In a recent HBR post, LinkedIn’s Chief Human Resources Officer Pat Wadors explained that “belonging” is essential to successful diversity and inclusion efforts. Unless employees feel like they belong, she says, these efforts fall short. Belonging has been at the core of Paradigm’s work since Day 1. I’ve written about it in the past, and Paradigm is currently conducting researchon belonging in the tech industry specifically. But as the conversation around belonging grows, one important aspect that’s often overlooked is the concept of “ambient belonging” — how cues in our physical environment send powerful messages about who belongs.
Ambient belonging is feeling comfortable in a space — like you are accepted, valued, and included there. Through subtle design choices, office environments may be unintentionally discouraging people from underrepresented backgrounds from feeling like they belong.
Why Does Ambient Belonging Matter?
The extent to which people feel they belong in the physical environment around them can determine important outcomes, like whether people will accept a particular job, or how well they’ll perform when they’re there. In one study, researchers examined the impact of ambient belonging by setting up two different web design offices: one was designed as a “stereotypical” tech office, with Star Trek posters, video games, and beer bottles, while the other was designed with more neutral themes, like nature posters, coffee mugs, and water bottles. When participants in the study were asked to look at the office spaces and choose where they’d like to work, women were far less likely to choose the company with the “stereotypical” office than men were. Why? When women entered the stereotypical office — which contained objects that both men and women in the study rated as strongly associated with men — it led them to question whether they would belong in that organization.
Ambient cues don’t just deter people from underrepresented backgrounds from applying for particular jobs, they also affect performance within those jobs. When people aren’t certain they belong, they expend a lot of mental energy worrying about belonging. By depleting mental energy, belonging uncertainty reduces individual performance and limits organizational effectiveness. Employees who are confident they belong, on the other hand, are better able to handle daily stressors and direct mental energy to their work. So, as belonging uncertainty increases, performance declines. As people become more confident in their belonging, performance improves.
Increasing Ambient Belonging
To boost performance, attract candidates from underrepresented backgrounds, and simply make people feel better at work, organizations should consider the messages their environment is sending, and make changes where they can. At the Harvard Kennedy School, for example, a professor is leading a movement to change the art on the walls. Before this effort, 690 of the 750 oil paintings adorning Harvard’s walls featured white men. In replacing some of these portraits with images depicting women and people of color, the university acknowledged that representation on its walls sends a strong, if unconscious, message about who wields power and influence.
While ambient cues can be as subtle as the art on the walls or the snacks and drinks in your office refrigerator, some cues are more straightforward. For example, does your office have gender neutral restrooms? If not, think about what this might signal to your employees about who belongs. Consider the names of conference rooms in your office: if they’re named after people, how many of these people are men? How many are white? Are they named after sci-fi movies, computer games, or sports teams? Considering these signals, big and small, can go a long way towards increasing ambient belonging for people from all backgrounds and making your organization a more inclusive, productive place to work.