Do I belong here? Leadership and inclusion at work

Øyvind Kvalnes

Leaders are responsible for creating a sense of belonging among their employees.

A while ago, my Lebanese colleague Lina Daouk-Öyry held a lecture on diversity and inclusion to a group of over 200 students at BI. I had invited her to contribute to the "Ethics and Sustainability in Organizations" course, which is mandatory for all Master of Science students. About two-thirds of the students were Norwegian, while the rest were from other parts of the world. Among the Norwegian students, a significant proportion had non-Norwegian ethnic backgrounds.

We definitely had diversity in the auditorium that Tuesday morning. That was easy to see simply by looking across the room. My colleague Lina acknowledged that and asked if we also had inclusion. Did people in the room feel that they belonged here and were welcome? To what extent had the school, the city, the teachers, and other students welcomed and embraced them? These probing questions took the students by surprise and created a lively and engaged conversation in the auditorium. For me, this was a magical philosophical moment. Lina managed to reach the students with a question that pulled them out of their everyday routines. After the lecture, they eagerly lined up to continue the conversation with her.

The issues of diversity, equity and inclusion are on the agenda in many organizations today. Empirical research indicates that it can be profitable to have a diverse group of employees. It ensures breadth of knowledge and experience at work, creating platforms for engaging with global challenges. Therefore, it has become common to recruit internationally and have a broader perspective when looking for talents. Those who only hire people like themselves or copies of those already in the organization, miss out on the power of diversity.

Inclusion is more than diversity

The uncomfortable topic Lina raised in her lecture is that diversity is not synonymous with a sense of belonging and inclusion. It is one thing to be invited to the party, but another to feel truly welcome. Invitees may enter through the same door as everybody else, but some are left to fend for themselves, standing in the darkest corners of the room, overlooked by the hosts and the most popular guests. Many of our students seemed to identify with this depiction of the situation. While they contribute in visible and invisible ways to diversity, the question is whether they also experience a sense belonging. Do they feel truly welcome here?

For leaders, it is crucial not to stop efforts after achieving diversity goals among their employees. They also need to actively encourage and contribute to a strong sense of belonging. This is important not only because it can contribute to profitability but also because it is ethically right to ensure that individuals feel respected and valued at work. If the interest in diversity and inclusion is solely based on economic arguments, it is unlikely to survive as a lasting and stable quality in the organization.

There is a need for arenas for sharing knowledge and experiences regarding workplace inclusion. The Diversify conference, which was held in Oslo in September 2023, addressed this need. A diverse group of practitioners and academics gathered to reflect on various topic related to belonging in organizations. The initiative for the conference came from the Nigerian economist Chisom Udeze. When she arrived in Norway a few years ago, she realized the need for meeting places to mobilize a higher degree of inclusion in our organizations. Now, Diversify has grown into a vital and powerful meeting point for all those concerned with diversity and inclusion.

What kind of work environment awaits the students who were so affected by the questions in the auditorium about inclusion and belonging? In my own teaching, I aim to prepare students for life after business school. What can they expect in terms of being welcomed and getting fair opportunities in the workplace? To what extent will their career paths be influenced by their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and cultural background? We can agree that skills and qualities should be decisive, not skin colour, appearance, religion, or other characteristics. It remains to be seen whether leaders, owners, and other decision-makers can accept and embrace the knowledge pointing toward inclusion being both profitable and ethically right.

An early version of this text was published in Norwegian in Dagens Næringsliv: https://www.dn.no/ledelse/jobb-og-ledelse/mangfold/integrering/horer-jeg-til-her-lederskap-og-inkludering-pa-jobb/2-1-1527859

Published 15. January 2024

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