Foster Belonging by Bridging the Gap Between Intention and Action

Published: Dec 11, 2020



Bringing in, engaging, and retaining diverse people in your organization requires awareness and preparation. Part of that shift means equipping managers with the right sensibilities and skills to navigate the complexity that leading a diverse team invites.

The stakes are high. When employees don’t feel included, when they don’t feel a sense of belonging, they’re less engaged. They’re less productive. They’re not happy and, eventually, they leave for greener pastures. That’s why, after decades of diversity programs, some leaders are concluding that what they’ve been doing isn’t working. This is a result of bringing people in but not supporting them as full participants in (or members of) the organization. This is where inclusion comes in.


Inclusion means being aware that each person who makes up a professional environment comes in with unique strengths, talents, and needs. When a workplace is truly inclusive, everyone feels like they are valued and their needs are being considered. There’s a place, for example, to be a working mother without feeling like you have to apologize or explain that you need to balance work and parenting.

Companies that are good for working moms are also good for humans. Working moms often seek out companies that offer support, understanding, and flexibility. Moms want to be part of companies that readily acknowledge people have priorities outside of work and recognize that this does not mean they’re any less effective or less committed.

Although companies have talked for decades about trying to foster a sense of inclusion for working moms, very little has changed. Mothers often still have to defend themselves in the workplace, make untenable choices when their families need them, and keep quiet when they have a sick child or school event so others don’t write them off. Working moms have to field questions about perceived limitations such as a lack of time, commitment, and focus. More than once, I’ve heard managers suggest not hiring women who appear to be of parenting age, not hiring pregnant women, firing pregnant women, and limiting travel for moms without asking if this is something they need or want.

Women certainly feel the impact of these conversations. “Now, 72% of moms are employed, either full time or part time, compared with about half in 1968,” according to Pew Research Center’s Associate Director of Research Juliana Menasce Horowitz. Her September 2019 article, “Despite challenges at home and work, most working moms and dads say being employed is what’s best for them,“ states that among fathers with kids in the home, the vast majority (89%) are employed full-time, but employed moms (50%) are more likely than employed dads (39%) to say being a working parent makes it harder for them to advance in their job or career.

Working moms are valuable employees who we should proactively mentor and advance. They bring a lot to the table. In fact, a productivity study of highly skilled workers conducted by researchers with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis in 2014, found that parents were more productive than their counterparts who were not parents. Mothers of two or more children measured as the most productive in the study.

Professional cultures that incorporate real measures to make employees feel included are places where employees can do their best work, individually and on teams. These cultures experience higher engagement and retention because people are well-positioned to stay for the long term.


People look for signals about whether they can survive and thrive at work: Can I speak up for myself here? Can I express disagreement? Will my opinions be heard, valued, and taken seriously?

There’s uncertainty of belonging at work, especially for those who feel like they’re the only one in their professional culture who’s like them, the “first and only.” Consider the only woman on an all-male team, or the only person of color in an all-white organization.

It becomes a risk to speak up and to see how your company responds. That’s a worrisome place to be professionally, and a risk not everyone is willing to take. Ensuring that your employees don’t feel this way is part of a manager’s job of fostering an inclusive culture. Can everyone speak their minds? Can people of all identities be themselves without risking repercussions?

There can be an empathy gap between intention and action when leaders don’t understand the weight of the debate that underestimated employees face: Can I be a working mom here? Can I safely identify as LGBTQIA ? Can I wear natural hair without being called unprofessional?

The effort is there: “…Companies are investing in diversity programs. In fact, our research in 14 countries shows that 96-98% of large companies (above 1,000 employees) have such programs,” writes Matt Krentz in the February 5, 2019 Harvard Business Review. But empathy and connection have been slow to follow. “And yet, despite this investment, we’ve found that around three quarters of employees in underrepresented groups—women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ employees—do not feel they’ve personally benefited from their companies’ diversity and inclusion programs,” Krentz adds.

