Extending the Paradigm from Diversity & Inclusion to Belonging & Wellbeing

By Vincent Merk, Senior Lecturer in Intercultural Management & Community Advisor at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e)

Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) are popular topics at the moment in society in general and in business and academia in particular. Consequently, it was natural to address this issue during the SIETAR Switzerland (S-CH) congress this year: not in Yverdon, as originally planned in April, but online in a six-week comprehensive congress programme this autumn. The organisers rightly set up a World Café (WC) as a framework for a presentation and a group discussion on the topic. I had the honour of introducing the topic in a 10-minute lecture that was followed by subgroup discussions in breakout rooms.*

My purpose in my introduction was to reflect on what D&I means for practitioners, educators or researchers and extend the paradigm, starting from Diversity as a reality to actively create Inclusion, Belonging and ultimately Wellbeing. I briefly explained how to accomplish this transformation in such a way as to fully co-generate the best possible, socially and psychologically safe environment. In that secure environment, people can thrive and openly speak, question, act (and also make mistakes) and live a healthy life. Finally, I made recommendations that can serve as a framework for reflection or guidelines for actions to develop best practices daily, during these turbulent Covid-19 times, but also afterwards when we create the new normal. The situations I showcased had to do with professional mobility i.e. that of a (young) professional moving into a new job position in an international context, or of a student starting a new study in a another, foreign institution. In other words: Situations of adaptation to and integration into a new international setting. Let’s now review the main concepts.

What is Diversity? Diversity can be visible or hidden. Generally speaking, it refers to ethnic and cultural backgrounds/ nationalities, genders, generations, multi-disciplinarity, lifestyles, various (sexual) orientations, (dis)ability, etc. Visible differences between individuals or groups are in general gender, age, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, physical (dis)ability. Hidden aspects are personal or group values, beliefs, visions, attitudes, convictions, sexual orientation, knowledge, competencies, talents, life styles and past experiences, etc. In current Corona-times, knowledge of and competencies in, for example, online communication practices emerged as a source of new diversity and discrimination aspects that can lead to social or professional exclusion. In this context, I see diversity as a reality, the existence of differences and variety in characteristics as a fact, an attribute or act of nature. Sometimes it is a situation you inherit, like a teacher in an international classroom or a manager leading a global (virtual) team. Therefore, diversity often has a passive character.

As an illustration, think of this simple metaphor: you have just bought a puzzle and have put all pieces on a table. They show diversity in shape, size and colour. But they also feature a (hidden) common ground. They indeed fit together, but only on a 1-to-1 basis. From this passive situation called diversity, you will need to make choices and take action to put all the pieces into one big whole and create inclusion. This is the process of moving from diversity towards inclusion.

What is Inclusion? In contrast to diversity, inclusion is making choices and taking actions, adopting (new) behaviours and perusing (new) goals to eventually include everyone in the group. For F. Trompenaars: “Inclusion is about what you share, diversity is what you don’t share”; think of the pieces of the puzzle mentioned above. For V. Myers: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance”. It’s about feeling self-confident, physically free, emotionally recognised and appreciated, mentally accepted and psychologically safe! The concept of the International Classroom is a common example for the right place to develop diversity and inclusion and foster belonging on campus.

In the current pandemic with its ubiquitous online teaching (or rather Emergency Remote Teaching – ERT), it is obviously more difficult to organise and run international classrooms on a regular basis and onsite. Lecturers and other staff members often have other organisational or technical priorities to tackle first. Nevertheless, the feeling of being part of the same community is especially important in crisis times, whether online or onsite. Are we indeed in the same pandemic storm with our peers, and are we also in the same lockdown boat? Not so sure. So in a virtual environment, too, the diversity around us asks for actions to create some degree of inclusion. It is important to compensate social distancing with distant socializing. The lack of it will most likely lead to erosion of the existing inclusion process. As many of us are still studying or working from home to stop the spread of the virus, there is no doubt that we continue to put inclusion at risk by possibly reshaping previous exclusive attitudes and in-group biases. In the longer run, after nine months of corona crisis, we have seen that the current uncertain situation has undermined the inclusive study and work environments we had created before. Likewise, other physical or technical challenges have also impacted on the development of inclusion processes on campuses or in businesses around the world.

To conclude, because inclusion is at risk in the current pandemic crisis, we need to show a bold attitude to create inclusion from the present diversity, and anticipate, prevent and ultimately stabilise the risks mentioned above. In short: for a good mastery of the diversity and inclusion process, we need to deploy a systematic approach and co-create new practices for infrastructure recovery, personal resilience and collective re-engineering of what will be our new normal. In class, this means that we all aim to create a new inclusive international classroom based on blended-learning applications now and in the post Covid-19 era.

