#opinion: Build a Culture of Belonging. The Importance of Embracing Differences

Opinion // posted 09-02-2022

By Kristel Kan

Every year millions of Chinese people celebrate Lunar New Year. I am one of them. My dad always invites the whole family for occasions like this. Our table in the restaurant looks different from many: we are a group of Chinese, Dutch, German, Indonesian and African people enjoying each other’s company and amazing food. 

I find it captivating how such a diverse group of people are celebrating one traditional holiday. It brings us together and strengthens our ties with our own and each other’s backgrounds. We embrace differences, which makes me proud and makes me feel like I belong. Simultaneously, there are also moments when we don’t share our experiences and opinions because we are afraid of judgement. Sometimes when we do, there is underlying tension or even conflict. We aren’t always as inclusive and supportive as we would like to be, which creates distance and affects my feeling of belonging. 

Families are intriguing and complex systems of relationships. Some families are open, fun, accepting, and forgiving, whilst others hide their experiences and ideas and are intolerant of different perspectives. Most are somewhere in between. Organisations are similar in a certain way. In both families and organisations, family members/colleagues come and go. Also, both have become more diverse over the years: diverse cultures, sexualities, political opinions, social perspectives etc. Newcomers adapt to the culture, or the culture adapts to the newcomer. Dynamics continuously shift. Some people feel and are treated like family, while others are alienated and excluded. This affects the sense of belonging to a family or organisation.

Bringing a bunch of different people into an organisation is not enough. Creating a culture of belonging is what makes the diversity of an organisation flourish. After all, people are social animals: we have ‘a need to belong’. This is the case especially in the workplace, given that we spend approximately 80.000 hours in our lives at work. Belonging has implications on our emotional and physical health. When we experience belonging, we find purpose and intrinsic motivation, we become more resilient and supportive, and it boosts the creativity in and quality of our work. In every stage of our professional lives, we can contribute to this sense of belonging.

To create a culture of belonging, it is essential to embrace adverse opinions and divergent perspectives and to talk about differences and the resulting tensions. Easier said than done, I know. In diverse organisations it is even more important to work through the bumps in the road and resolve conflicts. It is about becoming inclusive and making sure everyone can bring their whole selves with all their colours and shapes to work. From experience, I know it’s not always easy, but it’s this kind of work that creates a sense of belonging necessary for being future proof.

Want to take the first steps in building an inclusive culture? Start by asking yourself:

  • Am I aware of different identities and biases?
  • Do I actively try to find common ground between myself and my colleagues?
  • Am I willing to have difficult conversations and face tensions and conflict?
  • Do I listen to others’ feelings and experiences?
  • Do I support and appreciate others’ input, even when it differs from my perspective?
  • Do I actively seek out other perspectives and put myself in situations that get me outside of my comfort zone? 

We guide many different companies and individuals along the journey of becoming an inclusive organisation. We develop the necessary leadership to create cultures that customers and employees identify with and feel belonging to. That’s one of the main reasons I started working with Better Future. I’m grateful that I can guide others in their journey of embracing differences, using the variety in their organisation as a positive force and creating a culture of belonging. 

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