Beyond Demographics: Emotional Inclusion

I felt it a couple of months ago. The stinging pang of not belonging.

It’s a regular Friday afternoon at the office. The mood is light and fun, the promise of happy hour drawing closer by the minute. I’m sitting around a table with colleagues, all of us working independently at our laptops, pausing regularly to chat.

And then it happens.

The topic of conversation veers toward parents and how clueless they can be when it comes to technology. Everyone chimes in with funny, relatable contributions. “My mom still uses her original AOL account,” “My mom actually uses Bing…”

What was likely a forgettable, trivial conversation for everyone else became a painful, internal moment of isolation for me.

My mom had passed away, very unexpectedly, just a few weeks before. And suddenly, an innocuous exchange about parents — a conversation I could once engage in with my own anecdotes — was a place where I felt I didn’t belong.

It was a jarring moment that pointed to an undeniable difference in my identity.

A voice in my head said: They have mothers. You don’t.

If reading this story made you feel tense or uncomfortable, hopefully what I say next will provide a little relief.

The moment I just described was painful, but it was short-lived. Obviously, people should be able to talk about their mothers at work. My coworkers did nothing wrong. In fact, I’m arguing that we should foster work environments where we are all free to share our ideas about anything.  

Furthermore, the reflections that have bubbled up after this event have been somewhat surprising, in a good way. They’ve inspired a deep sense of gratitude for my workplace and perhaps even some useful insight about belonging.

First, this was a powerful reminder for me that oftentimes the things that make us feel “othered” and alone are invisible to the rest of the world.

No one, myself included, could have predicted that I would feel emotionally sucker-punched in the midst of some innocent workplace banter.

Second, I recognized that my brief moment of disconnectedness is something that many people feel inside their organizations all the time. 

And that’s a shame. Because we show up and do our best work when we can bring our authentic selves to work.

The culture at Frontier is one where we are all generously imbued with a sense of belonging from the moment onboarding begins. As I write this, I’m remembering a moment from my first day when our Content Director intercepted me on my way to the bathroom, gave me a warm hug, and said “We’re so glad you’re here!” and I could tell she really meant it.

And nearly a year in, my sense of belonging hasn’t tapered off. It’s a company value that’s deeply woven into our culture.

It’s not about a culture of constantly swirling personal drama.

A high tolerance for creative tension, forgiveness of mistakes, and an appreciation for vulnerability at work have buoyed me in moments of self-doubt. I fully believe that a strong sense of psychological safety and belonging have made me a better contributor. Everyone should experience that power at work.

My reflections on belonging have been especially top-of-mind lately as I’ve had the opportunity to do some fascinating D&I work to support a client’s corporate inclusion initiative. I’ve been part of impassioned discussions about what inclusion really means in the corporate space and how best to articulate why everyone should care about it.

Inclusion=Finding Universal Values

Our team has been wrestling with the issue of how businesses can humanize the topic of inclusion. And as our project takes shape, we’ve decided to move away from the conventional focus of Diversity & Inclusion (demographics) and turn our attention toward psychographics (an individual’s attitudes, values, hopes and fears) instead.

We’ve chosen this route, hoping to pull people out of the cozy ideological bunkers they often find themselves retreating back to; encouraging people to seek to understand their peers’ stories and opinions, confront unconscious bias, and learn through the discomfort of it all. To quote the inimitable Brené Brown, “True belonging is a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are.”

More honesty. More forgiveness. More respect. More curiosity.

These are universal values that know no gender, age, race, or orientation.

This is the future of the modern workplace, and I’m so thankful to help us get there, one conversation at a time.

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