Three steps leaders can take to encourage LGBTQ+ belonging

Workplace policies and procedures aren’t enough. Here’s how to create a space in which your people can express themselves authentically


Research shows that allowing people to express themselves authentically in the workplace is good for both those individuals and the organisations that employ them: it can enhance wellbeing, increase job satisfaction, improve employee motivation and more.

But it takes more than policies and procedures that formally protect employees’ rights to express their social identities for these benefits to be realised. Indeed, unless employees feel safe and supported to take up the invitation extended to them, few will.

Pride Month reminds us that in many organizations, underrepresented social groups, including the LGBTQ+ community, continue to be stereotyped, marginalised and negatively targeted for expressing their social identities. The harsh truth is that the risk of being one’s authentic self is not distributed equally. In fact, it can come at a cost. Employees from marginalised social identities can face backlash and bias from colleagues for simply being themselves.

“18% of LGBTQ+ staff in Britain had been targeted with ‘negative comments of conduct from work colleagues”

These sanctions need not be conspicuous or even conscious. They may range from excluding a colleague from a particular discussion or outing, to denying an employee a promotion because they do not “fit” with the prototype of a leader.

Research has found that 18% of LGBTQ+ staff in Britain had been targeted with “negative comments or conduct from work colleagues” over the preceding year because of their identity. For those whose identities intersect across multiple marginalised groups, the barriers can be even greater. The same research stated: “One in 10 Black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBTQ+ staff (10 per cent) have similarly been physically attacked because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, compared to 3% of white LGBTQ+ staff.”

Similarly, women of colour describe code-switching to fit into the dominant culture of a group and hiding their authentic selves to avoid making others uncomfortable.

From talking the talk to allyship

Leaders and organisations often have the right talk when it comes to high-level commitments to support employee self-expression. But is this rhetoric embedded in the everyday culture of their companies? How can leaders ensure their organisations behave as allies to facilitate self-expression?

One way is to create an environment where all employees feel a sense of belonging, regardless of their social identities. Here, belonging refers to an individual’s ability to be themselves and be accepted as an equal in a particular environment or context. It is important at both an individual and organisational level: belonging can increase job performance and reduce the risk of job turnover.

We know that to establish a sense of belonging, people look to their surroundings for cues that will either lower or raise uncertainty about the acceptance of their social identity.

There are several ways leaders can ensure those positive signals are communicated to employees: by improving representation, removing stereotyping cues and highlighting their belief that potential is widespread.

The latter of these – highlighting your belief as a leader in others’ potential – can have a powerful effect on how members of a stigmatised or underrepresented group, such as members of the LGBTQ+ community, perceive their level of belonging and respond to it.

We know from earlier research examining underrepresented students’ sense of belonging within science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields that the language used by leaders to frame potential is powerful. In one of our experiments, underrepresented students (women undergraduates specializing in science, technology, engineering, and maths) presented with a statement suggesting that professors in their field believed almost all students had high performance potential reported a greater sense belonging in STEM than underrepresented students presented with a statement suggesting professors in their field believed only some students had high performance potential.

This was despite the fact that both statements did not identify any particular group has either having or lacking potential. Their belonging increased enough that it essentially equalled the belonging of majority group members (undergraduate men in STEM).

Positive social relations focused on creating change offers another powerful way for leaders to help foster belonging among underrepresented groups. In another research project, we studied what straight people said when they wanted to communicate their support for LGBTQ+ individuals. Ironically, the more common messages were not the most effective. Most straight people communicate about social connections – sharing how much they care about and support LGBTQ+ individuals.

While social connection messages were valuable, what was even more effective was when heterosexuals shared their belief in social change – highlighting the progress still to be made. Expressing support for your LGBTQ+ colleagues is only a good thing. But leaders who want to be more effective can speak about or show what they as individuals, or the organisation, are doing to change the status quo.

Take the next step in showing your Pride

We know leaders have a positive role to play in fostering the belonging needed to allow authentic self-expression by employees. They can adapt their language, expand their networks, and empower their LGBTQ+ employees. At London Business School, we teach this as active inclusion.

Here are three first steps every leader can take:

Step 1: Adapt your language. As an individual, being more inclusive through the language we use is something that is cost-neutral and easy to do. So rather that talking about “men and women”, refer to “people across the gender spectrum,” instead of talking about “your husbands and wives,” refer to “your partners.” Once you start thinking about how your language can cue belonging you will see myriad ways to improve it.

Step 2: Expand your network. Most people’s social networks are biased toward people similar to them, and leaders are no different. This is why practicing active inclusion requires you to be honest about who has been left out of your network, and then taking action to make connections that include people from other identity backgrounds. Take action, and you can forge real relationships that draws your LGBTQ+ colleagues more fully the workplace social network – benefitting your leadership and their belonging. 

Step 3: Empower LGBTQ+ employees. Most allies and advocates know that listening to LGBTQ+ employee perspectives is important, and are aware of the critical value of increasing representation in top leadership. However, we too often see leaders and organisations relying on time to address the profound underrepresentation of LGBTQ+ leaders. It’s not enough to see lots of energised and high potential individuals lower in the organisation and to wait for them to rise up – that lack of representation damages their belonging and could mean that you lose some of your best people while you wait.

Leaders and organisations must proactively accelerate the pipeline into top leadership, creating the change everyone wishes to see. This mean reaching out to all levels of your leadership, from relatively junior leaders to those in middle and senior management (people who might have come up during a time of less acceptance), and proactively supporting their development and inclusion as leaders.

These insights are worth keeping in mind all of the time, not only during Pride month. Because fostering the equal belonging and authentic self-expression of your people matters all year round.


Aneeta Rattan is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School. Her research interests focus on mindsets and intergroup relations (stereotyping, prejudice, and inequity).

Aharon Cohen-Mohliver is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School. He is a strategy scholar specialising in quantitative research of business ethics and corporate social responsibility (CSR).

We invite you to discuss and debate the topic 'Pride before people? How to fix the top 3 mistakes organisations make in LGBTQ+ allyship' on Monday 28 June from 12:45 BST.

Rainbow logos and Pride parties aren’t enough any more – is your organisation ready to take the next step forward in supporting LGBTQ+ employees? LBS faculty Randall Peterson, Aharon Cohen Mohliver, Aneeta Rattan and special guest Pips Bunce explore evidence and experience-based insights into what true LGBTQ+ allyship and advocacy looks like in global organisations today.

Register for the event here


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