The global business community faces an uncharted path based on the chaotic events taking place in the U.S. and around the world. We face a multitude of challenges, from wars and elections to economic uncertainty and culture-based backlash.

In times like these, many senior business leaders are taking a hard look at what they should do next. Many are assessing themselves as leaders and wondering where they should direct their energy, given that we face so many disparate issues. If predictability is out of the question, perhaps it is better to think through what we can control as executives.

What I am counseling fellow leaders is to double-down on belonging. By every measure, I’m seeing a clear indication that this is what our employees want, not to mention our stakeholders, from customers and vendors to our customers and others in our communities. It is certainly within our scope to create environments where individuals feel empowered to bring their whole selves to the workplace.

Some would argue that this is a moral, not a business, issue. However, from my experience as a C-suite leader and adviser to executives around the world, I see this imperative as a strategic advantage. And, new research indicates that no matter where in the world our companies are located or where we have offices, belonging is an issue that cuts across barriers and can have a transformational impact on performance.

Belonging around the world

Researchers at Bain & Company surveyed 6,000 employees across four nations to assess the state of belonging globally. Their report uncovered the serious problems when workers do not feel included, explaining that those “who feel excluded are almost certain to perform at less than their full potential … the human brain processes exclusion in ways that are similar to how it processes physical pain.”

My rationale for focusing on belonging as a business driver, however, is linked to the team’s conclusion that when diversity and inclusion are combined, the result is stronger real-world business outcomes, particularly in areas such as innovation and talent management. And, for those companies that have begun their journey, there has been a payoff. “Employees who have seen their companies intentionally invest in inclusion since 2020 are three times more likely to feel fully included than employees who have not seen such investment from their employers,” the study notes.

I am also encouraged by the tie between belonging and leadership. The Bain report identified that “employees are nine times more likely to feel fully included when they perceive both their supervisors and senior management as inclusive.” This research reaffirms my thinking about the critical role executives play as change agents at culture-centric organizations. Their commitment to authentic transformation has an outsized benefit company-wide by setting the tone for stronger collaboration, customer service, sales and inclusive marketing efforts, in addition to the huge driver of innovation mentioned earlier.

Pathway to belonging

Based on the understanding that executives lead the belonging effort, I wanted to offer an action item you can use right away, which is building and supporting Employee Resource Groups (ERGs).

Because ERGs are built from within, but need executive sponsorship and resources to achieve momentum, they are a powerful vehicle for empowering underrepresented groups. The work that emerges from these groups places newfound emphasis on diversity issues and can be used to increase employee diversity in an organization’s recruiting, hiring, career development and mentorship programs.

The primary reason I put ERGs on the table is that the commitment frequently pays dividends. A recent study by WorkHuman found that 46% of employees said that having ERGs would influence them to accept a job offer. In other words, as a tool for building talent management, employee groups are a vivid demonstration that the company lives its diversity and inclusion values.

ERGs also directly tie to belonging because they provide employees with a forum for discussing sensitive topics and asking questions that they may not feel comfortable asking their managers. When ERGs are focused on specific concerns, like bringing more women leaders into management, they enable deeper focus and commitment to the issue.

While many organizations have successfully adopted ERGs, I find that it is one of the most powerful methods for linking culture change to business objectives. As leaders who support ERGs, we demonstrate our own commitment to belonging and empower our teammates to play a direct role in creating the culture through collective action.

Uncertainty is a business norm. The upside, however, is that inclusive leaders can rise to the challenge by focusing on creating a diverse, inclusive culture that has a towering return on investment. When everyone trusts one another, feels valued and knows that their contributions are helping meet aspirations, the organization moves toward workplace excellence. This is what employees want in the U.S. and at companies globally. We must count on executives to lead their teams toward that ambition.

About Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 SE Award winner, founded The Diversity Movement (TDM) to fundamentally transform the modern workplace through diversity-led culture change. TDM was recently acquired by Workplace Options, which brings holistic wellbeing services to more than 80 million people in more than 200 countries and territories across the globe. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, Thompson is author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics.

Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events and his podcast, or contact him at info@donaldthompson.com for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content. TDM has created LeaderView, a leadership assessment tool that uses cultural competency as a driver for improving whole team performance. To further explore DEI content and issues impacting your work and life, visit TDM Library, a multimedia resource hub that gives leaders a trusted source of DEI content.