W Power 2024

Creating a culture of belonging

For leaders, every workday brings opportunities to shape the belonging experience for employees by applying inclusive behaviours and norms

Published: Apr 18, 2024 10:49:30 AM IST
Updated: Apr 18, 2024 10:59:53 AM IST

Creating a culture of belongingMore and more, leaders at all levels are being asked to make sure that everyone on their team feels like they belong, because if they don’t, companies know that employees will walk Image: Shutterstock

Imagine this scenario: Your friend invites you to a party, and you agree to meet there, but she is running late, so you go in alone. And then you stand there, waiting, feeling awkward. And that feeling starts to grow, because you don’t really know anyone, at least not well enough to walk up and chat. The worst part is, no one comes up to say Hi or offer you a drink; not even the host. Everywhere you look, there are groups of two, three or four, lost in conversation and laughing. It starts to feel like you don’t exist. Like nobody can see you. So you shuffle backwards out the front door. Maybe you stick around until your friend shows up, but more likely, you just go home.

What if you experienced these same feelings at work every day? What if you showed up, but didn’t feel seen, heard or included? What if that unwelcoming host was your boss?

More and more, leaders at all levels are being asked to make sure that everyone on their team feels like they belong, because if they don’t, companies know that employees will walk. On the other hand, if they do feel like they belong, employees will not only stay and feel valued, they will do better work.

So many important and complicated workplace issues affect perceived levels of belonging: racial and gender representation and sensitivity, sexual orientation, physical appearance and disability, to name a few. Add to that the compounding factor of intersectionality—how the multiple identity groups that an individual identifies with combine and interact to create their unique life experience. The problem is, leaders are often oblivious to a belonging issue on their team.

I recently received a phone message from a former student of mine:
Hey Sonia. A few months ago, we onboarded a new team member. She does amazing work and we get along really well. But at her first review, she told me she likes working here but doesn’t totally feel like part of the team: Some of the other employees have inside jokes, sort of like a clique; she doesn’t often get asked for feedback, and she’s an introvert, so the way we do meetings is tough for her. I feel terrible, like I’m a bad boss.

What does it take for someone to feel like they belong at work? Diversity, equity and inclusion expert Pooja Jain-Link is a senior executive at Coqual—a non-profit thinktank based in New York City. She defines belonging as follows: “Belonging means you feel seen for your unique contributions, connected to your coworkers, supported in your daily life and career development and proud of your organization’s values and purpose”. The problem, she says, is that many workplaces are not structured to create a sense of belonging for everyone, leading to a greater sense of belonging for some but not  for others.

“Whenever someone says to me, ‘Oh, we don’t have a problem with belonging on my team; everyone feels included’, that statement is probably coming from someone who does feel like they belong—which is great. And maybe it is true that all of their teammates feel that way, too. But part of being an insider is, you often don’t recognize when someone else feels like an outsider. And that can lead to the kind of homogeneity we see at many organizations.

Research indicates that people who have some basic commonalities with their manager are more likely to receive feedback—especially valuable critical feedback that helps them grow and succeed, says Pooja. When there are lines of difference between a manager and team member, such feedback is much more rare. “Feedback breaks down, because there is often some discomfort or fear about saying the wrong thing or offending the employee.” Similarity or ‘insider status’ can lead to a variety of biases, sometimes unconsciously.

The challenge for leaders is, how can you break a habit if you aren’t even aware of it?
Ask yourself some key questions, says Pooja: Do you recognize people’s skills and accomplishments equally? Do colleagues have opportunities to recognize each other’s skills and accomplishments? Do employees seem like they’re being themselves at the organization?

“Asking people, ‘How much do you feel like you can bring your whole self to work?’ is a starting point,” she says. Bringing your whole self to work means being able to show up authentically and not feeling like you have to edit pieces of your identity to fit in. It also means feeling like you can be vulnerable—make mistakes, ask questions and take risks. You don’t have to present a perfect version of yourself, she says; it’s enough to be able to be who you are.

Curiosity is a valuable attribute in this arena. As a leader or colleague, when you’re curious about people, you will learn more about them, putting you in a better position to become an ally. “You can’t just decide one day, ‘Going forward, I am going to be an ally for group X or group Y’,” says Pooja. “It’s about your actions. For example, showing up at meetings and speaking up in support of colleagues of different backgrounds and identities from yourself.”

Managers sometimes also feel like they don’t belong, she says. But being mindful of your biases and becoming more curious about the people around you can help you build connections to your colleagues and support them.

Also read: Leadership should be a team sport

The Path to Belonging

Let’s look at some practical techniques for building belonging. Stephanie Creary is a professor of management at the Wharton School who I spoke to recently. “Without a doubt, middle managers are essential,” she says. And Stephanie would know. She has spent a lot of time studying belonging and the role of middle managers. They’re like the connective tissue that holds all of their different team members together. “What this looks like is making sure that you’re highlighting each team member’s contributions as they are emerging. Not only does that make people want to continue contributing, it also helps other people understand how all of the various pieces are coming together in support of the team.”

This has probably happened to you at some point: You do a good job on a project and at a meeting, your boss recognizes it. You immediately feel like you belong, not just for the pat on the back, but because your unique contribution has been celebrated. This type of personalization, if you want to call it that, is a core aspect of the ‘employee experience’.

“Increasingly, workers want to be part of organizations that appreciate them for their whole selves,” says Stephanie. “So, what middle managers can do is advocate for spaces where employees can talk about non-work topics— what they’re watching on Netflix, what they did over the weekend. And today that often involves Slack channels and various virtual online forums that allow people to connect with one another in an informal way.”