Belonging, or rather creating a sense of belonging is the next stage in this extension of the paradigm, and it is about going farther with the concept of inclusion. More concretely, it is  about sharing larger and deeper common grounds and making sure the shifting panels that constitute our personal and cultural backgrounds and life experiences (diversity, in short) overlap, making all the pieces of the puzzle fit. With this sense of belonging we create our own new comfort zone. Of course, here again, a strong sense of psychological safety must be present. Furthermore, it needs to be mutual: I feel safe, and the other also feels safe.

A common illustration of this sense of belonging is the following metaphor summed up by a nine-year old girl: “Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard” (Liz & Mollie). Paraphrasing and extending the definition of diversity by V. Myers, I propose the following for belonging: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance, and belonging is feeling safe and (self)-confident to ask the DJ to play your favourite song, knowing it will also please the other dancers”. To summarise and keep the dancing metaphor: “It takes (at least) 2 to tango”! Reciprocity of empathy, acceptation and even appreciation are necessary. Locally, develop the concept of Neighbourliness (the ability to live and learn together). On a campus, both local and international students and staff must share this feeling during the process of community-building. In the international classroom, both locals and internationals must be willing to share their knowledge, best practices, experiences, and emotions. Why? Because we must create a sense of belonging and not a feeling of to be longing, right?

Finally, by extending the paradigm further, i.e. going from diversity to inclusion and belonging, we reach the ultimate stage of full integration and create Wellbeing! A definition by an expert: Wellbeing is much broader than health. This does not just concern physical health only, but also mental health, someone’s social role and social embedding. Like making your own choices and learning to be resistant to stress” (A. Dalinghaus, GP in Eindhoven working with internationals and expats). This broad statement also hints at neurodiversity and some disabilities like dyslexia, HDHD, autism that also need to be taken into account when dealing with diversity.

How do we further create wellbeing on a university campus? Since education is becoming more and more community-based nowadays, and inclusion, integration and wellbeing are admittedly often based on a sense of belonging to a community, it is important to identify (sub)communities students can join and profit from. Social events like Health or Vitality Weeks, international fairs, etc. all contribute to creating a context of physical and psychological wellbeing, both on the individual and collective level.

However, in the current Covid-19 crisis, wellbeing in both its physical and mental scope is under pressure. Indeed, loneliness and social isolation can lead to a feeling of exclusiveness, lack of self-confidence and possibly homesickness, culture shock and eventually a stage of depression.

As a conclusion: to extend the paradigm from Diversity to Inclusion, Belonging and Wellbeing in the current Covid-19 times, we need to transform the classical VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) world into the new VUCAR (Vision, Understanding, Clarity, Agility and add the R of Resilience) to this new environment. In conceptual terms, extending the paradigm calls for a multidisciplinary approach and in this respect cultural intelligence (CQ), emotional intelligence (EQ) and possibly also digital intelligence (DQ) can contribute to a comprehensive picture. And no doubt the neurosciences can also clarify the interface between our brains and any cultural context to help us generate the rights thoughts and take the right actions. On a more practical level, to enable us to extend the paradigm, we need to create awareness of current and future developments and processes, and co-produce our new narratives through storytelling or other techniques. It is also important we show our gratitude for all the achievements made, our vulnerability in leadership, empathy for our social and human environment and compassion for our peers. I believe all these qualities are critical in order for us all to care for people in crisis, set the stage for (economic) recovery and co-create our new normal in education, business and in society at large. And for those still left alone: do not be passive or wait too long, go for it and claim your place at the table or on the dance floor. Be bold and bring your own values and strengths and make your voice heard, because you most likely deserve it. And otherwise set up your own table or organise your own party to multiply the effects of awareness and inclusive action. Let’s all join forces in this ongoing process!

Just a short note on the richness of the discussions in the subgroups in breakout rooms. Shared ideas, suggestions and opinions ranged from various aspects of diversity to linguistic, social, psychological and economic topics. Illustrations were both theoretical/conceptual and practical/empirical/experiential. There is unfortunately no space here to list or even reflect on them properly.

*In relation to this topic, also see the article by Nasser Yassine “Building a culture of peace for the advent of peaceful and inclusive societies: collective approach for a sustainable world after COVID” who placed the topic of inclusion in a broader perspective during the World Café.


Edmondson, A.C. (2020, June 22) The Role of Psychological Safety in Diversity and Inclusion. Psychology Today. https://www-psychologytoday-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-fearless-organization/202006/the-role-psychological-safety-in-diversity-and-inclusion?

McKinsey & Company (2020, May 19) Diversity still matters. McKinsey Quarterly https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/diversity-still-matters

Merk, V. (2020, May 17) Creating the new normal with the new VUCA in Corona-times. LinkedIn Article. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/creating-new-normal-vuca-corona-times-vincent-merk/

Merk, V. (2020, July 7) Extending the Paradigm: From Diversity & Inclusion, to Belonging and Wellbeing in (Post) Covid-19 Times. LinkedIn Article. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/extending-paradigm-from-diversity-inclusion-belonging-vincent-merk/

Illustration credit Visual harvester, Raquel Benmergui

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