Belonging: the key to transforming and maintaining diversity, inclusion and equality at work

Written by
Sue Unerman, Chief Transformation Officer, MediaCom

02 Feb 2021

02 Feb 2021 • by Sue Unerman, Chief Transformation Officer, MediaCom

Countering daily 'micro-aggressions', with 'micro-affirmations' is paramount to maintaining diversity at leadership level, writes Sue Unerman.

Given the focus on diversity and inclusion and the £6 billion spent on it why is it that there is no concrete evidence of change? What is holding back something that is so evidently fair, has proven results on both profitability and revenue and which has been talked about for years? 

Over the last 18 months we have been investigating diversity and inclusion in all businesses, not just advertising. From over 100 interviews, unique quantitative research conducted for us by Dynata and more than 150 talks we have uncovered why the return on the investment of significant time and money is lagging behind expectations. So why is progress so slow?

It appears that all too often companies think that by fixing the “pipeline” of incoming talent, there will be a transformational effect, even though the time lag between recruitment and achieving diversity at senior levels may be years.

Performative gestures in place of meaningful change

Companies may hold events, or temporarily focus on specific areas. In researching the book, we encountered a sense that these were often seen as transient gestures, where at one time of the year (say, Black History Month) there will be a series of talks, discussions and heightened interest but, at the end of the month, it’s business as usual - as if being in the spotlight annually would somehow address all the issues people had encountered for the other 11 months.

People are tired of these fleeting attempts to make things “right”. They feel that their voices and concerns are heard only intermittently and have the sense that the issues raised at these times aren’t being acted on. 

We have spoken to men who feel helpless, ill-equipped to address the situation and, occasionally, under attack. Their sense of being marginalised (ironically) is echoed in remarks by figures such as Jeremy Clarkson who said that “If you have a scrotum, forget it, you won’t get hired by the BBC at the moment”.

The result of this sense of alienation among white men is a layer of management “tundra” - where (despite the best efforts of others in the organisation) no diversity will thrive. 

Affirmations from the top down

Clarkson’s statement is of course deliberately provocative, but we found that unintentional damage is being caused to many people’s sense of belonging through simple use of language on a day to day basis. These micro-aggressions (one team leader regularly greeting the only black individual in a meeting with the expression “Yo”, while everyone else got greeted with “good morning” for example), can and must be countered with the less well known “micro-affirmation”. 

Here’s where everyone can take a leadership role, but it is crucial that this starts from the top of the organisation.  

Some general examples of micro-affirmations are:

  • Asking others for their opinions
  • Recognising the achievements of others
  • Using friendly facial expressions and gestures
  • Taking a genuine, professional interest in someone’s personal life

Micro-affirmations are a series of small acts of inclusion that add up to an overall feeling of inclusion and 'Belonging' for everyone and this is part of leading from every seat. Each staffer must raise objections to microaggressions – even and especially when they are not the victim of them.

No bystanding. And each staffer must make acts of micro-affirmation.

Business needs more diversity. It is important that every single one of us plays our role in creating this new, better world of work.  There is a huge opportunity now, during the immense disruption that we are all facing, to build a better way.  Belonging is the key to transforming, and maintaining diversity, inclusion and equality at work.

Sue Unerman drives transformation for MediaCom and their clients, playing a crucial role in its rise to become the number one company in its sector and the agency of the decade for an unprecedented second time in a row.

Her new book, Belonging is out now.

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