So, make space for informal connections that foster discovery of each other’s not-just-work-related identities. Importantly, these should not be mandatory. Some people want to keep their work lives and home lives separate, she says, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Another thing Stephanie says managers can do is keep their employees in the loop about benefits and encourage them to use them—especially the ones that promote work/life balance.

Employee surveys are showing that work/life balance is a big determinant of belonging. But, many people don’t take adequate time off—even when it’s there for the taking—because they feel like they’ll be penalized for using it. They might miss out on a great new assignment, or people might think they don’t care enough about their career. So it’s important for managers to model for team members by taking time away and working from home sometimes when there is a hybrid environment.

As a side note, making sure everyone takes advantage of these kinds of policies can also help reduce inequality. For example, if men also took parental leave, it might lessen the impact of the motherhood penalty—the lower pay and lowered perceptions of competence and career dedication that have disproportionately impacted mothers.

Stephanie’s research has also shown the benefits of mentorship and sponsorship in increasing belonging. “Managers can act as mentors and sponsors to a variety of people, but they can also create structures like a buddy system—a peer mentoring set of relationships—that helps team members learn how to support one another.” So, that might be telling someone, ‘As a mentor, you might want to go to this unconscious bias training to make sure that in the everyday act of mentoring, you’re minimizing unconscious biases.’

So, there are a lot of things leaders can do to build belonging. It probably makes sense to be somewhat intentional about it by structuring your approach. Stephanie has developed a framework called LEAP.

The L stands for listening and learning from your colleagues’ experiences. Oftentimes people assume they know what it is that someone else needs, but they don’t. The more you learn to listen to the people you are trying to support, the less fear they will have and the less likely you are to actually make a terrible paternalistic mistake.”

The E is about engaging in different settings. “So if I’m not Black, or if I’m not gay, but I want to be an ally to these communities, I need to go meet them where they are, in their spaces. And in large organizations, that often looks like an employee resource group. Go to these meetings and listen to people as they talk about their experiences. Because you’re going to hear a lot more than you’ll hear by just walking around the office.

The A is for asking about and appreciating peoples’ work-related experiences. What we often hear from people who are marginalized is, ‘People spend so much time asking me about my appearance, or my sexual orientation or my gender; what I don’t get asked about often is my actual work’. So instead of asking your coworker of colour for a systemic racism reading list, engage with them about their work.

And lastly, the P in the LEAP framework is for providing support, which is a really important aspect of allyship. Stephanie says it helps to understand the different levels of allyship. “Advice and encouragement make up the lower level forms of allyship; in the middle are things like nominating someone for an opportunity; and then there’s the higher level stuff, like directly helping someone who’s having a hard time speaking up for themselves, particularly on something that is controversial. This might mean putting yourself out there by saying to the team, ‘Hey guys, this is what’s happening with colleague X, and here’s how we can help.’

This propensity to call out inequity or bias because you care about the workplace culture is referred to as ‘prohibitive voice’. When Stephanie interviews people who have experienced a microaggression, they often say, ‘I just wish someone would have said something so I didn’t feel so alone’. These individuals have no way of knowing if it’s a) that their leader didn’t think what happened was that bad or b) they thought it was bad, but they were too scared to say anything.

Also read: How are middle managers falling down most often on employee inclusion?

Ending the Silence

The bottom line is this: It’s on leadership to break the silence—to encourage people to speak freely and create an environment of psychological safety. That’s the only way to enable honesty and provide momentum for discussions on a variety of issues, including belonging.

Managers also need to be aware of the factors that contribute to silence in the workplace. Is every team meeting dominated by the manager, and the rest of the team members don’t talk? If so, the stage is being set for people not to speak up when there’s a problem. If you actually want people to join the conversation and feel psychologically safe, even when things get tricky, you need to educate your team members—and yourself—about what causes silence, says Stephanie.

“It can help for a leader to say, ‘I would love to hear about the experiences some of you are having that are not so great’, and setting up individual meetings to discuss these things. Being open to hearing about people’s experiences is important to begin to create a culture where more people speak out against negative experiences.”

Employees often stay silent for fear of retaliation, she says. “You have to say, ‘I want to assure you that whatever you say to me is not going to come back to haunt you in any way.’” And sometimes that means allowing the person to have a witness present—either a friend, someone from HR or a mentor—while they tell you about their negative experience. Once the silence is broken on a team, something amazing happens: everyone starts talking.

In closing

Belonging can’t happen in a vacuum. Senior leaders need to empower managers with the knowledge they need to address it. As indicated herein, this can include celebrating employees, creating space to let them show their whole selves and making time to hear about their negative experiences. Hopefully, these things will remove the burden of ‘code switching’—of people feeling like they have to adjust the way they speak, dress, act, etc. to be accepted at work.

The bottom line is quite simple: People want to know that they matter. And in the workplace, it’s up to leaders to create a sense of validation. So, encourage and model healthy work/life behaviours. Listen and learn. Meet people on their turf. Create an environment where people feel comfortable confronting bias.  This might sound like a lot, but it also paints a pretty great picture of the possibilities that lie ahead when belonging is prioritized.

Sonia Kang is the Canada Research Chair in Identity, Diversity and Inclusion and Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the University of Toronto Mississauga, with a cross-appointment to the Rotman School of Management. She is also Academic Director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE) at Rotman and Chief Scientist, Organizations at the Behavioural Economics in Action Research Centre at Rotman (BEAR). Prof. Kang is also a Special Advisor on Anti-Racism & Equity at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]