Toni is a successful, celebrated executive who has been promoted twice within the past year. Throughout the organization, from board members to contractors and across teams, everyone who meets Toni becomes a big fan. But as engaging as Toni seems to be, there’s a major part of his life that no one at work knows about. Toni has been playing what he calls “the role of normal” so as to not jeopardize his career plans or his reputation within the company. Toni is covering, and he believes that it is for the best, especially based on some of the comments and even jokes he’s heard in certain “off the record” conversations. Toni’s story is an example of what the employee experience can look like when workplace cultures have only shards of a sense of belonging.
Belonging has been called a DEI (Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion) buzzword lately. And that may be true in some circles, but on a more serious note, it is important to understand that the lack of belonging in many workplaces is actually the byproduct of deeply rooted systemic issues (bias, inequity, lack of transparency and communication, and uncompassionate leadership, for example) that have gone unaddressed. Because when belonging is prioritized, people within an organization experience feeling connected, respected, and valued, whether they’re in the office with their colleagues or home at the kitchen table with their laptop and a cup of tea. In this era of hybrid work especially, belonging is essential in fostering successful teams, as it drives meaningful collaboration, innovation, and engagement between employees.
As a leader who wants to lead with inclusivity in mind, co-creating an environment where everyone involved feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas is paramount. And building or rebuilding a sense of belonging won’t be a one-and-done, new year envisioning activity; it takes intentional effort to develop and sustain a culture of belonging over time.
Here are 3 ways that inclusive leaders can boost the sense of belonging (and morale by the way) on their team so that their people and business can truly thrive:
1 Encourage connections through the sharing of personal stories.
Learning about the lived experiences of others helps us gain valuable insight into who they are and what challenges might be coming to work with them each day. Sharing stories makes it easier for colleagues to be real with one another, provide support to one another, and show empathy toward one another. It creates a level of humanity in the workplace that people are so desperately seeking right now. When the human connection is there, it breeds trust.
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Trust between teams and leadership is critical. Research keeps pointing to how employees’ trust in their leaders has a direct impact on their sense of belonging at work and ultimately influences whether they will stay or leave a job. Inclusive leaders respect the significance of trust in the workplace and will see storytelling (starting with themselves) as an opportunity to reinforce a culture of belonging.
2 Foster a psychologically safe environment where people don’t feel the need to “cover.”
A workplace culture of psychological safety is one of the most valuable gifts an organization can offer its employees. It allows people to feel secure in speaking up and contributing their thoughts, unencumbered by fear of negative repercussions or judgment. Psychological safety paves the way for open communication, transparency, and authenticity organization wide.
Solidifying psychological safety in the workplace takes commitment and ongoing effort. It is nurtured by an open, intentional communication culture where respect is at its foundation. Leaders will also need to take a supportive approach to their team members with transparency as key for building trust - there’s that word again).
When psychological safety has been splintered, one of the symptoms is employees "covering." “In "covering," a person hides aspects of their identity to avoid unwanted, negative attention. Their concern is that who they are will differ too much from the norm or what is socially acceptable and because of it, it could lead to them being excluded, even if others do so unintentionally. And "others" includes leaders responding (or not responding) publicly to certain social issues, like injustice, for example - as it sends a message of what and who is important to the company.
Covering might look like:
- A Muslim employee leaves the building to pray somewhere else so that their co-workers won’t see them and question their practices or intentions
- LGTBQ+ identifying employees being hesitant to mention anything that would reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity so that they might avoid being stereotyped or discriminated against
- An employee of who is of a different faith than the majority recognizes might use a sick day instead of requesting time off for an important religious observance because they want to avoid uncomfortable or awkward questions
- When Black or ethnically diverse talent feel pressure to whitewash their appearance, the pronunciation of their name, their way of speaking, or perhaps even their qualifications in order to fit in at work and avoid receiving "othering" questions and comments about things such as their hair, style of dress, or background
- When a person with an invisible disability (something not apparent, whether physical health or mental health related) does not feel supported enough to ask for the accommodations or accessibility needs they require to support them in doing their best work
According to the Deloitte Uncovering Talent global report, at least 61% of employees admit that they cover aspects of their identity or personality at work.
3 Show appreciation for “unsung” efforts and wins.
Inclusive leaders understand that it is essential to take the time to recognize and show appreciation for “unsung” efforts – something that perhaps goes unnoticed and uncelebrated although it is crucial to business. It's acknowledging that "not all heroes wear capes." When leaders take the time to recognize the dedication of their team members, especially those who are usually in the background (perhaps not client facing, for example) it can help strengthen the feeling of belonging for those who may have been wondering if their work might be going unnoticed.
By expressing sincere gratitude for the thoughtful work and dedication of individual employees, leaders are showing them that their efforts are valued, appreciated, and indeed are noticed. A simple shout-out at the start of a meeting to point out a one-person “team”, or a kind thank you email to an individual, cc’ing their manager, goes a long way. Showing appreciation doesn't just benefit the person receiving it—it benefits the entire company culture. So, be purposeful around establishing a people-centric infrastructure that ensures that every contribution is valued.
Please note: When showing appreciation for things that have been rarely appreciated before, it’s important to do it authentically and sincerely. People can tell when recognition isn’t genuine or heartfelt. Acknowledgement must be expressed with gratitude.
For inclusive leaders, people mean more than programs and projects, so it matters much that their employees feel like they are valued, respected, and that they belong. Allowing the space and grace for people to meaningful connections through sharing personal stories, cultivating a climate of psychological safety where folks feel free to be their authentic selves, and recognizing the "unsung" efforts of hard-working employees are the practical, yet impactful ways that the most successful organizational cultures are prioritizing a sense of belonging.