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How to Create a Sense of Belonging (in These Polarizing Times)

Diversity + Equity + Inclusion = Belonging

Wanting to belong is an innate human desire. It’s in our DNA. As humans our very being evolved out of group membership and loyalty. The primitive tribes that roamed earth eons ago shared kinship and language, worked and lived together, and formed social and cultural norms. Despite a wired world powering a population bursting at 7.7 billion people plus, here in the 21st-century tribalism continues to course through our psyches. Even as we tackle matters of diversity, equity and inclusion, we see it driving belief systems and identities, and driving wedges in our modern world.

The U.S. election drew tribal lines of a sort: Republicans versus Democrats. Gun rights versus gun controls. Wearing a mask in the name of Covid verses mask-less-ness in the name of freedom. Populism versus elitism. Us versus Them. Indeed, this polarizing group-think mentality provides a sense of belonging. But there’s a major fundamental flaw: intolerance and exclusion.

Diversity tends to be equated with numbers and percentages; a measurement of representation across a wide spectrum of differences. Equity addresses matters of fairness and impartiality. Inclusion is best described as behaviour. And the sum total of all three leads to a sense of belonging.

Are You Feeling It?

Belonging is a feeling that we’re involved. A feeling that we’re connected to the people we work with. A feeling that we’re contributing in a meaningful way. A feeling that we’re respected and valued. A feeling that our insights, perspectives and opinions matter.

When we feel left out, that sense of alienation is palpable.

Neuroscience and brain imaging studies suggest the social pain we feel when we’re excluded is processed in a similar way to physical pain. It really and truly hurts. We can all relate to that visceral sting.

Were you ever one of the last picked from a lineup of school mates to participate in something or other? That letdown carries over into our work lives when we sense, for instance, that we’ve been excluded from meetings, or decisions, or opportunities. Add in physical distancing measures, remote work arrangements and corresponding feelings of isolation that have come along with Covid-19, and its no wonder why executives responding to Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trends survey believe that “fostering a sense of belonging in the workforce is important to their organization’s success in the next 12–18 months and 93% agreed that a sense of belonging drives organizational performance—one of the highest rates of consensus on importance that Deloitte has seen in a decade.”

As if to reinforce this sentiment, research presented in a Harvard Business Review article entitled The Value of Belonging at Work, shows:

If workers feel like they belong, companies reap substantial bottom-line benefits. High belonging was linked to a whopping 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days. For a 10,000-person company, this would result in annual savings of more than $52M. Employees with higher workplace belonging also showed a 167% increase in their employer promoter score (their willingness to recommend their company to others).

Belonging - How to Create a Sense of Belonging
Six Ways to Improve Belonging

Defining and improving belonging can be tricky. Here are six best practice tips to help you on this journey:

  1. Issue a DEI survey to get a lay of the land, and then follow up with periodic climate surveys to monitor improvements and gaps, and to help hold leaders accountable for the progress made within their teams. People need to feel they can influence change. Inviting employees to share their experiences and opinions, and taking that feedback seriously is, in and of itself, and inclusive behaviour.
  2. Share stories. At Wharton University’s Fostering Belonging at Work event, panelist, Sam Lalanne, a senior vice president of Global Diversity and Talent Management at Citigroup noted that “anecdotes — especially from high-level people — about the struggle to fit in, or to be their authentic selves at work, can be a powerful tool to nurture a sense of belonging among an entire workforce.” An example: Senior executives at Citigroup shared personal stories with the entire global organization, live-streamed in 96 countries. One told how earlier in her career she had routinely avoided revealing that she never went to college. She said that any time a group conversation turned to ‘what school did you go to,’ she dodged answering or changed the subject.
  3. Create systems, programs, and opportunities for people to speak up, gain opportunities, and participate in the company’s growth. HR industry analyst Josh Bersin relates an experience of his own: “…early in my career at IBM when I was a young, somewhat tentative new employee, I was asked to participate in a roundtable with one of the company’s most senior executives. It was a life-changing experience at the time, and even though I was never quite sure if I “fit in” at IBM during those days, I was highly inspired by the experience.”
  4. Give people power over the way they do their work. Empowerment is a close cousin to feelings of ownership and accountability, engagement and belonging.
  5. Establish tone at the top. Eric Solomon, a chief officer in residence at Blackbird Global and a former executive at Google believes it’s important to lay the groundwork by creating an atmosphere of compassion, empathy, self-awareness and intellectual integrity. As a white male marketing executive who champions diversity, “I really focus hard — almost every time I’ve led a team — on starting off with the idea that you can teach people how to be compassionate to each other, and that you can talk about psychological safety.”
  6. Form Employee Resource Groups or Affinity Groups or Diversity Councils, and appoint allies and champions. As an example, Citigroup redesigned its internal employee advocacy networks to represent groups the likes of African-Americans, LGBTQ people and veterans. Each group had two leaders: one who identified as part of the group, and one from the CEO’s executive management team. The change, Lalanne explains, was a way to link diversity and inclusion efforts with the organization’s top leadership.

 

For a deeper dive into matters of diversity, equity and inclusion, and where belonging factors into the equation check out our guide to Employee Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Surveys HERE.

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