By Chelsea Corless

As discrimination and violence against people of colour and other marginalised groups gains visibility, organisations are becoming increasingly vocal in their support for diversity and belonging.  While this has been met with some cynicism, we know from working with dozens of client organisations that many hold a genuine commitment to fostering diversity and belonging in their workplaces.

Yet despite this commitment, and substantial efforts by some, many organisations have failed to make sufficient progress towards genuine diversity and belonging.  There are countless reasons for this, not least because discrimination and bias is baked into many of our processes, our systems, ways of interacting and thinking.  Creating organisations that are truly diverse and foster belonging is daunting and difficult work.

Organisational culture remains an important avenue for such efforts. This is because cultures are not an end in themselves - they are not policies, practices, capabilities; rather they create the environment in which employees and leaders are supported or prevented from bringing about positive change; the environments in which well-meaning efforts are embraced or rejected.

The path to cultures of belonging will look different for everyone, but they will all take time, effort and a lot of learning from mistakes. Nevertheless, there are many things organisations can do to fast track their success. We propose these Six Principles based on research and experience as a good place to start the work: 

1. Understand what belonging means to your employees

This will differ greatly across employees, and the first step is giving them a chance to express what they need. This can be as simple as a survey, or more involved, such as ASIO’s diversity networks, 1 with employees provided resources, governance and sponsorship to establish groups to tackle diversity issues and offer support. Importantly, listening to employees will help identify marginalised groups, understand employee expectations and how far you have to go to meet these. It will also help you manage expectations, because you won’t always be able to give people everything they hope for.  

2. Leverage your existing culture and values

Understand your current culture and find ways to use this to bring belonging to the fore. For example, if your culture strongly values professionalism, make considered inclusion of diverse opinions in decisions a matter of professionalism. If your culture is risk averse, make it risky to exclude others from decisions.  If working within your current culture is not enough, manage resistance by selecting interventions that at least don't work directly against your culture.

3. Manage tensions

There will be tensions, both real and perceived, between doing the right thing and doing what is best for short term business or personal gain. For example, the need to include more diverse opinions may clash with a value in speedy decision making. Organisations need to understand what points of conflict exist between their ways of working and inclusion efforts and provide employees with a clear path for navigating them. The famous Netflix Culture Manifesto 2 does a great job of articulating such trade-offs.

4. Focus on a few behaviours and work practices

While mindset and bias play an important role in culture, they are notoriously difficult to describe, change and measure. Yet mindset does follow behaviour, so focus instead on a few behaviours and work practices that require your people to put belonging into action and reinforce them rigorously.

5. Focus on the local

Belonging means different things to different people and cultures. Therefore, efforts to bring it to life will need to look different across teams and geographies. Help teams and leaders define how they will bring broader organisational expectations of inclusion and belonging to life at their local level, and to determine the unique behaviours they will take to achieve this.

6. Measure it

Change is an ongoing process, so be sure to measure it as such. Identify the lead and lag indicators of success at both local and organisational levels, pulse them regularly and make the results salient to decision makers.

The world has a long way to go before we achieve the equity and justice we all deserve, and organisations have a critical role in getting us there. Creating cultures that foster belonging and positive change is an important avenue for this essential work.



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