Leading the way to belonging in research and innovation


Written by Director of N8 Research Partnership, Dr Annette Bramley.

“If I get to be me, I belong… If I have to be like you, I fit in.” – Brene Brown: The Call to Courage

In her 2019 Netflix film, “The Call to Courage”, Brene Brown describes how a group of schoolchildren helped her define the difference between belonging and fitting in. “If I get to be me, I belong,” one told her. “If I have to be like you, I fit in.” Belonging at work can be described also as being able to bring our authentic selves to work, and to feel appreciated and confident for being who we are.

Belonging is inherently inclusive, and is an approach to equality and diversity issues that both encompasses both majority and minority groups and also embraces intersectionality. It’s for this reason that belonging is being hailed as the evolution needed to progress equality, diversity and inclusion at work. We all have our ‘in-groups’- people that we share particular qualities and values with; and our ‘out-groups’- people that don’t. Teams and organisations where people feel a strong sense of belonging have bigger and more diverse ‘in-groups’ where people are not wasting time and energy trying to fit in, are able to address more complex problems and take more objective decisions with fewer unconscious biases.

Belonging also increases performance. People who feel a strong sense of belonging in their workplace are more productive, more likely to contribute at their full potential, more motivated and committed and more creative. People who feel like they belong in an organisation are less likely to leave and are more likely to speak well of their employer- thereby attracting more high quality candidates for future roles.

So how does this translate to research and innovation and why is cultivating a sense of belonging important for our system in the 21st Century?

Many of the problems and challenges we face today are complex and multifaceted, and cannot be solved by one person working alone. As soon as we start working with others, i.e. collaborating (literally, co-labouring), we are trying to bring a collective intelligence to bear on these issues. To optimise our research and innovation system we need to create strong feelings of belonging to our professional relationships; to our teams, research groups, collaborations, departments, businesses and networks. We need to attract and retain the best researchers and innovators into our universities and businesses whatever their background, age and experience.

Whether we lead or are a member of a particular team we need to ask ourselves- does everyone in this team feel a sense of belonging? How do I behave around this team so that others know they belong? How to I make it safe for people in this team to bring their whole-selves to work?

Daniel Coyle in his book, the Culture Code, highlights the importance of ‘belonging cues’- a language of belonging which matters more than words. Belonging cues are made up of small signals repeated again and again and again, signals like spending time together, listening, taking turns, mirroring and eye contact. He summarises them into 3 basic groups:

Presence – investing energy in the relationship and the exchange that’s occurring. It can be made up of cues like spending time together, eye contact and physical cues like handshakes and mirroring.

Respect– treating everyone as unique and valued, extending courtesies, taking turns, not interrupting, being curious and asking questions, and making sure everyone has equal airtime.

Future Focused– emphasising the continuing nature and importance of the relationship, showing that you will meet again, that you are invested in the team and its success, that you make time for the people in it.

In considering the challenges of multidisciplinary and collaborative research, we often think about the different languages spoken by different academic disciplines. Could it be that by thinking about the language of belonging, we could start to build collaborations more quickly and more effectively?

Can we build a more diverse and inclusive research body by thinking about the belonging cues within our own teams, departments and peer groups?

I think we can.  I believe that by adopting simple behaviours we can show everyone involved in research and innovation that they belong.  This can be done by anyone, but will be most effective when those in positions of real influence demonstrate these behaviours.  Hearing something from a leader will not change the behaviour of others; it is seeing the leader communicate the behaviours through their own actions that makes the difference in the language of belonging.

So, behaviours that show that we are interested in what our colleagues have to say, that we care about them, that we are curious in their perspectives and experiences.  By asking for feedback and for help, and by not allocating blame or “throwing colleagues under a bus” to spare our own blushes if things haven’t turned out as we hoped or planned.  Behaviours that show that it doesn’t matter what school you went to or what your accent is or whether you have a doctorate, that you are important to our research and innovation system and that you have a role to play and will be encouraged to play that role to the best of your ability.

By drawing on all of our talent, by creating a culture of belonging, we can drive a new more inclusive more productive research and innovation system in the UK.