How well do you know your colleagues? Not only their skills and gifts, but also their hopes, dreams and aspirations for their lives outside of work? The answers to these questions are likely influenced pretty significantly by the culture of your organization and yet, in turn, they also likely influence its performance as well.
A significant amount of research—and especially the pioneering work of Prof. Kenji Yoshino, whose book Covering is a definitive reference in this domain—has now confirmed what we suspected all along: we only reveal as much of our true selves at work as feels both safe and prudent, but, in all but the rarest of organizations, who we really are remains hidden either of necessity or, more typically, on purpose.
Yet if we don’t feel free to bring our whole selves to work, is it possible that we can perform at our very best?
I very much doubt it, a surmise that the research confirms, as does my personal experience. So, assuming that bringing our whole selves to work tends to increase our performance both individually and collectively, what has to happen in an organizational context to encourage this?
First, let me make it clear that I’m talking about the mirror phenomena of Covering and Belonging, the former being the practice of putting on the masks that we wear in a professional context (and, sadly, often in a personal one as well) ostensibly to protect our true selves and/or to fit into the cultural context and the latter being the experience of feeling free to be who we truly are while also being thoroughly comfortable and valued in an environment, which, in turn, encourages us to contribute all of our gifts fully and voluntarily.
Given their inverse relationship, the challenge for us is how do we reduce the need for Covering while increasing the sense of Belonging that our people feel?
Lest this seem too touchy-feely for you, think about this: How much better could your organization’s performance be if your people felt encouraged to bring their whole selves to work and therefore to contribute their Discretionary Best Efforts as a matter of course? One could argue that the gap between where even the quite high-performing organizations could be assessed from this perspective and the goal state of complete welcome could be characterized as the difference between good and great.
Simply put, in which environment would you rather work: the one where you do well but have to manage yourself carefully in order to do so or the one in which you’re free—and encouraged—to be who you really are and can focus your energies exclusively on contributing to the achievement of the organization’s mission?
(I hasten to add that this has a personal correlation as well: In which family environment would you prefer to live, the one in which you’re generally happy but have to manage yourself carefully in order to be so or the one in which you’re free—and encouraged—to be who you really are and can focus your energies exclusively on contributing to the well-being of those you love?)
Essentially, what this all boils down to is the leadership that executives choose to provide, which is reflected in the culture of an organization that its people experience and have to navigate. If leaders seek only the performance for which they’re accountable in their business plans, then environments that require a fair amount of Covering are workable: You hire people who’ll do the job in a way that doesn’t require much leadership engagement and everybody wins … to a point.
Contrast this to organizations with welcoming, inclusive cultures that encourage their constituents to bring their whole selves to work: right away, among other things, you can tell that such an environment requires more of leaders, because the range of personalities, inclinations and aspirations is greater … and, yet, so is the performance. This is the performance benefit of Belonging, and why organizations that practice Diversity & Inclusion successfully tend to perform at a higher level more consistently.
Don’t you want your organization to reap this "Diversity Dividend"? And for its stakeholders to experience the beauty and benefit of the associated "Belonging Bonus"? Me, too.
So what do we have to do to create these types of environments? First, we have to develop organizational cultures that move beyond simple Diversity, which is hiring qualified associates of all kinds and from all backgrounds. And complement this by moving beyond Equity, which is treating all of these different people equally well (by distributing opportunities to contribute fairly and then recognizing and rewarding people based on their performance). As well as to reinforce this by moving beyond Inclusion, which is ensuring that all of these diverse people have access to the full range of opportunities and experiences that an organization offers. Which ultimately brings us to Belonging, which, again, is cultivating a sense of welcome beyond mere acceptance that results in the full and proactive celebration of all associates’ uniqueness so that they’re encouraged to bring their whole selves to work and contribute their Discretionary Best Efforts consistently.
In my experience, it’s actually pretty simple, but, human nature being what it is, it’s not necessarily easy.
