction cascading right down to the newest members and the most junior members of the organisation.  

It is really important to help leaders deeply appreciate belonging and regain their own felt sense of what it’s like to break belonging because they are largely immune.  



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