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We All Want to Belong at Work


“Finding commonalities and accepting differences is the key to belonging,” said ADP’s business anthropologist, Martha Bird.

When I started to consider belonging at work, I knew exactly who to call — ADP’s business anthropologist, Martha Bird [MB]. Here’s some of our conversation about why belonging matters and what organizations can do to create and sustain a culture of belonging.

HB: Having a sense of belonging seems so important to how we move through the world and how we relate to our work. What is belonging?

MB: Belonging almost strikes people as poetic. It seems like a feeling, so it can resist the critical lens we need to unpack it.

People think of belonging as a psychological state, but it is actually cultural. It’s the notion of being inside or outside and relates to enacted phenomena like what the cultural norms are around us and how we compare ourselves to those norms.

Everything cultural is nested in other things and is influenced by power, resources, how things have been done in the past, and what the expectations are for the people involved.

Kids can feel like they don’t belong because of their clothes. New employees can feel like they don’t belong because of the jargon used in the organization. I’m a social scientist surrounded by tech people and it’s not surprising that my sense of belonging is tested from time to time. Ultimately, I’m privileged to feel I’m part of something bigger than myself.

HB: What makes a culture of belonging? It seems like belonging is relational. It’s partly how I perceive the circumstances and culture, how people already in that culture see it, and what’s actually going on regardless of our individual perceptions and opinions.

MB: There are so many ways to feel like you don’t belong — socially, economically, intellectually, emotionally. It’s that sense of other. To make sense of it, we can look at othering, break it down, and pick it apart to see what’s happening. We identify the discreet instances where someone feels alienated and read the cultural cues about what is happening. This gives us information about the culture.

There is no universal recipe for what makes a healthy culture. There are many good and right ways to do things.

It partly has to do with a culture’s view of the individual and how the individual should relate to others. In the United States, belonging often evokes family, but we also have strong cultural values in individuality and being recognized and valued as an individual. In other cultures, a sense of harmony is highly valued and working toward common goals is more important than individual achievement.

A culture of belonging fundamentally has to do with common goals and values, respect for each other, and a sense of our shared humanity.

HB: How can we help people feel like they belong at work?

MB: We want workplaces where people feel like they can be themselves, but are also working with others to do the work. It’s less about fitting in and more about complementing. There has to be room for difference. It’s like an orchestra where the manager is the conductor and we have all these different instruments playing different parts in the same piece of music. We don’t want just the violins or the tubas. We need all the different sounds, rhythms and harmonies.

Belonging at work starts with leaders modeling the values and behavior for their teams. Is it comfortable to embody those values? Sometimes that means being vulnerable and asking for help.

I recently gave a big speech to a large group of people in a setting where I felt anxious. Walking up to the stage, I decided to tell the audience that and ask for help. So I explained how I was feeling and asked them to tell me, “It’s okay, Martha!” It was great, so I asked them to do it again. And they did! I felt so much better and they were all on my team at that point, because I was vulnerable and asked them to help me in a way they could.

In cultures of belonging, it’s okay to be honest about what’s going on, even if it’s that you don’t feel included.

HB: What are some specific things that managers or leaders can do to foster belonging at work?

MB: At the organizational level, it’s essential to ensure that the values of the organization exist at every level and in every manager without exception. It’s also important to consider how to structure teams and make sure they can communicate effectively, based on where and how people work.

At the team level, good manager training is key. Managers need skills in working with teams, allowing for different views, and figuring out how to handle disagreements and how decisions get made. When people can weigh in on something, there is a sense of being in it together.

It’s important to see each other as people, not work roles. Connecting in person and outside of work makes a difference. We need to tell and know each other’s stories and create opportunities for sharing. Have lunch, have informal video meetings where everyone gets to tell something about themselves. I was in a meeting recently where we all told the story of our names. I learned a lot and felt like the people who heard my story knew me a little better, too.

We need more awareness and cultural consciousness by design. People are fundamentally creative and want to learn. We all have different experiences and different lives.

Finding commonalities and accepting those differences is the key to belonging.

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Driving Innovation with Ethnography


Humans are typically curious by nature, but there’s a deep resource around human behavior that can be tremendously valuable as we design our strategies in business and life in general.

Cultural anthropologists combine curiosity and empirical science to deliver sustained value. They are trained to interpret and translate why people do the things they do and how unconscious and overlapping motivations influence their actions, their attitudes, their approach to the myriad people, products, politics and places of everyday life. We do this by spending time in the places where people make meaning, a method of inquiry known as ethnography. It’s what gets us excited, and it’s where we impact academia and industry.

Part of our work focuses on challenging the things we take for granted and, in so doing, encouraging new ways of looking at ideas, interactions and people we may have overlooked in the forgetfulness of the routine. Curiosity is our “rocket fuel.”

My colleague, Jay Hasbrouck, captures the spirit of the anthropological mindset when he writes, “When used as more than a research tool to expose consumer needs, ethnographic thinking helps companies and organizations build on the cultural meanings and contexts of their offerings, develop the flexibility to embrace cultural change, focus their strategies at critical cultural phenomena, and test and develop business model changes.”1

Where Ethnography Comes In

For those of us in the tech sector, in particular, the focus is quite aggressively on questions around data biases, including how algorithms are constructed and, ultimately, who they advantage and who they don’t. It’s a much bigger issue than simply “feeding the machine” and imagining that the outputs are somehow free of judgment. They’re not.

But, who should be responsible for exploring the roots of these biases? Biases that pre-exist “the machine learning” and biases that are already deeply embedded in culture. We hear a lot of blaming in the popular press about this or that platform creating unfair advantages. Nevertheless, should we leave it to data analysts and computer scientists to untangle these social inequalities? It seems a more appropriate area of investigation for those of us who study culture and the power flows that animate it.

So we begin to ask questions. What’s fair in a data-mediated world? What role does empathy play in communicating evidence and big data? What constitutes evidence in a global context, among others?

Placing blame on “flawed” algorithms and the companies on which data-driven services depend is really missing the critical point. We need to look outside the tech and start to get serious about the very non-technical realities that contribute to an unequal present and, consequently, an inevitably unequal future.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the admittedly broad subject of AI viewed from an anthropological perspective. My main goal in doing so is to further challenge the cultural category “AI” (big and small), while also exploring how ethnographic methodology (direct observation/active-listening) might help advance our understanding of the human and machine relationships forming here and now and tomorrow.

Specifically, I’m thinking about two main question areas. First, a definitional focus: How might we begin to articulate an ethnography of AI, what role might AI technologies play in the service of ethnographic practice, and how might (and does) ethnographic inquiry inform AI technologies? Second, a philosophical focus: Who is responsible for bias in data, in algorithms and in outcomes to include discussion around how work related to AI is currently organized within tech companies today?

As companies become increasingly reliant on data-driven insights to build their offerings, market their products and guide scope for future projects, we need to get serious about the reality that data isn’t “raw” or “clean” — but rather deeply reflective of the social and political circumstances from which they are pulled and to which they contribute. It’s an exciting time to be an anthropologist working in technology where the human is deeply enmeshed with the machine.

Martha Bird is a Business Anthropologist working in ADP’s Roseland Innovation Lab. She was selected to co-moderate a session at the premiere international ethnography event 2018 EPIC Conference October 9-12, 2018 in Honolulu.