While no human institution is perfect, it’s almost a given that there are certain patterns of behavior that we learn—typically outside of the office—and then bring into our professional settings that augur against the successful practice of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging. And it’s also a given that all of these aren’t necessarily negative in intention: It’s natural for us to feel most comfortable around people whom we perceive to be very much like us … but the problem is how we define this. If we define it narrowly, then we tend to behave in exclusive ways that diminish the likelihood of creating diverse and equitable groupings. By contrast, if we define this perception of similarity more broadly, we tend to create more inclusive cohorts.
For example, in the vast majority of the sectors of the business world and our society at large, the dominant cohort is that of middle-aged (and older) white men. One doesn’t have to look too far to see a disproportionate representation of this demographic at the top of our public and private institutions. Conceptually this is due, in part, to a perceived similarity based, consciously or not (which is an aspect of this challenge that we’ll argue at a later time), on race and gender and possibly on other criteria like educational background, etc. In other words, it’s based on the superficial.
Deep down, each of these powerful white men is a complex human being, only a portion of which has to do with his race and gender, but these have been exceptionally influential in providing him access to opportunity. Chances are that, to a person, they’re ambitious and talented and have varying degrees of personality that they allow to show in a professional context.
But can’t Black women also be ambitious and talented and have varying degrees of personality that they allow to show in a professional context? And what about a trans person? Or a person born in another country? Etc.
The point is that when we open ourselves to seeking similarity based on substantive criteria, the possibility of creating more diverse, equitable and inclusive outcomes that encourage belonging increases geometrically. To put a finer point on it, when it matters more who you are than what you are, there’s a far greater likelihood that your organization will be among the highest-performing.
For example, here’s a fun exercise that could both broaden your horizons as an executive and as a person as well as encourage you to be more diverse, equitable and inclusive as a leader: There’s a broad range of cultural experience that we’ve lumped together in the category of Latinx, but do you understand the nuances of Dominican versus Puerto Rican versus Ecuadorian versus Mexican versus Venezuelan, etc. communities and peoples? Probably not. But here’s one way to find out: Eat your way through all of them.
Once a month, over the course of a year, choose to eat at a Latinx establishment (or, in this time of pandemic, order out from it). Trust me, it’ll all be great, but Cuban food is quite different from Brazilian food, which differs from Guatemalan fare. These differences in cuisine reflect differences in culture, which is an easy way to remind oneself not only to be open to all of this wonderful diversity, but also, more importantly, to see it as an opportunity to explore and celebrate it. Imagine how much richer your life would be if, in the next year, you exposed yourself culturally and gustatorily to the Latin diaspora.
Then, the year after, you can explore the profound and wondrous diversity of its Asian complement. And then the year after that, how about exploring the incredible and incredibly diverse cuisines of the Middle East? Etc.
Will being a diversely experienced eater make you a better executive? Possibly not … but it will expose you to a variety of cultures that could help you to become so. Face it, the more comfortable you are with the many types of people there are in this world, the greater the likelihood in both a personal and professional context that you’ll be open to all of them more fully and therefore able to collaborate with all of them more synergistically.
(And, of course, if you live in an area that doesn’t have any or many ethnic restaurants, you’ll have to cast a wider net and travel a bit … which mirrors the realities of the broader outreach that comes with attracting a diverse talent pool for your organization, doesn’t it?)
You see, practiced deftly, the successful pursuit of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging is ultimately about enabling your life to be an adventure, a true journey of discovery in which ever more of this fascinating world is known to you and therefore valued and celebrated by you. Now imagine what it would be like if others approached you in this same spirit.
Ultimately, this is what holistic leadership is all about: getting to know and valuing people for who they really are and encouraging them to contribute in unique yet meaningful ways to the collective success of an organizational community. In this way, potentially, everyone, no matter who she or he is or they are, can fuse what they want for themselves with what you want for yourself in mutually beneficial ways that lead to both your individual and collective success.
And the journey will be a lot more fun, too. …
Walter K. Booker is the chief operating officer of MarketCounsel, a business and regulatory compliance consultancy for investment advisors.