• Jackie Capers-Brown

You Belong Here: Creating a Thriving Diverse Workplace Culture

Updated: Feb 28

Leaders of start-up businesses, Fortune 500 companies, education, tech, medical to government agencies will need to develop and nurture a diverse and inclusive workplace culture to drive sustainable growth in this fast-pace changing economy. Any organization’s success will be defined by its leadership capacity to meet the needs of the 21st Century workforce.

Great Place to Work Chief Innovation Officer Tony Bond states “Offering an outstanding workplace experience to every employee matters more now more than ever. The ongoing shift to the knowledge economy – and now to the human economy – along with the rise of Millennials as the largest cohort of American workers, means that offering a personal fulfilling workplace where all employees can achieve their full potential is no longer optional.”

Research conducted by the Great Place to Work organization cites the workplace culture of the future will be defined by three trends:

1.     A fairer workplace for all employees

2.     Increased focused on developing all employees

3.     A deeper sense of purpose for all employees

Organizations that create the workplace culture of the future will be comprised of leaders who practice inclusive leadership practices. These leaders will place a value on the ideas and perspectives of individuals from diverse backgrounds. They will foster a speak-up culture. These inclusive leadership practices encourage employees – at all levels within an organization to share their opinions, suggest unorthodox approaches to problems and opportunities that fly in the face of established practices.

Leaders that create inclusive workplace cultures are more apt to engage the head, hearts, and hands of their workforce toward the achievement of the mission of their organization. They understand the value of leveraging the collective experience, insights and talent of diverse team members. These leadership best practices help team members feel welcomed and included, feel free to express their views and opinions, and feel heard and validated which are essential elements to creating a high-trust and high-performance workplace culture.

Why Would Anyone Want to Work for You?

I’m sure you have heard the saying, “What got you here, won’t get you there.” This statement infers that the mindset and leadership practices which created workplace cultures of the past are becoming less effective with today’s modern workforce. The mindset and leadership practices I’m referring to is the attitude of leaders who divide up the workplace with a “Them” vs. “Us” mentality. “Them” referring to the workers and “Us” referring to those in a supervisory or leadership role. 

The world is becoming more complex and connected. It is essential for organizations to tap into a greater measure of the potential within their workforce. Leaders will have to evolve and accept that their ability to achieve results that help their organization grow and succeed in the 21st Century will come down to creating a workplace culture that embraces the ideas and expertise of all employees, regardless of their role in the organization.

Today’s modern workforce has grown up in a more diverse and inclusive culture than previous generations. This is the reality that the younger generation is accustomed to. So, for those organization’s that aren’t willing to provide a workplace culture that represents this reality, they will by default reduce their chance of attracting and retaining top talent from diverse backgrounds. Developing an inclusive leadership approach is pivotal to ensuring that your organization creates an employer brand that communicates the value it places on attracting and retaining a diverse workforce and inclusive work environment.

Diversity and inclusion is not the same thing. In the context of business organizations – diversity equals representation. Inclusion creates connections with the head and heart of applicants to attract and retain diverse talent. Diversity and inclusion covers not only differences in race, gender, and sexual orientation but also geographical location, education, work styles, ethnicity, and communication styles among others. Leaders that fail to understand and adopt a broader perspective toward creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace culture run the risk of creating workplace cultures that limit their organization’s success.

According to The Great Place to Work organization, inclusive leadership practices build high-trust and high-performance workplace cultures. These leaders provide members of their workforce with opportunities to realize their full potential. Inclusive leaders are deliberate in their engagement with diverse team members. This helps them develop the trust and camaraderie that creates a sense of emotional and psychological safety within the workplace.

Employees who feel they have managers and leaders who sincerely care about them as a person, not just as an employee feel cared for. These employees are more apt to feel they can be themselves in the workplace. They take ownership of their tasks and show initiative in their work. They take pride in their performance and how it contributes to the success of their organization. These employees are highly engaged. They share their ideas, knowledge and experiences to inspire creative and innovative ideas that increase the organization’s growth and success. If your organization is not providing this type of workplace experience, why would talented people of any age seek out employment with your organization?

Blind Men and the Elephant

There is a parable about a group of blind men and an elephant. Each man had access to a different part of the elephant. One had the tail and said it felt like a rope. One had the leg and said it resembled a pillar. While another man had the belly and said it felt like a wall. Lastly, the final man had the tusk and claimed it felt like a solid pipe. Later, a man that could see came along and explained that they were all correct. Their reality about the elephant was correct for them because of their perception and the placement of their hand on the animal. This parable has been used to illustrate the principle of living in harmony with people who have different belief systems.

