Reflections on Belonging

Saima Zaman, Director | March 2022

In a study shared by the Harvard Business Review in 2019, 40% of employees feel isolated at work despite 8 billion dollars being spent by US companies on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives1. In addition, studies around belonging have shown that feelings of belonging vary across identity groups, with Black and Asian women having the lowest belonging scores2. The question arises: What is missing from DEI efforts?

What may be missing from DEI programs is a focus on creating an environment where people feel as though they belong, which can be defined as the feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a member of a certain group or place3. Belonging is not a new concept; after all, it is a part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When employees feel like they belong, they are more likely to be engaged, more productive, and higher performing4.

Belonging vs Inclusion: A Personal Reflection

I started to reflect on belonging vs inclusion at the start of the covid pandemic. As most of us retreated to smaller personal spaces and virtual settings, I set upon a path of reflection about my place in the worlds around me, both personal and professional. I started to think critically about what was important to me, how I related to others, and how I showed up in spaces. I have lived in 11 cities across three countries in my life and there were a lot of spaces where I have felt excluded, several where I felt included, and a handful where I have actually felt that I belonged.

From my own personal experience as a woman of color and a Muslim woman who chooses to wear the hijab, I reflected on what spaces that have included me felt like. In inclusive spaces, I was generally comfortable but I wasn’t able to be fully myself. I chose not to talk about certain parts of my identity or express them.

One specific example of this was around how I celebrated Eid. Eid is such an important celebration for Muslims full of food and family. In the past, even within relatively inclusive environments, I would simply take a few hours off in the morning and then come to work. I chose not to take the day off because I didn’t want to draw more attention to myself. My hijab was enough of a visible marker for me and my Muslim identity and I didn’t want to do anything else.

In environments where I felt I truly belonged, I took a day off to celebrate. Better yet, I would take a few days to travel to see my family and truly celebrate. This may seem small to some, but I can not express what a shift this was for me. I felt happier, more myself, and much more invested and comfortable to contribute in those environments.

Fostering Belonging: What can organizations do?

How can organizations go beyond inclusion to support their employees and foster a sense of belonging? Creating a company culture that fosters belonging will take time and one must be intentional about building it.

Employees report feeling strongly about belonging when they are5:

  1. Seen for their unique contributions
  2. Connected to their co-workers
  3. Supported in their daily work and career development
  4. Proud of their organization’s values and work

Below are four focus areas and strategies for what you can do to move forward on the journey of creating belonging. These are just a starting point.

1) Celebrate Employees: Employees want to be seen but also recognized for their achievement, identities and accomplishments. 

  • Ensure that employees receive praise and appreciation from their managers but also at an organizational level. 
  • Create ‘moments that matter’ (to quote Ken Blanchard). Celebrate employees beyond just their work in ways that feels authentic for them (birthdays, etc)6.
  • Create a calendar of holidays (tip: you can add world-wide holidays as a calendar on Google) and ask employees how they choose to celebrate. When scheduling meetings, check the holiday calendar to assess which employees might wish to take off of work. Here is a great resource for how to address religious diversity: religious diversity checklist.

2) Create Connections: Connection allows employees to get to know one another and provides spaces for them to share with one another beyond work.

  • This starts with onboarding. Ensure that you are intentional about creating connections and recognizing new employees early on, such as through mechanisms like onboarding buddies or new employee spotlights in team settings.
  • Give employees the opportunity to connect in employee-led affinity groups so they have a space with those who share ideas and affinities.
  • Create opportunities for staff to get to know each other through sharing their stories. Storytelling is a powerful way for organizations to create belonging, especially when modeled by leadership.

3) Create Openness: Transparency and open communication builds trust and contributes to psychosocial wellbeing, which in turn can foster belonging.

  • Create structures where you can talk about what is going on in the organization and seek staff input. Examples of this include monthly updates on organizational decision-making, leadership teams sharing their current priorities openly with the full team, and opportunities for the full team to see materials from each board meeting.
  • Build a culture of peer-to-peer feedback to ensure feedback isn’t simply provided by managers. One way to do this is to build specific org-wide norms and structures within project teams and/or organizational ‘verticals’ (such as sharing glows & grows in weekly check-ins or always ensuring a peer is included in a staff member’s trainings or sessions for the sole purpose of observing and providing feedback)
  • Create a culture of feedback where employees feel safe if they make a mistake and can share a difference of opinion without fear of repercussion. One of the most important ways to do this is for leadership to model what it looks like openly in front of team members (e.g. publicly acknowledging mistakes, affirming a team member who provides critical feedback, etc.) This is key to creating a feeling of safety and a more open culture, which ultimately can foster a sense of belonging.

4) Track the Data: Ensure that you incorporate key belonging questions in your staff surveys and that you build in the ability to disaggregate the data across key identity groups.

  • In particular, include identity groups that are typically missed in standard demographic questions (e.g. caregivers, etc.)
  • When looking at survey data, ensure you follow up and discuss the findings with staff. Use those findings to highlight strengths, areas for growth and areas for inquiry, and allow staff to be part of a collaborative process of analyzing the data.

Being able to celebrate the parts of my identity that are important to me has made such a difference to me as I navigate professional settings.  I have been happier, more engaged, and built the most authentic and trusting relationships in those environments – and in turn, have been able to fully contribute to those organizations in ways I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.

We want to hear from you: What are the moments throughout your life where you felt the strongest sense of belonging? What can organizations do to foster a culture of belonging within their teams?

1Carr, Evan, Andrew Reece, Gabrielle Rosen Kellerman, Alexi Robichaux. (2019, December 19).  The Value of Belonging at Work. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from:

2The Power of Belonging: What it is and Why it Matters in Today’s Workplace:

3The Value of Belonging at Work. Retrieved from: Better Up

4Huang, Steven. Why does Belonging Matter at Work? Retrieved from:

5The Power of Belonging: What it is and Why it Matters in Today’s Workplace:

6Creating Belongingness: Evolving the D&I Conversation. Retrieved from