Institutions are only as strong as the people who run them, and their ability to work effectively as a team. For a number of years, Congress has grappled with the issue of diversity and how, as the representative body of the American electorate, it can be more reflective of who we are as a nation and serve as an effective legislative body. Achieving this goal requires foundational and institutional changes that can only be accomplished through a comprehensive approach. Diversity is merely a starting point. We need institutions, especially our representative body, as Congress is, to devote itself to leadership in institutionalizing the concept of belonging.
A sole focus on diversity can be a distraction from tackling some of the deeper, more nuanced issues that stand in the way of real reform. “In a legitimate democracy,” says scholar john a. powell, “belonging means that your well-being is considered and your ability to help design and give meaning to its structures and institutions is realized.” By addressing the concept of belonging, whether in Congress, corporate America, or local communities, we are acknowledging and asserting our roles in helping to build thriving enterprises, healthy communities, and a strong democracy.
If belonging in the context of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a new concept to you, you are not alone. Like so many other issues, our understanding of how we approach diversity has evolved with time to encompass the concepts of equity and inclusion. Belonging is the next stage, where we tie all these ideas together to focus on the environment that you create — such as in a Congressional office, or on a board or commission with diverse members. This approach can help Congress and other governing institutions function better and be more responsive to their constituents. One way to think of it is that diversity is a “to-do” item on a checklist but belonging is your mission statement — a reflection of your values.
New research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that if workers feel like they belong, companies reap substantial bottom-line benefits. The research links high belonging with an increase in job performance and a decrease in turnover risk. While Congress is clearly a unique work environment, the health and future of its workforce must be a concern for each and every office.
In an era of sweeping demographic change and a long-overdue reckoning with racial injustice, creating an environment in institutions and communities that have traditionally not been diverse or deliberately equitable and inclusive is vital work. While recent election cycles have steadily increased the number of elected members of Congress who are women or come from diverse backgrounds, efforts to diversify staff who support them — the issue experts and the links between them and their constituents — continue to lag.
A Congressional office that, even unwittingly, is actively hostile at worst, or merely tolerant of Black, immigrant, indigenous, or diverse Americans at best, means that offices will consistently fall short of their potential to produce meaningful results. Legislation, constituent services, and effective policy agendas that speak to the broad needs and interests of constituents will not reflect their input. This approach conveys the notion that some voices and experiences are simply not important enough to be included in critical policy debates.
As advocates and as practitioners of effective DEIB strategies, we recognize that this is not an easy undertaking but remain steadfast in our commitment to building an inclusive workplace in Congress. Key elements to achieve that goal include the following:
Focus on leadership. Leaders — whether Members, Chiefs of Staff, or other staffing managers — must be prepared to be vocal in their commitment to the values and importance of a more inclusive workplace culture and its shared benefits. This requires an office to identify its values and take active steps to commit time and resources in making those values ring true in policy and practice. A casual implication or assumption that “everyone knows” is not enough to institutionalize the changes that yield real results.
Make it do-able. Despite the need for leadership at the top, change typically happens when busy managers who are responsible for how values are lived out in people management on a day to day basis, adapt their practice and become the shapers of culture. Supporting busy people with practical know-how and tools is key and should inform any new resource developed to support hiring managers.
Culture change takes time, openness, and support. It is human nature to want results immediately, but this is about building a systemic approach that you can integrate into all functions of the office. The purpose of DEIB work is to create a healthy culture that produces great results: attracting and retaining exceptional talent and building teams that function well, creating a culture of trust, and reckoning honestly and productively with conflict. Informal leaders and networks can be additional resources to support peers through moments of challenge, providing trusted channels for listening so that truth can emerge, and reconciliation can follow.
Capture and elevate results. Creating a people-centered team and embracing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is a proven, winning recipe. Once it demonstrates success in strong teams and work product, others will want to follow. Elevating these results helps move beyond early adopters to a more widely embraced set of norms. This is an important complement to the work of compliance and rule-setting, which focuses on what falls outside accepted norms and laws, rather than role-modeling good behavior.
From the halls of government to neighborhoods across America, creating inclusive environments where people with diverse perspectives work together with agency and shared purpose is the foundation of a healthy democracy. It is also simply what good government looks like in the 21st century. For Congress, this approach strengthens its commitment to the ideals of democracy and its ability to legislate effectively and in the best interest of the people it serves. It closes the gap in values and action to make this cherished institution the hallmark of our representative democracy.