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Are culture, inclusiveness, engagement, and belonging all the same thing?

I was speaking to the former investment banker, now inclusive diversity strategist, Pam Teagarden and she said something surprising “culture, inclusiveness, engagement, and belonging are all the same thing.” Now it’s all too easy to start drawing distinctions between these concepts and I don’t think Teagarden was arguing that it couldn’t be done. She was saying that these are distinctions without difference, or perhaps more operationally, that we might be better off focusing on just one overarching concept. That’s a proposition worth exploring.


The disadvantage of distinctions

Let’s start by asking why we might be unhappy with keeping the ideas of culture, inclusiveness, and so on separate. The reason is that while they may all seem important and distinct to HR professionals, they all end up sounding the same to our audience: managers and employees.

From the perspective of managers and employees, it can feel that HR is simply foisting the latest flavour of the month on them. With each new concept managers and employees are told to learn new buzzwords, embrace new frameworks, and demonstrate new behaviours. It’s easy to imagine them saying, “OK, so once again you’re telling us not to be jerks—we got it last time.”

How far wrong are they to think a phrase like “be a good co-worker and don’t be a jerk” captures a great deal of all these HR concepts.

The advantages of a single concept

If you have an interest in personality assessments you will be familiar with the Myers-Briggs, Hartman’s assessment of four colours, Hogan’s Personality inventory, and many more. You can make the argument that these all have unique strengths or that they all are more the same than different. One thing organizations tend to do is standardize on one so that there is a common language in the organization.

Perhaps this same idea, that it’s a common language that matters, applies to Teagarden’s notion of combining culture, inclusiveness, engagement, and belonging into a single concept. If you create some overarching credo of how you want employees to behave, then you can create a common ground for everyone to discuss what decisions, policies, and priorities are appropriate.

A middle ground

The advantage of separating concepts like inclusiveness and belonging is that it gives us different perspectives—even when we think that at heart, they are looking at the same thing. The advantage of reinventing some terminology and introducing new frameworks is that it helps keep the conversation fresh. You can only take people through the corporate statement of values or culture or whatever so many times before they tune out.

There may be a middle ground. We can start with what we consider to be the core of the concept we are trying to get at. We can make that an anchor that we never lose hold of. From there we can add other perspectives on this anchor. So if we chose to call the anchor an “ethos” then our talk about culture or belonging or engagement would all be presented in terms of how they relate to that ethos. We get the benefits of consistency and of variety.

It’s worth noting that the idea of an unchanging anchor of organizational identity is one of the tools Ed Lawler and Chris Worley say is important to having an adaptable organization. In their book Built to Change, they suggest that having some solid core that employees know is stable makes it more comfortable for employees to change other things.

There is one challenge to maintaining a central unchanging ethos. Every new CEO or CHRO will want to put their own stamp on the organization by throwing out what was there before and replacing it with something new. Perhaps ownership of this one common ethos needs to lie with Board. Furthermore, perhaps one of the principles of the ethos should be “We do not change the ethos, just for the sake of change or personal preference”.


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