Belonging, The Key to Transforming and Maintaining Diversity, Inclusion and Equality at Work, by Kathryn Jacob, Sue Unerman and Mark Edwards

Given the focus on diversity and inclusion and the £6 billion spent on it why is it that there is no concrete evidence of change? What is holding back something that is so evidently fair, has proven results on both profitability and revenue and which has been talked about for years?

Over the last 18 months we have been investigating diversity and inclusion in all businesses, not just advertising.  From over 100 interviews, unique quantitative research conducted for us by Dynata and more than 150 talks we have uncovered why the return on the investment of significant time and money is lagging behind expectations.  So why is progress so slow?

It appears that all too often companies think that by fixing the “pipeline” of incoming talent there will be a transformational effect, even though the time lag between recruitment and achieving diversity at senior levels may be years.

Companies may hold events, or temporarily focus on specific areas. In researching the book, we encountered a sense that these were often seen as  transient gestures, where at one time of the year (say, Black History Month) there will be a series of talks, discussions and heightened interest but, at the end of the month, it’s business as usual – as if being in the spotlight annually would somehow address all the issues people had encountered for the other 11 months. People are tired of these fleeting attempts to make things “right”. They feel that their voices and concerns are heard only intermittently and have the sense that the issues raised at these times aren’t being acted on.

These initiatives also lead to the D&I equivalent of “The Hunger Games” where in some organisations under-represented groups are made to pitch for a slice of HR budget to fund a long-term programme. How do you imagine this makes the participants feel? Who checks the bias of the people who make the decision?

We have spoken to  men who feel helpless, ill-equipped to address the situation and, occasionally, under attack. Their sense of being marginalized (ironically) is echoed in remarks by figures such as Jeremy Clarkson who said that “If you have a scrotum, forget it, you won’t get hired by the BBC at the moment”. The result of this sense of alienation among white men is a layer of management “tundra” – where (despite the best efforts of others in the organisation) no diversity will thrive.


Fear is holding some people back from getting involved.  We encountered people who were just so confused as to what they could do without causing unintentional offence, that they did nothing. It just felt safer. There is a straightforward solution to this dilemma: asking some questions and admitting that you are not sufficiently aware of the sensitivities involved could be a great starting point.   Everyone needs to realise that we are on a journey together and that yes, it might not be easy all the time.

Others are holding back  because they feel that they don’t have a voice and they can’t speak out – in cultures where only certain views hold sway and any alternatives aren’t valued. Too often in companies there is a one-size-fits-all mentality that obliterates our individuality and stifles the change we need.

Many initiatives focus on creating a pipeline of diversity at entry level.  Yet as McKinsey’s latest research on women in the workforce points out despite some progress between  2015 and 2020,  in women’s representation  a “broken rung” at the first step up to manager continues to hold women back—and now the Covid-19 crisis is threatening to erase the gains of the past six years.”

So where are we  now? Sadly, 1 in 3 employees in the UK overall feels as though they do not have a sense of Belonging at work.  So if you do have a sense of Belonging, and you are in a meeting with 2 other people, one of them doesn’t feel that they Belong in your workplace.  For Black respondents this figure worsens from 1 in 3 to 1 in 2.

You will be disappointed to hear the numbers of people who told us that they had personally experienced bias, harassment or inappropriate behaviour at work:  28% of employees overall, but a third of under 25s, 48% LGBTQ+, 60% mixed race, 40% Black, 34% Asian, 59% of disabled people, 54% of the neurodiverse.  The figures make tough reading, and we can also reveal here, for the first time, that the proportion of those who work in marketing and pr who have had these experiences is higher than average at 31%.  37% of the working population have witnessed this kind of behaviour, but nearly 1 in 2 (48%) of those who work in marketing or pr.

Every organization has to go beyond recruiting for diversity, beyond inclusion initiatives, and instead act to positively create a culture of Belonging in the workplace for everyone.   As former head of diversity at the Telegraph, now running global D+I at Adidas, Asif Sadiq has said “Diversity is great but we need to realise difference. Where we really need to get to is creating a sense of Belonging for all people.”

Or as our foreword writer Karen Blackett OBE, UK country manager for WPP, puts it, we need a recognition that “diversity is not a problem to fix.  Diversity is the solution.”

Policy change and training days are not enough.  Change won’t come about because key performance indicators are set (people will find an excuse for not delivering them) or because there is a great Chief Talent Officer.  Every single person in the organisation needs to play a role and this includes people who currently frequently feel excluded from many inclusion policies – notably, straight white men.  Everyone needs to work at being a champion of Belonging, at being an ally, at creating moments of micro-affirmation to countenance the abundant micro-aggressions that our interviewees described.

There are many case studies in our book which show you exactly how you can help to transform the workplace, to make it a better kinder place for everyone.

