What It Means To Truly Belong In The Workplace
September 2, 2021
Daisy Auger Dominguez is Chief People Officer at Vice Media Group. She has also designed and executed organizational transformations at the likes of Moody’s Investors Service, Disney, and Google.

Anita Sands is a board director, author and speaker. Before becoming the COO of UBS, she spent a decade in leadership positions in financial services across Canada and the US. She now serves on the boards of Symantec, ServiceNow, Pure Storage, and ThoughtWorks. In this interview, Dominguez and Sands discuss why diversity and inclusion don’t guarantee belonging if there isn’t psychological safety.

I’d love to hear both of your definitions of what it means to belong in a workplace context.

Daisy: In the space of diversity, equity and inclusion, I always give folks the full spectrum of what all these words mean because while they’re all related, they don’t mean the same. At a fundamental level, the word that we are most accustomed to is diversity. And that is often defined demographically: your identity, race, gender, and so forth. But it’s also possible to define it in terms of cognitive traits, like personality. So there’s a host of other elements there as well.

Equity focuses on addressing structures, systems, and historical legacies to ensure that everyone has access and opportunity. I think it’s most commonly used in nonprofit spaces though we’re starting to see it more in for-profit spaces. It's is about the systems and processes that have failed so many of us for so many years.

Inclusion is about being treated equitably and feeling valued. And so, belonging is an element of inclusion. But it’s not the same. Because in recent years, organizations have sought to convert diversity and inclusion into belonging. And the fact that matters is that without psychological safety, diversity does not automatically mean that people can bring their full selves to work. Fundamentally, belonging means being able to be in a place where you can thrive being yourself.

Diversity and inclusion sit in your head, and belonging sits in your heart.
-Anita Sands

Anita: Diversity in my book is made up of facts; the numbers are what the numbers are. Inclusion is a choice. You can choose to include somebody in a meeting, in a room, and on a team. But belonging is a feeling, and therefore, it lives in our hearts. Diversity and inclusion sit in your head, and belonging sits in your heart.

I love to talk about belonging because it transcends the D&I conversation; it’s a word that is understood in every culture. There is a massive difference between being included in a room and actually feeling that you belong. If you come in the door on Monday morning, and in order to fit into the dominant culture of your organization, you have to check a big part of your personality or a big part of your story at the door, then you’re heading into a culture where you will never feel that you belong. If you do not feel that you can be your full, authentic self, you simply won’t flourish, you will lose your mojo, you will never do your best. A culture without belonging is kryptonite if you’re trying to be an innovative organization.

Does imposter syndrome come from not feeling a sense of belonging? Is it a self-created feeling that we have to navigate in ourselves because we don’t feel like we belong?

Anita: I look for places where I can feel an element of self-empowerment. Overcoming imposter syndrome is a big component of that. It’s the invisible hand that we place on ourselves. It took me a long time to have an element of self-awareness. Before that, there were company cultures where I was twisting myself into a pretzel to fit in. It felt like I was being suffocated from the inside out like someone was holding a pillow over my face. But it was just on the inside, you couldn’t see it, because I had to check a big part of me at the door every day.

When I got to more senior leadership roles, the challenge was that I was showing up as a highly inconsistent leader because if somebody showed up as the version of the executive that the company expected, I would conform to that. Now I look back on my career at these moments when I felt like I belonged and moments when I knew I didn’t. It’s a very painful feeling, but one I think most people can relate to.

Daisy: I had actually been facing imposter syndrome my entire career, but I never had a word for it. I felt anxiety about being young. I felt my opinion wasn’t valuable enough because I was usually the youngest person in the room. I felt the burden of reinforcing stereotypes as a Latina. I knew that in order for me to survive, I needed to walk in every day and make sure there wasn't a trace of an accent to be heard. My appearance could not seem overly sexualized. Even my hair had to be cut in the same bob that every woman had because every successful woman in the organization pretty much looked the same. And, they didn’t look like me. They didn’t look like the women that I had grown up with. I used to tell folks that I impersonate an analyst every day. But only when I could breathe could I be me.

A true ally is fundamentally someone willing to sacrifice their comfort for someone else’s... It has to have solidarity. Allyship without solidarity is just optical.
-Daisy Auger Dominguez

What is allyship in a workplace setting? How do you foster that sense of being curious about people and making them feel like they belong? What advice would you give to people who want to be allies?

Daisy: A true ally is fundamentally someone willing to sacrifice their comfort for someone else’s. It means actively questioning whose voices are welcomed and whose voices are silenced. It has to have solidarity. Allyship without solidarity is just optical. And that’s what we often see. I’m very clear with folks; it isn’t about giving badges or cookies when you have to name yourself an ally. It is simply about doing the work. It’s about removing the barriers to someone’s success.

Anita: We don’t need allies; we need accomplices. And as you rightly say, be willing to spend some of your capital, in whatever form that may be - social capital, relationship capital, on behalf of somebody else. Ask and answer the question, 'when was the last time I used my position of privilege and power to do something helpful for somebody else?' So to me, I think we need to take it up a notch for sure.

What can you do if you are in a work environment that isn’t making you feel that sense of belonging? How can you be proactive in changing your environment?

Daisy: The challenge is that we’ve been looking at this from such an operational lens, but not from the complicity of everyone involved in tolerating bad behavior or just, not good behavior. Privilege is the ability to look away, right? And all of us have many different levels of privilege. I’m a woman of color. I’m over 40. I have all these things that you can say put me at a disadvantage. But I’m also a senior executive at a media company. I have a family. I’m heterosexual. I am able-bodied. I have a lot of privileges that allow me to walk around on this earth and not think about how it is for other people. A lot of us do that. That’s the epitome of privilege, being able to look away when something happens. And it’s not right.

Anita: Whatever we do, it has to be different from what we did in the past. It has to be something that builds towards systemic and sustainable change. This is a time for reflection, sitting in the discomfort of this, and having your own moment of reckoning about your personal role. I also think we have to accept that things will likely get a little worse inside organizations before they get better. The minute that you start stirring the pot, opening up these conversations and these dialogues, it’s going to be uncomfortable. So we have to have our expectation set that it will get a little worse before it gets better. We have to commit for the long haul here and set people’s expectations accordingly.

What are some of the personal tools you employ to help you navigate spaces with confidence?

Anita: I decided very early on that the first thing I was going to do was reorientate this problem in my head as an advantage. So every time I find myself being the only woman in the room, instead of being intimidated I see it as a distinct advantage. The men all look very similar and sound very similar so they’re all rather forgettable in my book and I see it as an opportunity to assert myself and build a bit of a brand and make my presence felt. In the earlier stages of my career, I did that by demonstrating value.

The second thing I decided was to remove the word comparison from my vocabulary and replace it with curiosity. So rather than sitting there and sort of saying, “Gosh, I wish I had framed my question as diplomatically as that girl did.” I would take out my pen, and my little notebook and I would write it down and go, “Wow, just look at how she framed that question.”

Daisy: I have a lot of young people coming to me all the time. For me, it’s always about coaching them, telling them you need to be the best version of yourself when you’re there, and reassuring them that I’ve got their back. Because being able to know that you’ve got someone who supports you, that’s going to be there - it goes a long way towards making you feel comfortable. I learned that a long time ago.

Now that I’m more established, I walk into rooms always feeling like I belong there. And so part of the comfort of holding my space is that I am also holding space for you. And me holding my own space does not take space from you. On the contrary, it expands our space. I am there every day to deliver, make things better, and learn from others. That’s my sense of belonging. When I exercise my belonging, I create space for others to exercise theirs.



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