Most organizations I’m aware of want to be perceived as inclusive, particularly for what are called “protected classes” like race, gender, age, religion, and sexual orientation. When protected classes are excluded or discriminated against there are legal and reputational consequences for an organization. Belonging, as I’m using the term, includes legally protected classes and then runs deeper still. Belonging doesn’t stop with recognizing and supporting race, gender, age, religion, and sexual orientation. It extends to people who might feel isolated based on their personality, their family background, or their level of experience, for example.
When belonging is the goal, you shift the focus from legal liability to proactively cultivating the potential of everyone in the organization. Belonging is a higher bar. The bar for belonging is so high, in fact, that you could argue it’s an impossible goal. Impossible or not, it is the real goal. It’s the goal worth shooting for. Here’s why:
An organization that strives for belonging, even if it is never fully achieved, gets all the benefits of inclusion, like legal security and innovative ideas. But the closer an organization gets to the ideal the more it takes on attributes that are more rare and powerful, like cohesion and trust, for example. Organizations that have cohesion and trust are durable over time. They are resilient in the face of environmental changes beyond their control. They solve problems quickly and heal when they are wounded.
Some managers might wonder if it is any of their business whether someone feels they belong. If someone does their job and doesn’t cause problems, what does it matter if they feel like they belong? It might seem like too delicate and personal a question to be appropriate for a professional work environment. It is not. In the next section I’ll show why it makes a difference in daily organizational mechanics. The last section presents some of the intentional patterns that organizations can implement to foster belonging. Organizations that implement these patterns begin to thrive in new ways. Those that don't, see their organizational health decline like a battery being drained.
Why belonging matters in an organizational setting
People who feel they don't belong fear they won’t be taken seriously or that bad news might reflect poorly on them. In practice, this might manifest as not reporting complaints from unhappy customers or not highlighting wasteful procedures they observe. In contrast, people who feel like they belong speak freely from their own perspective and share important observations. They are willing to report evidence of an unhappy customer because they know the problem won't be attributed to them personally. They voluntarily identify wasteful patterns, even if they’re the only one who sees them, because they are confident they’ll be taken seriously.
Instead of worrying about their personal status, people who feel they belong focus their energy on the problems the organization is trying to solve. People who experience belonging know what to do and where to go when exclusionary incidents occur, like offensive or inappropriate comments, for example. The organization provides mechanisms to address these things constructively rather than letting them fester.
Not belonging creates a need to conceal some aspect or some part of yourself in order to “fit in” and survive. Belonging allows honesty and creates a safe space for needed individual and organizational changes. A new engineer, for example, who feels accepted and understood with their current skillset will be less likely to introduce product bugs by concealing a mistake or not asking needed questions.
How to cultivate belonging
During regular one-on-one conversations, supervisors should ask whether individuals feel comfortable being themselves at work, and if they have ever felt unwelcome because of their beliefs, their background, or who they are generally. These conversations are a first line of defense.
Also ask anonymously
When people feel like they don't belong, they may not be comfortable telling their supervisor about it. They need an anonymous way to flag problems with belonging. An anonymous survey is a good approach. It won’t give you specific information about who is experiencing the issue, but it will let you know there’s an issue to be addressed. The following wording may be helpful for a survey question:
“I'm comfortable being myself here. My colleagues don't make me feel unwelcome because of my beliefs, my background, or who I am generally.”
This works best as a 1-5 rating scale question. 1 = Strongly disagree, 5 = Strongly agree.
Talk to colleagues
To identify specific issues with belonging, colleagues and peers can be a valuable source of information. It’s common for people to have colleagues that become trusted friends. Issues with belonging are more likely to come up in the context of that kind of a friendship than in a manager/employee relationship. Colleagues, in this way, can help discreetly surface an issue with belonging if they know it’s something managers care about. The key is creating a climate where managers welcome constructive critique and proactively encourage people to surface issues with belonging, whether those issues are their own or their friends’.
Communicate the goal
Organizations that cultivate belonging are the exception, not the rule. It will not be what most people will have experienced elsewhere. People may even be skeptical of efforts to cultivate belonging or read ulterior motives into those efforts. For this reason, managers will need to articulate a solid business case for why belonging is the goal. They will need to show how people that experience belonging enjoy their work, do it more efficiently, and perform at a higher level. Managers will need to show how a lack of belonging blocks the flow of essential information and ideas. They will need to show how an organization only thrives to the degree that it has the willing and emotionally driven engagement of every member.