How to make the leap

from inclusion to belonging


Published on: May 2020

Written by: Michael Seitchik

There is a famous quote by Verna Myers, a leading diversity and inclusion expert that says, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

We’d go one step further. If diversity is being invited to the party, and inclusion means being asked to dance, then belonging is being asked for input into the playlist for the dance music and feeling free to ask anyone you want to dance with you. And even more importantly, that next step to belonging is not just a nice thing to have, it’s where you start to get real benefit when it comes to team and business performance.

Being invited or being asked to dance assumes a one-way power relationship. The person has to be invited by someone else. The person has to be asked to dance by someone else.  You may be included, but someone else has the decision rights on whether that will happen. There is no assumption of a two-way, reciprocal relationship. You have to wait to be asked. You have to wait your turn.

On the other hand, belonging, at least the way we define it at Bates, assumes a two-way or reciprocal relationship. You don’t have to wait for someone to ask you to dance. You can determine who you dance with.  You have as much a right to influence the playlist as anyone else – even if your music choices might be different than anyone else’s.  You are not only accepted for who you are, you are expected to be who you are.

There are significant differences between being included and feeling like you belong, and those differences matter.

At BTS, we have done a great deal of research on belonging. In fact, it is one of our 15 facets in our team assessment, the LTPI™. Two of the items in the Belonging facet are:

  • Team members actively solicit and respect each other’s ideas and views.
  • The team ensures everyone has the opportunity to participate.

For us, belonging isn’t just “having a seat at the table” (another metaphor for inclusion). Too often a seat at the table also means to “sit in or stay in your place.”  Belonging is about having a legitimate, respected voice at the table. It is about team members having mutual accountability to make sure everyone’s views are heard and debated. The “table” is a place for everyone to actively exchange and debate ideas, not just a place to sit. And it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure everyone feels like they belong.

Getting Belonging Right

Unfortunately, there are numerous misperceptions about belonging, misperceptions that can make the difference in creating a high performing environment. For example, one recent article states that people feel they belong, “When sitting at the table, you see and hear people like you.” No!  If you look around the table and everyone is “like you”, you are probably in a highly homogenous group. It is easy to feel like you belong if everyone is the same.

What teams and organizations need to work on is making everyone feel like they belong when they are part of diverse teams. Research has shown that diverse teams are more innovative and productive precisely because of the different points of view people bring to the table. To innovate you need to encourage the expression of differences. If you look around and everyone is like you, chances are everyone will have the same point of view, making it more difficult to come up with innovative ideas.

To feel you belong does not mean you fit in because you are just like everyone else. It means you fit in because your uniqueness is part of what makes the team more effective as a whole. At Bates, we firmly believe that a high performing team sets free the genius of its members to create the extraordinary together. In fact, that is our definition of a high performing team.

As a leader, you must set free the unique gifts everyone can contribute. That is when everyone feels they belong.

What Leaders Can Do

The main thing is to make belonging a regular topic to discuss as a team.

For example, if you use Slack or some other instant messaging platform, periodically send out a brief 2 or 3 item survey asking people how they feel about issues such as:

  • Your ideas being respected in team discussions
  • Your ideas being solicited in team discussions
  • Being comfortable being their authentic self

No need for long answers. Maybe their answers are limited to J, K, or L.  Keep it simple and easy to respond.  The goal is to then use the responses as a basis for a discussion.

Is there a variation in answers?  If so, what does this mean?  If not, what is the team doing right they need to keep on doing?

Remember, the goal is to make sure all team members feel they belong, and not just that they are included.  You want to support people in expressing their different points of view. You want team members to get up and dance and not wait to be asked.

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