So what can leaders do to take action—and translate their commitment into practice? It starts with shifting your thinking from your own experience to what you want employees on your team to experience.

Leaders need to embrace new thinking and elasticity in how they structure and drive integration across teams to encourage everyone to bring new ideas to the table, and how they recognize everyone’s contributions.


Building a culture of inclusivity is about thinking long term— creating a climate where we’re inviting not just participation but commitment. If we think about how valuable employees become to the organization over time—how much they learn, how much social capital and business knowledge they glean—we might think longer term.

For instance, if I believe I’m hiring an employee only to stick around for a couple of years, then maybe maternity leave seems like it has an outsized impact. But if I plan to develop this person and think about not only their current position but how they’ll benefit the company in the future, then that leave is just a blip.

Retention and equity are both good for business. In fact, a core revelation from McKinsey & Company’s 2015 report “Why Diversity Matters” reveals “that companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.”

Ensuring all members of your team feel included promotes engagement and retention, which yields rich returns for your business.


Managers are in a tough spot. To their employees, they are the face of the company’s mission and values. Senior leaders can be very thoughtful about the mission and values of a company. But if they aren’t giving frontline managers the right equipment, the right toolkit, to be the face of that message, the message can get lost, leading to cynicism when employees see a disconnect between words and actions.

The skill of management is more than just common sense. Certainly, some managers are naturally equipped with more charisma and soft skills that help them finesse the job. But there are tools that can help all managers do their work more conscientiously: coaching skills and unconscious bias and advocacy training are a good place to start. You can’t be a successful manager today without these skills, and you can’t hone them without training and practice.

We do managers a disservice when we put them out there, with the responsibility of being the face of the organization’s values in real time, and don’t give them the tools to navigate complex conversations, like those around maternity leave and others that are core to employees’ sense of identity and purpose. These conversations have become table stakes for managers in today’s effective organizations.


Diversity can have additional degrees of nuance among professionals of different generations. Millennials and Gen Zers, for example, are cohorts that have a more diverse makeup than their predecessors. There’s a real pride among professionals of those generations when it comes to culture, differentiation, and the ability to assemble and foster diverse teams. There’s a sense that “I want to be recognized for my unique contributions. That’s a strength. That makes me special.”

And so, if those younger professionals don’t feel that diversity is appreciated and accepted by their more seasoned bosses and colleagues, you see them withdraw or look elsewhere. This can be a challenge for managers who may find that some of their Baby Boomer or Gen X staff may be less accustomed to a style that expects less conformity and welcomes individuality.


Managers can’t do it alone. Culture means “all of us.” If a culture is truly inclusive, that ethos has to be sustained among employees, not just proclaimed by leaders.

Initiatives such as employee resource groups (ERG) help foster community and cohesion among employees. In the past, these groups often happened outside of work hours on people’s own time. But recently, ERGs have emerged as a wonderful opportunity for the company to show its commitment. What better way to show that you want to learn and improve than to sponsor and fund ERGs?

Fostering camaraderie and creating space for everyone role models inclusion. Senior leaders can help managers foster a healthy culture by providing them the training and support they need to be the face of their company’s cultural initiatives. From interviewing to onboarding, training, and creating a safe space, managers are a key conduit when it comes to employees’ success and happiness in their jobs.

Inclusion is an important goal for every company. It tells people “You belong here because you’re you. There’s a place for you here, where you can be yourself, fully and freely.” Inclusion earns us a sense of belonging. It’s vital and worthy work.

About the Author: Mikaela Kiner is the founder of Reverb, a Seattle-based consultancy focused on people operations. She spent 15 years in HR leadership roles at local companies including Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, PopCap Games, and Redfin. She serves on the board of Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST) and is passionate about Seattle startups, inclusive culture, and coaching high-potential leaders. Kiner is the author of Female Firebrands: Stories and Techniques to Ignite Change, Take Control, and Succeed in the Workplace (Greenleaf Book Group, January 2020).