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What Does It Take to Build a Culture of Belonging?

by Julia Taylor Kennedy and Pooja Jain-Link

As we continue to adjust to Covid-19’s disruptions and see Black Americans killed by police, hate crimes against Asian Americans surge, and people in Georgia fight for equal voting rights, the question of what “belonging” means in American society is reaching into the workplace as it never has before. CEOs, corporate boards, investors, consumers, and employees continue to demand action against racial injustice and movement toward more-equitable workplaces — ones where all employees belong, regardless of their racial or ethnic identities. Against this backdrop, business leaders no longer require a “business case” for a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I); they are well aware. Now they need corporate leaders and advisers to help them keep the ambitious promises they made over the course of the past year.

To impose the sweeping change needed to realize those promises, CEOs need all hands on deck: senior leaders, managers, and employees at every level of the company.

But widespread support for any effort can be difficult to garner. And as we’ve seen over the past year, DE&I work can be particularly divisive. At Coqual, a nonprofit global think tank in the DE&I space (formerly the Center for Talent Innovation), we’ve long heard the refrain, “What about me?” A focus on one identity group, such as Black employees, can feel to others as though it comes at the cost of their own group’s career interests and workplace well-being. A crucial way to galvanize support and manage complex change is to create a culture where every employee, regardless of their background, feels that they belong. It’s a lesson companies can teach U.S. society as a whole.

After all, belonging is essential to humans. Psychologists rank our need to belong on par with our need for love. Because the need to belong is universal and fundamental, focusing on it has the power to draw in the whole workforce, even those who might feel excluded from — or threatened by — current DE&I conversations. When companies emphasize a culture of belonging, they call everyone in, creating space in the conversation to address our shared humanity and build a bridge to greater empathy and inclusion for the groups that are the most marginalized in the workplace today.

To build a culture of belonging and reap the many benefits for employers and employees, leaders first require a clear understanding of what it means to belong at work. Informed by existing measures and extensive research by Coqual, we developed a quantifiable definition that states we belong at work when we are:

  1. Seen for our unique contributions

  2. Connected to our coworkers

  3. Supported in our daily work and career development

  4. Proud of our organization’s values and purpose

In February 2020, we fielded a nationally representative survey of thousands of college-educated professionals and held focus groups and interviews with hundreds more. With the onset of the global pandemic, we fielded a second survey in May 2020 to capture of-the-moment employee attitudes. In analyzing the data, we found that belonging yields a competitive edge for employers: Compared to employees who score low on our 10-point belonging scale, those with high belonging scores are far more likely to be engaged and loyal and to promote their organizations as good places to work.

We saw notable variations in belonging scores — demonstrating that there is a lot to do to build work cultures of belonging for all, not just for some. White men and white women have the highest median scores; Asian and Black women have the lowest. Recent hate crimes against the Asian community demonstrate the devastating consequences that can result from humans’ tendency to “other” — to make individuals or groups feel that they are outsiders. (We have yet to see the depth of the workplace toll that the racial and gender inequities exacerbated by the pandemic have taken on employees’ sense of belonging.)