How to create a culture of belonging

Aneeta Rattan, co-academic director of LBS’s new LGBTQ+ Leadership programme, explains how to make diversity and inclusion work


Q. How has the pandemic emphasised the need for a culture of learning and belonging?


Because of the pandemic, companies are reaching out, trying to understand how they can encourage more of a growth mindset in their people.


When I do workshops on the growth mindset for companies, what I hear most often is that teams are experiencing more challenges than ever before – and they don’t know what the next challenge will be. They want to understand how to get themselves into the right mental state to approach it with energy and curiosity, which is why they are drawn to the growth mindset.


Companies are also trying to better understand how to keep people connected. This is why I spend a lot of time teaching inclusive leadership – how to foster a sense of belonging in a team or organisation. The key here is for people to understand that inclusion is something that has to be actively created, especially now, not something that happens by itself. Coinciding with the pandemic has been the global movement to support black lives, so I’ve also had more opportunities than ever to draw the links between active inclusion and the experiences of underrepresented groups in the workplace. We discuss how even confronting bias can be an act of inclusion, and how taking a growth mindset can yield productive change, even in an organisation where people might be in really different places. It’s about finding a more solutions-focused approach to issues with learning, belonging, and diversity that continue to exist.


Q. Why is ‘belonging’ such a useful term when it comes to diversity and inclusion?


Belonging is the subjective experience of underrepresented or stereotyped groups. It can tell you whether your inclusion approach is effective. Belonging shifts our focus away from what people in power are doing, to asking how that is being communicated to the members of the group who are underrepresented or discriminated against.


There are so many examples from companies that implement some kind of “inclusion practice” that completely backfires because it is telling minorities they need to act more like the majority or telling LGBTQ+ individuals to bring a little bit less of themselves to work. That’s what it looks like when you focus on inclusion without belonging.


Q. What should corporate executives be thinking about and doing right now when it comes to diversity, inclusion and belonging?


The first thing every leader needs to do as an individual is evaluate their own current understanding of diversity, thinking separately about each dimension of diversity that their organisation wants to engage on. Then they should ask themselves what could they do to take a step forward. This is tough, individual work. Diversity issues are not something you can just hand over to your head of HR, head of D&I, and then you focus on everything else. 


If you take that approach, one of self-development, it is going to come across positively but you also might have a stumbling moment where you realise your organisation is not achieving its goals. That’s why the second thing I would say is that leaders should develop a data-driven approach to thinking about both what their diversity challenges are and how they are going to move towards solutions. Leaders should also foster the outlook that changes made to foster diversity are changes that improve the culture of the organisation overall – it’s not a loss but a long overlooked improvement. 


Finally, I encourage organisations to be careful not to craft their diversity approaches and practices reactively against those who are least supportive of inclusion. You cannot please people who don’t actually believe in the goals or ideals the organisation has defined around diversity. Those resistors will hold back the positive change that you have the power to make. My hope would be that companies focus more on advancing toward their goals and make clear that the ability to positively engage upon, and foster, diversity is now considered a key leadership skill. 


Q. What does that mean in practical terms?


When I work with organisations that really want to make progress on diversity, one of the first things I do is ask them what is the problem and what is their evidence around the problem in their organisation? What qualitative data do they have from their performance rating system or from their employee engagement surveys that might give them insight into why these problems exist in their organisation? The second step is to develop targeted interventions to address those problems. The mistake companies make is that they try to tackle a diversity issue without pre-planning what data they need to collect to assess whether their programmes are effective in the short- and long-terms. If you develop a programme and the goal is to improve the levels of diversity and inclusion within your organisation, you might have to wait five or ten years to see real improvement. In the interim, there are a lot of things you can be looking to ask yourself whether you are on the right trajectory – you can look at the belonging of your people, map their social networks, and foster sponsorship across identities. You really need to look at the evidence in front of you so that you can learn from the data about the kind of solutions that will work in your organisation. 


Q. How radical do you have to be to effect change?


If you are ready to be a transformational change leader on issues of diversity nothing should hold you back. However, many leaders might not feel ready to do that, in which case you should always start with your sphere of influence -- ask every one of your top leadership team to come to you with an idea to address a diversity issue that affects one of the groups your company wants to work with. And if they don’t know how to start making interventions, then you just learned that your top leadership team needs training in understanding the different types of bias out there, what effective interventions on diversity look like, and how to craft them. Leaders know that every transformational change effort starts with early significant steps which they then capitalise on to create momentum for change – but you have to make sure your leadership across the organisation is ready to take those first steps with credibility. 


Q. How do you empower minorities to be at the centre of the conversation?


You do it by fostering belonging and what I call ‘active inclusion’, which is about creating space and focus so that those who are so often silenced have a platform that they know they will be heard from. Every individual can look at their work and say, which part of this could I make more inclusive? How can I make this team meeting more inclusive? How can I change one small thing in the way I speak every week to try and make it clear to people that they belong here?

Q. As a leader, what kind of mindset do you need to cultivate when it comes to diversity, inclusion and belonging?


You really want to promote a growth mindset. When it comes to issues of diversity and inclusion sometimes people feel afraid of engaging not because they lack the values but because they are so worried about doing something wrong. The growth mindset is about recognising that everyone is on a learning trajectory. This is not to say that everyone is in the same place, but if we take the approach that everyone is learning and developing it can, first, remind us that we need to put in the work, and second, help us to have better conversations so that when people do say things that are difficult or less than we would hope, you can ask yourself what can I teach this person to help them move forward in their thinking? 


Executive Education can play a key role in people’s learning and development because we can create safe spaces for people to ask their questions and explore the nuances. If you have a growth mindset you can say collaboratively that you don’t know everything or that you’re confused by something. It also encourages people to speak up and explain to someone when they say something in the wrong way. It can give us the humility to listen when we are being told we have messed up and the strength to say ‘I was wrong, here’s how I’m going to improve’. 


The other mindset I would recommend is ‘everybody can do this’. There is no one out there who is incapable of empathising around these topics. Everybody can think back to middle school and remember a time when they felt excluded. If we take up the perspective that everybody has the potential to understand these topics and to engage positively with them, we can really set ourselves up to foster a culture where we don’t just say we want everyone to belong but where we try to create practices that create space for everyone to belong.


Q. Tell us about the new LGBTQ+ leadership programme at LBS?


We developed this programme as we were thinking about the profound level of underrepresentation of LGBTQ+ leaders globally. We are recruiting for our very first cohort right now and it kicks off in June 2021 for managers with eight or more years of experience. The programme focuses on highly capable senior LGBTQ+ leaders who are ready to make the leap into top leadership.


Together, we will give them practical frameworks, tools, and activities to clarify their key development areas in terms of their personal leadership, team dynamics, social networks, and engagement with organisational culture. We also infuse the programme with content on how they can take a leadership role on diversity and inclusion within their organisations when they return -- if they want to.


The reason we’ve developed this programme is to not only create this transformation within the talent pipeline for top leadership, but also to provide members of this underrepresented group with a space unlike any other, where they build a community of leaders across the LGBTQ+ spectrum and who can support their movement toward their goals going forward.

Learn more about London Business School’s LGBTQ+ Executive Leadership Programme at 

Aneeta’s recently published research includes: 

What Companies Who Want More Diversity Can Learn From The BBC

Your Boss Made a Biased Remark, Should You Confront them?

Use Your Social Network as a Tool For Social Justice