We all have different beliefs and perceptions about one another based on our experiences assumptions and cultural conditioning. Just like the blind men in the parable, our beliefs and perceptions about one another often reflect partial truths. Without the courage to seek first to understand each other, we run the risk of living our lives believing partial truths about one another.

Belonging: The Key to Employee Engagement

From the moment I put in my application for employment at the Columbia Marriott Hotel located in Columbia, SC to being called two months later to schedule an interview, to my new hire orientation where I learned about the company’s founder and chairman J. W. Marriott and the business start-up story, I felt and believed the company was a good fit for me. A huge part of it came down to the company’s commitment to service excellence. At the time, I was in my mid-20’s. The company had taken what I believed service excellence to be to the next level. They did it by establishing core values that communicated to its hourly and salary employees that we were expected to treat each other with the same concern and care that we demonstrated to the company’s external customers. The company believed that if employees were taken care of by leaders and by each other, we would, in turn, take better care of the company’s customers. The company’s slogan Spirit to Serve referred to the attitude it expected from all its stakeholders. I’d never heard nor experienced a workplace culture like it.

For example, a monthly practice of taking care of the hotel’s employees by our general manager involved scheduling monthly lunches with diverse team members from each department. He would inquire about how they were being treated by their managers to soliciting their input on current challenges and what they thought could help solve them. He continued these monthly lunches for more than two years before he was promoted. He was the first example of what I felt and believed represented the actions of an inclusive leader. He left an unforgettable impression on me especially as I began to take advantage of advancement opportunities within the company.

After four months of employment, I was promoted to a new position. Once I settled into my new housekeeping administrative position, I became inquisitive about my boss’s job duties. He allowed me to take the SOP manual home to study it. He began to train me on various aspects of his job. Once I was sure I could handle the additional responsibility, I offered to take over several of these tasks for him without an increase in my salary. My ability to grasp the management of all the line items relevant to the department’s P&L statement and my ability to successfully cultivate positive relationships with team members and executive committee members in the hotel convinced me I had what it took to become a Marriott manager. This vision of new possibilities and my workplace experiences inspired me to become a brand ambassador for the hotel. Including encouraging several family members and friends to apply and join the Marriott family.

This diverse and inclusive workplace culture provided me with opportunities to share my ideas, knowledge, and experience to contribute to the company’s success. I received mentoring from our HR Director about how to best navigate the work environment to explain the benefits of investing in Marriott’s 401(k) program. A few years later, the same HR Director recommended me for a supervisory position at Marriott’s first Courtyard opening in Columbia, SC. He suggested that I take advantage of this new opportunity because at the time the Courtyard division was the company’s fastest-growing division. This meant I would have greater opportunities for advancement within the company. He was right.

Becoming: The Key to An Individual and Organization’s Success

In six years, my work performance had been recognized with several awards. I was invited to become a charter member of Marriott’s Mid-Atlantic Diversity Council. I had the privilege of serving on our region’s Courtyard by Marriott’s new hotel task force team. Throughout this time, I began to recognize my passion for training and empowering new employees, new supervisors and department managers in creative ways. I was passionate about creating a workplace environment that would allow for my peers and team members to realize their potential.

After six years and five promotions, I interviewed for and was promoted into the general manager’s position at the Fairfield Inn by Marriott in Wilmington, NC. This was the company owned hotel property. My first six months were bumpy after completing my GM’s training in Atlanta, GA and relocating from Columbia, SC to Wilmington, NC. My challenges were caused by two realities: first, I had entered my new role seeking to use my position to influence the staff instead of first developing the necessary emotional connection required to earn the trust of those I was about to have the privilege of serving. Second, my teenage son Blease died six months after my promotion and four months after my daughter Dee and I relocated to Wilmington NC. My son had chosen to live with his father after our separation. Although I did my best to put on my “strong black woman” social mask, the mental and emotional hell I was experiencing reduced my effectiveness to connect with the heads, hearts, and hands of many team members.

These challenges inspired me to reconnect with the initial vision of my leadership in order for me to get myself back on track. I remembered to remember how by listening to snippets of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have A Dream speech weeks after his assassination and feeling this sense of knowing within myself that I was meant to be a leader who would make a positive difference in the lives of others. Remembering the initial emotions I experienced in those moments as Dr. King shared his inspirational speech at the March On Washington event helped me to expand my vision and sense of purpose for my leadership. In the midst of my grief-stricken heart, life was asking me to ‘level up’ my leadership in the face of a reality that I could not change.

