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8 Ways To Foster Belonging In Your Workplace.

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We all need to feel like we belong. Thrive Worldwide’s CEO, Leanne Marega explains how leaders and managers can start to build that sense of belonging within their teams.

When staff feel like they belong at work, they are happier, healthier, more engaged and more innovative. The knock-on effects on your organisation are equally compelling. So how can you create belonging in your workplace? Here are eight ways.

Articulate your vision clearly

When President John F. Kennedy visited NASA for the first time, he met a janitor in a hallway. He asked the janitor “What did you do for NASA?” The janitor replied: “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” When staff know that their role contributes to a common purpose, it instils a sense of belonging. If you communicate your organisation’s vision clearly, then it can become a shared vision in a team. Try this:

  • Take time in your next team meeting to focus on your vision and values. When did you last communicate your organisation’s vision with your team?
  • If they need it, help your team see how their work contributes to the overall vision.

Be relational

Too often I hear that managers are great in their technical roles, but not so great at people management. This became even more apparent in the pandemic when compassion was needed to help people manage the complexities of working from home, home-schooling, being ill with the virus, or caring for family members. Authentic relationships are needed to create belonging. 

  • Train your leaders and managers on people skills, we run a training course on this.
  • When you start a meeting, don’t delve straight into the agenda. Ask the team how they are doing. This is especially important if you work virtually.

Create space for connection and fun

People come to work in order to do work. But given how long we spend at work, we also need to connect and socialise. Here are some ways to do that: 

  • Have retreats and away days. Try to include an overnight stay and eat together. The dinner table is a great place to get to know each other: unrushed time, with no agenda, in an informal setting, makes it easier to build relationships.
  • Celebrate holidays. Choose the important ones based on your culture, religion and team. Create a budget and allow the team to design what it looks like.
  • Have other regular gatherings too. We have online gatherings but also in-person co-working days every month or two. These are at co-working spaces in central London and Nairobi. But they also take place at team members’ homes. When a leader opens up their home, the team get to see a person beyond their role.

Recognise your team’s work and achievements

When people are recognised for their work, they get a sense of pride, they feel valued, and it helps them feel a sense of belonging. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Acknowledge people outside of your direct team. For example, call one of your operations team, thank them, and point out something good you’ve noticed.
  • Acknowledge the team, not just the individual. You don’t need to wait until the end of the year – an encouragement to not just celebrate the financial or fundraising wins, but to also link wins back to the vision and your company purpose.

Don’t bury your head in the sand

When something bad happens in an organisation, it isn’t always dealt with head-on. I’ve heard this a lot from clients. It might be done with harassment, discrimination, equity, inclusion, or safeguarding. But believe it or not, these can all be an opportunity to foster and encourage belonging. So when bad things happen, lean into the messiness and learn to listen. Consider how to take action to resolve, address and restore the situation. And crucially, implement the actions you say you’ll take. The past pain won’t go away, but the future is unwritten. Some ways you can do this:

  • If you’re not sure what staff think about your culture, then consider our Culture Discovery service. We’ll help unpack where you are now, and where you want to be, and help you make a plan to get there. 
  • Hold one-on-one conversations (or focus groups when appropriate) with persons you know have been hurt, excluded or offended by the organisation. You’ll understand the problem, and they can help you co-create solutions on what to change. 
  1. Equip your managers to be role models of belonging. If a manager feels a sense of belonging, they will help your wider staff experience it too. But you can’t role model something unless you’ve experienced it. Here are some ways you can help your manager experience belonging: 
  • Offer Coaching to your managers. If a leader or manager hasn’t truly felt a sense of belonging in their life, coaching or counselling can help them unpack this. 
  • Ask us for help. We can run a training session to help you and your managers think about ways to develop this. Email me to ask about this.
  • Encourage managers to invest in relationships with the people they manage. A good manager shows curiosity about the lives of their team. They remember the names of each team member’s partner and children. If a child is sick, they call to check how they are all doing.

Be vulnerable

Vulnerability isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a way to build trust. And you can’t build belonging without trust. We’re often taught that being vulnerable is for friends and family, rather than for colleagues, but I think this is wrong. And opportunities to be vulnerable present themselves at work every day. If this is something you struggle with (and who doesn’t struggle with it sometimes?) here are some ways you can start to cultivate it: 

  • Share concerns about something personal or work-related. You could share something personal that may be impacting your work at the moment. For example, you might be looking after a sick family member, you might have had a disagreement with your partner, or you might be struggling with an illness. 
  • Take responsibility when something goes wrong. You can show your team that it’s okay to fail.

Consult your staff

Staff will only feel a sense of belonging if they feel heard. They need to feel engaged with developments and innovation or in adaptations to systems that aren’t working well. Although they may not agree with the eventual decisions, their point of view is heard and they are more engaged. This is a key contributor to overall staff well-being. Try this:

  • Manage by ‘wandering around’ (or, if you work remotely, calling people!). Ask what they are working on. Then ask what’s getting in their way. This is a brilliant way to hear staff concerns and ideas. 
  • Get feedback from your team. Make time in meetings for this and ensure there is space in the schedule of the meeting for feedback.
  • Consult your team about your latest ‘genius idea’ – but do it informally. Engage them and encourage them to make valuable contributions that will enhance the idea further. Remember to give credit to the team.

Final thoughts

Every organisation has its own culture. But whether it’s emerged organically, or been developed strategically, there’s often a difference between the culture you want and the one you have. If you’re not sure what your organisation’s culture is, or if people feel like they belong, then our Culture Discovery service is a good way to start. 

And a final note, remember that what creates belonging can be different from one person to another. Factors such as age, culture and ethnicity come into play. Be mindful of this so that no one feels like an outsider or excluded. Put your people at the centre and co-create what belonging looks like with them. It only remains to ask one question: how are you now going to foster belonging in your workplace?  

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