When you think about your workplace, would you say it has a “Culture of Belonging”? Organizations across the globe know the importance of a diverse and inclusive culture. Not only is diversity and inclusion needed to allow team members to thrive, it can also contribute significantly to improving attraction, retention, employee experience as well as improve key business metrics like sales and profitability.
Let’s explore what it means to have a Culture of Belonging, and why, as a leader, you want this and fast. HINT: it’s all about being yourself in your workplace, where everyone feels safe to show up, be unique and authentic while contributing passionately to make an impact.
what is belonging?
A number of definitions can be found for the word ‘belonging.’ The Cambridge Dictionary defines belonging as “to be in a suitable place” or “to feel happy and comfortable in a situation”; Wordhippo says “to be accepted in a group”; and the Oxford Learners Dictionary defines the noun as “the feeling of being comfortable and happy in a particular situation or with a particular group of people, and being treated as a full member of the group”. CultureAmp, a leading culture driven company, uses an expanded definition of belonging “The feeling of security and support one gets when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a member of a certain group or place.”
Belonging means you are accepted for who you are and for the experiences you bring, the comfort of being able to use your voice to share ideas, a place where you can challenge the status quo without fear of judgement, and you feel accepted and valued in your own unique identity. Fitting in, in contrast to belonging, is a metaphorical “mask” you might wear in order to blend into your organization or environment. “Fitting in” might be feeling the need to dress a certain way, using certain language, share specific beliefs, stay quiet by not adding ideas or building upon solutions, or the compromise of your own personal values.
When we are fitting in, we are sensing uncertainty or some lack of safety, needing to test language, feeling the need to navigate around people or creating defenses that we would not require when we feel we belong.
Belonging is a feeling or a “sense” It’s unlikely that you will be able to “see” belonging instead you will be able to “feel” it. Remember that first day of high school and you had to choose which table to sit at in the cafeteria or which row in Home Room? You had no idea if that table or row was suitable for you. You proceeded with instinct (aka gut feeling) to make a selection and then, over time, found the table or row that was most comfortable for you with people who were like you, had the same goals and/or interests, and appeared to welcome you.
A sense of belonging is important to every human. From the day we were born, every aspect of our world demonstrated how we belonged somewhere. It still does. As humans, we organize ourselves into groups with similar values, beliefs, interests, goals. Finding our way from one group to another as we grow, we also find connection and relationships that help us identify how we belong. These relationships and the connectedness we experience are physical as well as mental, so belonging affects our overall well-being.
what is culture of belonging
In the workplace, a culture of belonging can be defined as a pack where we feel we can show up, be ourselves, and do our best work because we are happy, comfortable and (according to DifferentMatters research) valued for who we are, how we show up, and what we contribute. In other words, we are connected, and we share meaningful relationships and goals.
A culture of belonging provides you, as a leader, with the optimal environment for your team, your business, and your clients to thrive. When the humans in our workplaces are at the center of our work, our values, our decisions and our goals, then we have a human-centric workplace.
In fact, a human-centric workplace is achieved when we are enabled to do our best work because we are emotionally connected to our mission and know we can make a difference. A human-centric workplace is the result of a culture of belonging.
The beauty of belonging is that, while we are connected, we can also practice acceptance of how other belong, in their way, by honoring their uniqueness with an open mind. Our sense of belonging is different for each one of us. By belonging and by providing others the space to belong as well, we can skis out diverse ideas, perspectives and experiences to help us foster a workplace environment where everyone can be themselves.
The contribution we can make through owning our space, having agency over our work, and using our voice gives us the opportunity to deepen belonging and connection for ourselves and make space for others to belong, too.
When we feel we belong at work, we are more effective, no longer second-guessing what others are thinking. We feel accepted and show up as our authentic selves. In fact, according to a BetterUp.com study, 34% of people feel their greatest sense of belonging at work.
When we have a sense of belonging at work, we are more able to focus on the work at hand, in a more confident way because we feel safer, more connected and engaged.
belonging in the workplace & its impact on business
A multitude of articles, studies and reports have been written about belonging in the workplace. Industry leaders in workplace development including Harvard Business Review, Deloitte, Fast Company, Gartner, and more share data points on how belonging impacts the workplace and shows a direct correlation between belonging and increased engagement, reduced absenteeism, improved performance individually and for the business itself.
A study by BetterUp published in HBR.org in 2020, found that 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.” Plus,
“Employees with higher workplace belonging also showed a 167% increase in their employer promoter score (their willingness to recommend their company to others). They also received double the raises, and 18 times more promotions”
While a culture of belonging may sound “squishy”, “soft” or “unaccountable”, it’s not the case. Business that focus on the whole employee experience, including belong see improvement in well-being, employee engagement, talent retention and attraction, revenue and growth and are more inclined to scale in a sustainable way. A 2019 McKinsey study surfaced a clear connection to employees feeling they don’t belong and that their employers don’t recognize that belonging is critical to feeling valued. In fact it’s in the top 3 reasons employees are leaving. As a leader, if you intend to grow your organization or even attempt to scale, it’s necessary to keep these statistics in mind “the top three factors employees cited as reasons for quitting were that they didn’t feel valued by their organizations (54 percent) or their managers (52 percent) or because they didn’t feel a sense of belonging at work (51 percent) as you bear out your growth plans”. McKinsey also suggests that employers are not listening to their people, are you?
what gets in the way of belonging
We are hard-wired for connection. Yes, it’s in our DNA. When we experience exclusion or ‘outsider-ness’ we experience the opposite of inclusion and, therefore, we don’t feel like we belong.
DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts have been one of the mainstays of culture development in the last decade. Gartner says “Despite progress on DEI, many employees still feel like outsiders in the workplace — which causes them to further suppress the parts of themselves that make them unique from their colleagues.”
Feeling like an outsider is a personally painful, negative experience, a cognitive distraction that undermines focus and performance. The office should not be a “one size fits all.” Although, most are still a “one size fits some,” with the expectation that everybody else squeezes in. ”
Being excluded is painful. Being surrounded by other people does not guarantee belonging. We can literally feel exclusion in our bodies, making belonging not only a workplace and business value issue, it’s more importantly, a well-being issue. What is needed is the ability to share a social identity so that we can use our strengths to show up and divulge our weaknesses to enlist the help of others to grow. By cultivating a human-centric workplace, powered by belonging, you provide an environment where diversity, equity, and inclusion are the norm, and personal, professional, and business growth are the benefits.
look to diversity, inclusion and equity efforts when building a culture of belonging
At DifferentMatters, we define belonging as “the degree to which people feel they can show up as their true selves, fully contributing without any fear of judgement or negative consequences”. Our research indicates that it is not possible to have belonging without inclusion.
Inclusion is predicated on the building blocks of diversity and equity. While this is foundational to creating a culture of belonging, there is more to it than “checking some DEI boxes”. In the Built In review of the tech sector, HR expert Catalina Coleman shares how diversity and equity are a requirement for creating a sense of belonging, or inclusion. As a refresher, paraphrased from the article, diversity is the presence of differences (race, ethnicity, gender identity, veteran status, whether or not you have kids, to name a few). Equity is the process of ensuring that processes and programs are impartial and provide equal outcomes for every individual. Inclusion is the practice of ensuring everyone feels a sense of belonging. Coleman says “Every employee should feel valued at work, by their peers and their employer,” and “It’s not about just opening the invitation to everyone — it’s about making sure that every individual knows and feels they are welcome at your organization.”
Fostering belonging with diversity and equity provides a direct link to connection. Connection to each other and shared goals.
The Deloitte Insights article, “Belonging: From Comfort to Connection to Contribution“, highlights the correlation to engagement and individual contribution through increased belonging, yet at the same time notes that, “although 79% of organizations say fostering a sense of belonging in the workforce is important or very important for their success over the next 12 to 18 months, only 13% say they are very ready to address this trend“.
Deloitte continues to explore the human experience at work, highlighting the importance of finding meaning in work while allowing team members to contribute in personal and unique ways.
We are quickly moving away from a workplace where we need to do everything the way it was done before. We are moving towards a workplace where collaboration, innovation, and iteration aren’t based only on more effective and improved deliverables, but also the realization that each of us has a unique contribution that could be better than before, demonstrating we make a difference.
Imagine a workplace where team members perform better because they feel included, that they belong, and that they can show up as their authentic selves. Taking it one step further, imagine your team has the ability to speak up or share dissenting ideas in a safe way, have autonomy to make decisions about their time, and their work, and permission to lean into their passion and deliver great results because they believe in themselves and in each other.
how to start building a culture of belonging
Forging a culture of belonging won’t be easy. It will be difficult to let go of old habits, outdated mantras, and old values that will need to be updated to meet the scaling or growth plans for your organization. Nothing worth doing is easy. It will take fortitude, commitment, energy and a great deal of listening.
As a forward-looking leader who believes in cultures of belonging and human-centric workplaces, it starts with you. Ask yourself the following questions, rating each on a scale of 1-10 (1=not at all, 10=absolutely):
What is your average rating across the four questions? Less than 7 means you may have some work to do; greater than 7 means there is room for improvement but you know where to start.
- Do you feel you can be yourself at work?
- Are you contributing to your fullest?
- Is your work fulfilling?
- Do you go home feeling like a million bucks, knowing you made a difference?
Next step. Ask yourself the same questions and rate them again on the same scale. This time, consider how your team would answer those questions. Check the average rating against your own. What is the gap between the 2 ratings? What can you do about it?
Since your goal is to foster a culture of belonging, now that you have some baseline data, it’s time to start asking questions and really listen to what your team has to say. Questions that surface what team members know about how to grow or get ahead in the organization, or simply asking the 4 questions about and digging into the “why” behind each rating can surface ideas on how to move closer to a culture of belonging.
Creating an organization that puts humans at its core through a culture of belonging will be what separates one organization from the rest. By opening the door to psychological safety, team members will show up, take risks, take ownership, collaborate, innovate and grow. Team members will feel they belong. Taking on the effort to build a Human-Centric WorkplaceTM will lead to sustainable growth while everyone can realize their potential. Considering the results of your questions, where will you begin?