Once I reconnected to the truth of my spiritual authority and enoughness, I turned my attention toward assessing how I was showing up as a servant leader. I recognized that my approach to my new team was a far cry from a demonstration of my standards of a servant leader.

I reviewed several techniques and strategies from my leadership playbook in order to get back on track. I understood at my core that building a high-performance workplace culture required the staff to have a high level of trust in me as a leader.

I focused my attention on helping them to see themselves from a more empowering perspective. I became deliberate toward building a team of leaders without titles. Yes, I focused on developing them. I already had an idea of what I was capable of achieving considering my humble beginnings and the current position I held. I needed to help them elevate their perspective of themselves. I knew from experience that when we begin to see ourselves differently, we begin to feel differently about ourselves and what’s possible in our life. When we begin to feel differently, we begin to behave and respond differently to diverse people and situations.

It was my responsibility as a leader to help them see in themselves with a more expansive and positive outlook. I knew from experience that if I put forth the effort of investing in the staff, and in our relationship, over time, we would build the cohesiveness necessary to become a winning team despite our bumpy start. As I maintained my commitment to their growth and development while building a foundation of trust in our relationships, more and more staff members began to step up to the challenge and level up their work performance. Our team’s energy shifted. The hotel’s revenue and profits grew. Our commitment to service excellence improved both our internal and external customer experience. This led to our hotel maintaining high occupancy percentages during the non-peak season which meant more income for employees which made it easier for the hotel to attract and retain talent. Together, we were able to become a team that was recognized for achieving some amazing successes.

You Belong Here

What does it mean for you to feel, “You Belong Here?” Do you feel these emotions in your workplace on a regular basis? Do you have the leadership capacity to effectively inspire this emotional state within your diverse work team? Is your leadership inclusive of those who don’t look like you or don’t necessarily think like you on every topic of discussion? Do you prefer to be surrounded by people who say YES to you all the time without question? Or, are you secure in your ability to invite diverse perspectives and ideas to the table for discussions with the purpose of creating a space for creative and innovative ideas that will help you scale your organization’s success? The values and leadership behavior that you demonstrate day-to-day will be long remembered beyond your accomplishments.

As a leader, you have the ability to influence those around us. Our ability to model what we stand for in terms of our values, create a leadership vision that inspires passion within us and those we serve, and do the work of creating an emotional connection with those we serve that inspires their head, heart and hands will increase the likelihood of building a high-trust and high-performance workplace culture. In this environment, people who feel they belong and are cared for show initiative in their work and take pride in their workplace performance, regardless of their position.

When you build a high-trust and high-performance workplace culture, you will attract and retain diverse top talent. Despite the dismal reports about employee engagement, the majority of your workforce want to feel inspired and proud of the contributions they make toward the success of their organizations. People don’t want to spend a third of their day, every day going to work feeling uninspired. Yes, they have financial obligations that require them to show up, but is that really the only reason you want people to work for your company? Wouldn’t it be more inspiring and motivating for both them and you if they felt a sense of belonging and had a vision of becoming a better version of themselves as a result of your leadership and your company’s workplace culture? My rise through the ranks within Marriott tells me that this is so.

I encourage you to think about the places where you mingle and the people that you interact with on a regular basis that trigger you to feel like you belong. Now think about your life without these places and people. How did the thought of your life without these people and places feel? Now consider the number of people in your workplace that don’t feel a sense of belonging in your workplace and how their need to feel like they belong is influencing their current performance. Some of them are doing just enough to get by. While others are hoping that the leaders in your organization level up and give them a reason to feel inspired to be more and do more. Will you be that leader?

The feeling of belonging inspires us to show up as our best selves. As we embody more of the energy of our best self, we tap into our creative powers to bend reality and create new possibilities in our life. Over time, we become a more empowered version of ourselves. Feeling like we belong matters to our emotional and psychological well-being. When we feel emotionally and physically safe, we are so much more willing to engage what we’re doing wholehearted which increases our joy, kindness, courage, patience, and success. The more your employees feel like they belong in your organization, the more engaged they will become. They start to execute aligned actions with a more positive attitude toward the accomplishment of your organizational goals. This is a recipe for “winning from within.”

Note: Are you a leader interested in helping your team or organization cultivate an inclusive workplace environment where everyone can win from within? If so, visit my website to find out more about my signature corporate workshop Everyone Matters: Cultivate a Culture of Belonging.


2017 Great Place to Work Report

Sherbin, Laura and Rashid, Ripa. Diversity Doesn’t Stick Without Inclusion. Harvard Business Review. February 2017.

Blind Men and Elephant. Wikipedia.