Keeping the Diversity Conversation Emotional: Why We Need to Keep Talking About Belonging at Work

Wharton Prof. Stephanie Creary shares her perspective on keeping the diversity conversation emotional:

“For the past two years, I have been teaching a 7-week elective course at the Wharton School to undergraduate and MBA students called “Leading Diversity in Organizations.” In this course, we talk about the systems, structures, interpersonal, and personal practices that can facilitate and inhibit success at work – their’s, others’, and their organizations’ more broadly. Sometimes, these discussions are rational means-end conversations, which is not unheard of in an academic environment. Other times, these discussions spark emotions in both positive and uncomfortable ways. Initially, I wanted to run away from the less comfortable topics like bias and privilege because they could trigger resentment and anger. Yet, I have learned that working with these and other emotions is just as important to helping students learn about and from their differences as is rationalizing the value of diversity.

In this spirit, I recently invited three top corporate leaders with considerable expertise in leading workplace diversity initiatives to Wharton as part of the Leading Diversity@Wharton Speaker SeriesRebekah Bastian, VP of Community & Culture at Zillow Group, Samuel P. Lalanne, SVP, Global Diversity and Talent Management at Citi, and Eric Solomon, Chief Marketing Officer in Residence at Blackbird Global (former CMO at Bonobos) joined me and over 150 members of our community in a lively one-hour conversation on the topic of “Fostering Belonging at Work.”

The premise was that the diversity and inclusion conversation has historically focused on promoting representation and an inclusive culture to drive measures such as retention, individual and organizational performance, and engagement within and beyond organizations. Yet, belonging – the latest addition to this conversation – helps to capture the set of emotional experiences that employees – and many of my students — would like to have at work but often may not.

I asked several students to share what they learned during this event including any tips they’d like to take away for the future. What follows are their insights:

Belonging is an emotional experience. So, storytelling makes a difference.

Numbers are important. They help us to understand our sweet spots and our blind spots. But they don’t tell us the whole story of the employee experience. Stories about ourselves are different. They make our experiences come alive. They tap into our emotions. They draw us in.

When asked what belonging meant in their organizations and whether we needed another diversity-related term, here’s what our guests said about what belonging is, what it does, and how to cultivate it:

Samuel Lalanne: “Belonging is about how you feel in a team and whether your insights and comments matter to other people. Do you feel valued? Do you feel like your insights and perspectives matter? Are you free to bring your full, authentic self to work?”

Rebekah Bastian: “A sense of belonging allows you to bring your full self to work and amplifies all voices. It fosters a collaborative community where people feel comfortable contributing their ideas. It goes beyond hiring and recruiting into satisfaction, and, ultimately, retention.”

Eric Solomon: “Feeling psychologically safe and showing compassion towards others helps to create an environment where a sense of belonging is possible. This is about more than numbers.”

Sam captured each of these elements in a story he told about the importance of storytelling for fostering belonging at work. He told a story of a senior Citi leader who, early in her career, hid her lack of a university degree from her co-workers because she feared that uncovering this part of her identity would lead others to question whether she actually belonged. However, she decided to share her story more openly, which invited a larger discussion about the role we all play in creating an equitable and inclusive culture where everyone can proudly reach their fullest potential.

Here was one student’s reaction to Sam’s storytelling example:

“When Sam talked about the importance of storytelling, I immediately thought of the many ways storytelling has helped me grow closer to my peers at Wharton. Hearing the stories of fellow students has opened my eyes to new connections and new friendships. In many ways, it has also inspired me to contribute more of my full self to class and club projects. When a peer in class shared that she, as someone with a liberal arts background, has struggled with some of the quantitative aspects of our class work, I suddenly didn’t feel so alone. When a new friend shared details of his experiences with anxiety and depression, I felt encouraged to be more open about my own mental health journey. At Wharton, I have found that, in an environment where people have a lot to contribute but aren’t always sure where their passions, interests, and experiences belong, storytelling can be powerful.” Natalia E Villarman, Wharton MBA Class of 2020, Majors: Organizational Effectiveness and Strategic Management

Everyone wants to feel like they belong, but having allies makes this easier.

Feeling heard is important to feeling like one belongs. But many situations at work silence important voices including those coming from members of underrepresented groups. So, allies are important. Rebekah said, “Being a good ally is different for different underrepresented groups. People don’t all need the same support.” Eric mentioned that he thought it was important for white male leaders to be allies to others and told a story about how he had been a champion for underpaid female employees at one of his previous employers. Sam talked about a toolkit on allyship that Citi developed and shares with its employees to help them be better allies.

Here is what two students said about the importance of allyship including from members of underrepresented groups:

“In my past internships, I have focused somewhat myopically on being involved in the LGBT group. For example, I didn’t race downstairs to the office café for the Asian ERG’s office happy hour last summer. I think by showing up and being a more vocal ally of the other ERGs, I send a strong signal to others at the office. To ERG members, I send the message that I am here for them. To non-ERG members, I send the message that this is a cause that we should all be an ally to.” Wharton Undergraduate, Class of 2019, Major: Marketing. Self- identifies as a gay male.

“I have struggled to find true allies who can play the role of an “outsider” – inquiring and forcing diverse teams to understand all perspectives. However, I have realized that ignoring allies can sometimes make conversations around belonging more insular. I have been part of employee resource groups that struggle to feel heard. I have often found that conversations about belonging tend to be focused at the top and that, ironically, front line employees and teams may not feel that they are welcome to participate. I appreciated that Rebekah shared how Zillow specifically called upon employees at all levels to voice their pain points. This approach to belonging ensures that all voices are amplified and that solutions are tied to everybody.” Jaz Nsubuga, Wharton MBA Class of 2020, Majors: Strategic Management & Organizational Effectiveness.

In general, I think we were all reminded that it’s not easy to stand up for diversity, inclusion, belonging, and equity in today’s workplaces. Some may consider these topics a bit “soft” and, therefore, not as important as conversations about numbers. However, these students, our recent guests, and I landed on a different perspective: the more we “get comfortable with being uncomfortable” (in Sam Lalanne’s words) in talking about diversity, the more we will be able to create workplaces in which we can all feel like we belong and can thrive. ”