Roughly 40 percent of Americans feel physically and emotionally isolated in the workplace, according to an EY Belonging Barometer Study launched by the Center for Talent Innovation.
A sense of belonging to a group is something we all desire — at home, at work and in our greater community. It comes down to social connection, which is one of our most basic needs. When that need isn’t met, it can actually cause us to feel pain — physically and psychologically — the same way it would if other basic needs (like water, food and shelter) were unfulfilled.
Conversely, when we have that sense of belonging, it can help to create a more meaningful life. It makes us feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves. That’s why, for some, belonging and attachment to co-workers is a better motivator than money for employees deciding whether to leave or stay at their current job.
Employees who have a sense of belonging in the workplace are also 3.5 times more likely to contribute to their full potential, according to the same belonging barometer study. When you scale that feeling of belonging to an entire organization, it’s also good for business. High belonging has been shown to increase job performance by 56 percent, reduce turnover risk by 50 percent and decrease sick days by 75 percent, according to Harvard Business Review. That adds up to an annual savings of more than $52 million for a 10,000-person company.
How can you foster an environment where people feel like they belong?
Here are some considerations.
Create a psychologically-safe space.
Every team should be built upon a foundation of trust. Most people, however, don’t feel comfortable talking about how they’re doing — how they’re really doing — at work. Nearly 60 percent of employees have never spoken to anyone at work about their mental health status.
Google conducted a two-year study to find out what constitutes a successful Google team and, interestingly enough, the No. 1 component is “psychological safety.” That stems from the knowledge that employees can take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed if they don’t pan out
To set the tone for the team, leaders can model vulnerability and authenticity. That can be as simple as talking about what went wrong in their own initiatives and what they learned for next time. It can also mean being open and honest when they’re struggling with something.
By showing our own human flaws, we empower others to take calculated risks without fear of failure. As American entrepreneur Victor Kiam once said, “Even if you fall on your face, you’re still moving forward.”
Additionally, leaders should look for opportunities to be an ally, especially for underrepresented groups. It helps to amplify their voices.
Check in with people.
Roughly 39 percent of respondents in the belonging barometer study said they felt the greatest sense of belonging when their colleagues checked in with them, personally and professionally.
These moments can be as simple as checking to see how someone is doing and then intently listening to their answer and asking follow-up questions. Let’s say, for instance, that one of your employees had to miss work because her daughter was sick. When she returns to work, ask how her daughter is feeling.
It can be happy things, too. Maybe a coworker mentions that he’s planning a 20th anniversary dinner for his partner that upcoming weekend. Set a reminder on your phone or pencil it into your daily agenda to ask that coworker how the celebration went on Monday.
Asking how your employees are doing and then truly listening to their answer is a great way to make them feel seen and valued.
Give people the floor who are feeling ignored.
Have you ever sat in a meeting and watched someone try to break into the conversation with an idea, but no one is giving them a chance? Or perhaps they did have the floor, but got interrupted.
You can see it by the look on their face — they feel dejected. It might even make them less likely to speak up again. When someone gets interrupted, the leader of the meeting should step in quickly to moderate, “One moment, I’d love to hear the rest of Julissa’s idea. Julissa, could you tell us more?” That can make all the difference in helping someone go from feeling ignored to acknowledged.
Additionally, encourage managers to call on people who are trying to speak up, but can’t get a word in edgewise. If they notice that certain team members never speak up in meetings, consider checking in with them privately to ask how you can better include them in the conversation. Aduro has coached people who sometimes feel afraid to speak up in meetings due to their accent. Coaching is a good tool that can help people work through their fears and build confidence. Managers can also support those employees by providing them with resources that allow them to practice public speaking, such as Toastmasters. Remind those individuals that their authentic voices and ideas are powerful — and you don’t want the company to miss out on them.
When people are included in the group, they’re also more motivated to see the group succeed, according to studies. The opposite is also true. Exclusion cultures can lead to sabotaging team members and an environment where people are only out for their individual interests. The more everyone is included, the more they’ll want to see everyone succeed, collectively.
A sense of belonging in the workplace can also mean giving credit where it’s due. Maybe an employee had a great idea that led to a big win for their department. During the next town hall meeting, the department head could recognize the team’s success — and give a special shout-out to the employee who came up with the initial idea.
Roughly 47 percent of professionals who are proud of where they work say it’s because the company has a positive culture where they can be themselves, according to LinkedIn.
What are some ways you can empower people to be their authentic selves at work?
Challenge the norm of what’s considered “professional work attire.” Your workforce is likely made up of people of different races/ethnicities, ages, religions, and gender identities. Celebrate their differences, whether it’s a woman wearing a hijab or dreadlocks to work. Allow them to show up as their true selves, not a watered-down version of it. This also starts with the leaders at the top.
That self-expression should also carry over to their work contributions. You might allow people who have been in their job role for a certain number of years to re-write their job descriptions, based on how they think they can best contribute to the company’s overarching goals and objectives.
It’s a great way to show that you trust and value your employees’ insight. Plus, it allows you to change job descriptions to better fit people — not change people to better fit job descriptions — which can potentially help increase engagement.
Ask for input.
Employees can also play a critical role in fostering an inclusive environment. If your company sends out an employee survey each year, you might consider including the question: “What can we do to better promote belonging and inclusion?” Leverage technology to get a pulse on baselines and trends to inform strategic initiatives.
The responses from your people can help you pinpoint opportunities, such as a lactation room or a bathroom without a gender designation on the door.
You might even consider creating an inclusion council, which is made up of eight to 12 individuals who are respected throughout the organization — and are personally passionate about creating a sense of belonging in the workplace. Make sure this group is as diverse as possible (race, gender, job role, and location, for example).
Managers can also encourage inclusion at a project level by asking team members for their input. Instead of just assigning each employee with a role in the project, managers could explain the end goal and then ask how they’d like to contribute. That empowers them to decide the role they’d each like to play — and makes them more personally invested in the outcome.
Encourage employee-led communities.
Employee-led communities bring together individuals with similar backgrounds or interests. This could include Diversity, Equity and Inclusion groups, Employee Resource Groups (parents, veterans, environmental, etc.), or even wellness groups (walking groups, etc.).
These groups can help people make meaningful connections within their own organization or beyond it through networking, mentorship and personal or professional development opportunities.
As a company, you might support these groups by allowing its members to use company communications, technology and conference rooms for their meetings.
Companies can also take it one step further by encouraging executive leaders to attend. When the workforce sees leaders walking the walk, it makes them feel heard and understood. Additionally, it gives these groups influence and a direct ally if they need support.
Look at it as an ongoing investment, not a box to check.
Creating an environment where people have a sense of belonging is a continuous process. You’ll never be able to say, “OK, we’ve done it! Now we can move onto something else.” It starts with the company culture and policies, but it requires each person to do their part.
Check in on each other, listen when people have differing views, and pull people into the conversation who might be feeling ignored. By keeping an open mind and choosing kindness, we can create a workplace where everyone feels welcome.