Here is just one example: James is a director of a worldwide team in a manufacturing business. He spoke to us about going on a team bonding awayday a few years ago. There was a task that involved a great deal of running around – a bit like an Apprentice scavenger hunt. He was given a team to run that included lots of bouncy outgoing people and one older woman, introverted and not very able physically. James says that he could immediately tell that she felt threatened by the whole afternoon, even though its purpose was to bond people together, he said: “I couldn’t bear this, that the team bonding exercise was actually making her feel excluded. She was upset that she might not be helping us win, but she really wasn’t physically up to most of it, not compared to the other people around (it was a very young team generally). The exercises included literally climbing through hoops and jumping on trampolines among other things. I took her aside, before she could properly get upset, and asked her to do whatever she felt comfortable doing. And nothing else. I suggested that she be the go-to person for the rest of the team when they needed advice or to check in with someone. And I could feel her relax immediately – there was an antidote to her anxiety.” The team didn’t win the task by any means, but they didn’t score badly either. As far as James was concerned, the team were winners because they succeeded in ensuring everyone belonged. Remember, the actual objective was bonding, not winning a plastic trophy.

As Matthew Syed points out in Rebel Ideas, it is only when you have different points of view that you get the benefit of diverse thinking.  And diversity comes in many forms.  James, in this case study, demonstrated real empathy for difference and by doing so unlocked the sense of Belonging for the whole team.

It isn’t easy to champion Belonging.  It takes thought and mindfulness.  Throughout the book we have included a series of exercises to help you in this very important role.

One of the key messages of Belonging is that it is everybody’s responsibility to create an inclusive workspace. In the past, too much responsibility has been placed on the underrepresented groups to do this hard work on their own.

Now there is a growing understanding that the rest of the workforce needs to be involved too. This is a job for everyone. With this understanding has come a welcome focus on allyship. And one of the ways in which one can be an ally is to call out inappropriate behaviour and comments.

This is one of the most obvious ways. It is also, to be perfectly frank, one of the scariest.

So, in Belonging, when we talk about ideas like this we try not to leave you just with the theory “Off you go then – be a good ally”, but try to walk you through specific tips and techniques that will make it easier to actually do it.

Let us suppose you are in a meeting, and someone has said something you believe is inappropriate. You think that you should say something. But how are you feeling at this moment? Let’s take the worst-case scenario: the person who has made the inappropriate comment is much further up the hierarchy than you. You know that you are supposed to use your privilege to help others – but right now, in the heat of the moment, your privilege seems massively outweighed by the privilege of the person who made the comment

At this moment, you may be angry or upset at the comment or behaviour. You may also be anxious and worried about the consequences of actually speaking up.

All of these feelings are valid, appropriate and entirely understandable. The problem at this moment is that if you speak from these feelings – if, when you speak, your anger or fear are evident – you are quite likely to achieve the opposite of what you want to achieve.

What you hope is that the person you challenge stops, listens, reflects, acknowledges what they’ve done and ideally apologies and commits to behaving differently in the future. If you speak from a place of anger or fear – however valid these emotions – you’re maximising the chances that the person will instead immediately become defensive or aggressive to justify their position, and will not truly listen. They will feel attacked, so they will defend.

So what do you do? You breathe.

The US military are taught a technique called The Combat Breath. It is designed to be used when you come under enemy fire to bring you back from a place of shock and fear to a calm state of mind where you can make clear and appropriate decisions. If it works when people are trying to kill you, it can certainly work in even the most stressful business meeting.

It’s this simple. Breathe in for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of four. Breathe out for a count of four. Hold your breath again for a count of four. Repeat that three to five times and you will notice that you calm yourself down. If you speak now, you will be speaking more calmly, more authoritatively, more assertively, more powerfully – but not aggressively and not with overt anger; you’re more likely to be heard and the person you speak to will be more able to acknowledge your point, and take it on board. They will feel less attacked and less inclined to go on the defensive and justify their words.

To wait a few moments before commenting also helps to defuse the aggression from the situation. In fact, you may decide after this moment’s reflection that the comment would be best received outside of the meeting. Remember, our aim is not to put somebody down (even if we’d like to); it is to change their behaviour.

Conversely, if someone in the meeting is directly targeted, upset or offended  by the comment, you may feel that the issue absolutely must be addressed there and then. It’s a judgement call. And your judgement will be better after the Combat Breath.

Everyone acknowledges that the move towards greater diversity in the workplace will involve some awkward and uncomfortable conversations. One of the aims of Belonging is to equip the reader with the Emotional Intelligence tools and techniques to be able to handle those moments so that they are also productive conversations that move us in the right direction.

Our industry needs more diversity.  It is important that every single one of us plays our role in creating this new, better world of work.  There is a huge opportunity now, during the immense disruption that we are all facing, to build a better way.  Belonging is the key to transforming, and maintaining diversity, inclusion and equality at work.

Belonging is out now.






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