The End Game for Inclusion: Belonging – A Guest Perspective by Nicole Nelson.

The End Game for Inclusion: Belonging

As a leader you’ve made big strides in inclusion for your staff. You raised the team’s consciousness. You ask for diverse perspectives in meetings. You request feedback and make sure people feel they fit in. However, your employees continue to leave to other departments, agencies, or the private sector. In an exit interview debrief you hear that an employee didn’t feel they “belonged” on your team. You need to consider what’s missing in your efforts to stop the slow bleed of the pandemic’s “great resignation.”
Studies show when employees feel that they belong in an organization, they are more likely to be productive, innovative, and teams are more likely to reach their full potential. Belonging is often confused with “fitting in” to an organization. Fitting in is a feeling of external judgement, of being compared and seen as “like everyone else,” and fear is its close companion. Fear that as an employee, you’ll be seen as different or must keep your dissenting opinion private due to possible reprisal. Belonging requires psychological safety―that shared belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or even mistakes. Individual and team psychological safety requires trust, and fear is the opposite of trust. Belonging is feeling acceptance for who you are―your unique human self.
The benefits of belonging are real, not just for employees, but for organizations. When leaders foster a culture of belonging, people feel safe, they feel valued, and concerns, ideas, and mistakes can more easily be brought forward to leadership. A belonging culture can improve organizational business outcomes, risk identification, employee productivity, and retention. More than eight billion dollars is spent annually on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) training by US businesses and yet, people continue to report feeling not included.

A BetterUp survey conducted in 2019 found that workplace belonging can lead to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% reduction in turnover risk, and a 75% decrease in employee sick days. DEI organizational efforts are necessary and important, but if leaders and organizations also expand efforts to human-centered culture―greater mission, business, and belonging outcomes will follow.
Here are some ways leaders can build a culture of belonging.

Learn to communicate better how employee tasks contribute to a higher purpose: Communicate often how your team’s work contributes to a higher organizational strategy and purpose. Take the time to get to know employees and what motivates them as individuals.
Invite, acknowledge, and act on employee feedback: It is not enough to conduct and analyze employee survey results, you must work with employees and act on what you as a leader will change or continue to improve because of the survey results.
Model human compassion and allow for human failure: If you want high performing teams, don’t hide your “humanity.” Humans fail. To solve problems, one must feel safe and protected enough to fail. When leaders share their own failures with staff, it provides space for failure.
Create psychological safety with your teams: A leader must build trust, respect, and a supportive environment. First―eliminate fear. Do you ask deep questions that help your teams solve problems? Start by asking, what is everyone thinking? Or ask, what are your biggest concerns? Listen more than talk.
Be an ally to people and celebrate their contributions: Courageous leaders continually learn where and how they can be an ally to those who may feel isolated to increase belongingness. They create community and connection.
Eliminate “outsiderness” and celebrate uniqueness: Model a learning mindset―a blend of humility and curiosity that focuses on what we can learn from each other. Show that diverse perspectives are valued. Leaders who invest in celebrating uniqueness bring out the best in their teams.

Inclusion is being invited to sit at the table. Belonging is how you feel once you’re there. Belonging is feeling you can share your perspective, even ideas that might fail, with confidence and be truly heard and valued. Employees who feel they belong are authentic, they are confident in their contribution, and they know that their unique perspective of being a human being is accepted. As we continue in a hybrid work model long-term, the desire to belong is a primal human need and requires time and attention to cultivate. Leaders are responsible for organizational culture. Imagine the organizational potential if employees collectively feel they are accepted and belong.

Nicole Nelson is the Practice Deputy for Grant Thornton’s Federal Business Change Enablement practice. She has spent the better part of her career communicating and helping people see opportunities through continuous change. You can contact her at [email protected].

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