Our full potential is unleashed when we feel like we belong. A recent study by Qualtrics found that a sense of belonging is the strongest driver of employee engagement—ahead of typical drivers like trust in leadership and the potential for career growth. The global study found that people who feel like they belong are almost three times as likely to have a greater sense of well-being: 78% versus 28%. Only 20% of employees who feel they don’t belong are engaged, versus 91% of those who feel they do belong.
So if belonging is such a powerful ingredient in our engagement, what interrupts it? We need to investigate what is celebrated, rewarded, and represented in the workplace. It turns out that this is often a very narrow version of our many identities.
We all have both visible and invisible aspects of our identity that make us who we are. Some of those are innate dimensions (gender, age, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation), and some we acquire throughout our lifetimes (parenting, chronic illness, mental health issues). Yet many of us spend precious time, energy, and effort hiding or downplaying core elements of our identity or experience to blend in with a majority culture around us because we don’t feel safe enough to be more authentic.
This is called covering, and is also often referred to as masking or code-switching. We do this in anticipation of being negatively stereotyped; we play smaller, or go quiet, or don’t speak up. That’s especially true if doing so has fatigued us over time, harmed our progress, or not resulted in feeling seen, heard, or valued. Covering brings with it an emotional tax—and it insidiously diminishes our sense of self, too. Identity covering also impacts productivity and engagement.
THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG
Imagine an iceberg floating in water, with certain diversity dimensions visible above the water—for example, physical traits like the color of our skin, our accents or the languages we speak, how we dress, etc. These are often what are viewed as “acceptable” per an organization’s culture norms. But there are many other parts of personal identity that remain invisible, or below the surface.
I understand these issues personally. When I came out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community in my 20s, I downplayed this part of my identity in a series of professional roles I held, from opera singer to corporate HR professional to entrepreneur. I saw few colleagues or leaders who shared my story—at least publicly. Their water lines were kept sky-high, carefully curated. I eventually reached a point where I found the courage to be my authentic self—most of the time.
Having my own business has created a safe space where I know I have the support and trust of my team, and where I know part of my expertise stems from my lived experience of exclusionary workplace practices and the pressure to cover. I sometimes still feel vulnerable when I consult with clients and meet prospects and sense they might hold stereotypes or biases about aspects of my identity that may hamper my credibility or impact. That feeling may cause me to devote extra effort to creating my own sense of belonging, in any given space, and keeping myself safe. It takes courage, risk, and resilience to stand in this uncertainty and maintain the focus needed to perform at our best.
The real kicker is that underrepresented and marginalized employee groups that are at a greater risk of experiencing acts of racism and harassment in the workplace often resort to covering as a survival technique.
HOW REMOTE WORK IMPACTS OUR SENSE OF BELONGING
Remote work lowers the waterline for underrepresented and marginalized employee groups and can leave those people who were already vulnerable to bias and harassment at even greater risk. Today we join meetings from our kitchens, hallways, basements, bedrooms, and other personal spaces we wouldn’t normally share with colleagues and clients.
We are finding that this loss of personal privacy during remote work has left some employees more vulnerable to harassment than others. A recent report by Project Include found more than one in four tech workers say they have experienced increased gender-based harassment while working remotely during the pandemic. That figure increased when both race and gender identity were accounted for.
WHAT LEADERS CAN DO TO HELP
If you are a leader in your organization, be willing to investigate what it means to lead in these times. It is highly likely that your skills, approach, and mindset might need to shift to address this new landscape and cultural moment.
Participate in the evolving conversation about belonging in a personal way by sharing your story and the aspects of your identity you have kept hidden below your water line. Be a role model so that your employees feel safe to do the same.
Use your reach and influence to instill a culture that respects and embraces differences and does not tolerate racism or harassment in any form. As a colleague, treat your peers with empathy, civility, and respect—the same way you would want to be treated yourself. It’s that simple, really.
It is more important than ever for leaders to create a safe environment where employees can bring their full selves to work. This means fostering a culture that accepts, supports, and respects differences. This is particularly urgent in today’s remote work environment, which can put employees who already don’t feel safe at work—or who are at higher risk of experiencing racism or harassment—at even greater risk. Remember that we all know something about diversity through our own lived experiences, and that people around us are covering on a daily basis.
Jennifer Brown (she/her/hers), Founder & CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting