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Four ways to create a sense of belonging in your organisation

Six Degrees Executive
People standing on a hill looking at a sunset

Getting to grips with diversity and inclusion (D&I) is like levelling up in a video game. Level one involves understanding the benefits of diversity for your organisation, while level two is achieved by those who can unlock these benefits through the power of inclusion. But the final level is only within reach of managers who know there’s one factor that brings it all together – a sense of belonging.  

Belonging is increasingly seen as the key piece of the diversity puzzle. Get it wrong, and you risk creating a revolving door where your diverse hires leave your organisation within months of commencing work. Getting belonging right, though, has the potential to unlock psychological safety, higher employee engagement, better collaboration, better problem solving, and improved retention. A sense of belonging has also been proven to improve workers’ motivation, health and happiness.

Let’s start with the definitions. Belongingworks defines the three key terms as follows:

  • Diversity describes the breadth of talent across different backgrounds, ethnic heritage, gender, sexual orientation, socio-demographics, parts of the world and different styles of thinking. 
  • Inclusion means actively including everybody in tasks, teams, conversations, developments and decision-making.
  • Belonging means sharing the confidence, security and allegiance brought about by being part of a group.

Still confused? LinkedIn’s Greg Lewis clarifies the differences in terms of dancing at a party:

Diversity is like being invited to a party, inclusion is being asked to dance, and belonging is dancing like no one’s watching – it’s that sense of psychological safety that employees can be their authentic selves without fear of judgment.”

Four ways to create a sense of belonging

Much of the research around the concept of belonging comes from the team at LinkedIn; through the company’s Chief HR Officer Pat Wadors who popularised the term, and via the findings of a key piece of research titled Inside the mind of today’s candidate. Over 14,000 professionals were asked what would make them feel like they belong at the company where they work.

The results suggest that managers can foster belonging in four ways:

Ensure employees feel their accomplishments and efforts are valued

Nothing is more dispiriting than feeling that a project you are working on will have little or no impact. Take the time to articulate why the project is important, congratulate the employee on a job well done, and be sure to acknowledge any above-and-beyond effort or extra hours put in.

Foster an open, honest environment where employees feel safe to express their opinions

Provide opportunities for the team to share their opinions by making time at the conclusion of meetings or by making yourself available for one-on-one catch-ups.

Lead by example. Ask your team for open and honest feedback of your ideas. Even if you disagree with dissenters, be sure to thank them for their opinion and for opening up debate with a conflicting point of view. Let the team know that it’s okay to disagree, and a diversity of opinions and ideas can foster innovation.

Acknowledge contributions in team meetings

Although speaking up in a team meeting can be second nature to some, for others it’s an anxious and nerve-wracking experience. The reaction of the team (and particularly the manager or person leading the meeting) is therefore vital. Properly acknowledging contributions can help team members feel valued, while ignoring or dismissing a contribution can lead to a feeling of rejection.

Women, in particular, are highly likely to be ignored or interrupted in meetings. A study from the tech start-up industry found men were three times as likely to interrupt women as they were to interrupt other men, while a study from George Washington University found men are 33% more likely to interrupt women than they are to interrupt other men.

Astronomer and professor Nichole Gugliuicci recently introduced the term “hepeat” to describe the frequent occurrence of women suggesting an idea that is ignored, followed by a male colleague saying the same thing and receiving praise and credit for the idea. Managers or meeting facilitators should give credit where credit is due by acknowledging the original source of the idea and confronting “hepeaters” directly when this happens in a meeting.

Encourage employees to be themselves

As Judy Garland famously said, “Be a first-rate version of yourself, not a second-rate version of someone else”.

Encouraging diverse team members to shoe-horn their personality into a corporate ideal is counterproductive to the very reasons many organisations have a diversity program in the first place, because innovation comes from a sense of difference rather than from a monoculture.

Consider the idea that some of your team members may be under pressure to be something they’re not. Examples may include introverts trying to act like extroverts, people who work best independently being forced to participate in constant teamwork, or someone who feels they need to play down a significant part of their personality (such as their sexuality or religious beliefs) at the workplace.

Again, managers can lead by example by bringing their whole personality (or “authentic selves”) to the office. Don’t be afraid to share stories from your life outside of work, and encourage your whole team to do so. It’s difficult to foster a sense of belonging when you have nothing to work with, but easy to do so if you can start a conversation by asking after an aspect of someone’s personal life, such as their children or their hobbies.

A manager looking to foster a sense of belonging in their team should make the effort to be aware of subtle hints that could be easily missed. Watch for team members who are:

  • feeling unappreciated for their efforts
  • afraid to speak up or disagree with the group
  • interrupted or “hepeated” in meetings
  • showing discomfort at being asked to be something they’re not.

Talk to Six Degrees Executive about fostering a sense of belonging in your organisation.