The Art of Belonging...

My colleague Darrell grew up in a neighborhood where he never quite felt that he belonged. When he landed a job with EY, he wanted to prove his value. His past experiences taught him to put his head down and focus on getting the work done. When his mom fell ill, he was stunned by the outpouring of support he received from his team. He was apprehensive at first, but when he opened up to them, he realized that he was fully accepted and seen by his colleagues for who he was, beyond just his work. For the first time, Darrell felt like a valued part of his team and that he truly belonged at EY.

At some point in our lives, we have all felt like Darrell. There are times where we feel like we belong and others where we don’t, and this has big implications for our own motivation, engagement, and physical and mental health. Today’s social and political climate has fractured some trust and has many people asking, “Do I belong here?” In fact, recent political elections have caused many around the world to take pause and ask this question, particularly in workplaces.

For instance, there may be people at work or even in our own families with whom we feel like we can share ideas openly and others where we may hesitate. As a foreign national, we may question the future of our employment status. Or maybe, we decided not to tell our new neighbor that we are a different religion or an immigrant because we are concerned about our safety. We all have an innate desire to belong; yet, divisive times like the ones in which we currently live can cause us all to question whether we actually do belong anywhere.

Many of our uncertainties around belonging stem from the levels of trust and safety we have in our environments. People tend to join communities or movements because they want to belong. Businesses are often like communities and movements; they can yield a very similar sense of responsibility for their people. And more recently, people have increasing expectations on businesses to have clear purpose and values.

Leaders are expected to act in ways that are aligned with these values, and there is very little tolerance for a lack of authenticity. The feeling of belonging that results from people being connected and inspired by the same sense of purpose can help bridge challenging divides in business (including geography, cultural backgrounds and faith) and drive significant individual and organizational benefits, including increased motivation, engagement, wellness, team collaboration and innovation.

So, how can we cultivate a strong sense of belonging for our people in our organizations?

Start by building trust …

Trust is a foundational element of belonging, and according to a recent EY study, that doesn’t bode well for the workplace, as less than half of global respondents surveyed said they trust their employer. To build an environment where everyone feels they belong, it’s important for people to first feel psychologically safe.

Safety and trust are inextricably linked, and when someone has a sense of safety, trust will emerge. Leaders who demonstrate the following behaviors can inspire trust and ultimately cultivate a strong sense of belonging for their people:

  1. Connect personally and align expectations: Establish connections that communicate that you value, understand and care about others. Be present, curious and seize small daily opportunities for personal connection.
  2. Give trust to get trust: Be explicit about your investment in others through day-to-day actions. Seek feedback, be a sponsor, give challenging assignments, be vulnerable and give credit to others.
  3. Be consistent and accountable: Maintain focus and consistent behavior, even under pressure. Be transparent and predictable with what you prioritize; role-model inclusive behavioral standards; and expect, reinforce and reward the accountability of others.

Feel safe enough to bring your own, full self to work …

When we feel and are safe, combined with trusting and feeling trusted, we can show up the way we are. We can lower our guard. We feel more three-dimensional — seen and accepted more fully, not through just one label or one trait: as a number, a gender, an ethnic box or even our role at work.

In fact, another EY study on workplace preferences revealed that more than half of Americans feel that at work their peers fail to recognize the multitude of characteristics that make them unique. Therefore, how we connect to others, how we think people see us, and how we approach and respond to circumstances can be very different.

It’s also worth noting that the sense of comfort we often feel when we belong varies from one experience to the next. Because the feeling of belonging is not permanent we need to pay close attention and actively cultivate environments in our organizations that signal trust, safety and inclusion.

We can connect with people beyond what is “visible” through asking questions, sharing of ourselves, listening and being vulnerable. This will help us understand and respect the multitude of characteristics that make a person unique and ultimately, help to build more trust.

The value of trust and belonging …

When leaders demonstrate behaviors that cultivate a strong sense of belonging, it has a positive impact on the business and the individual. These behaviors are particularly necessary for leaders today, as examples when trust has been fractured and belonging may be questioned. When trust and safety are present, and we feel valued and seen for who we are, and confident that we belong, we are more likely to demonstrate inclusive behaviors for others as well.

In fact, individuals who trust are 3.5 times more likely to contribute their innovative potential. And according to HBR’s “Neuroscience of Trust” study, we know that people who have high trust in their employer are 106% more energetic at work, 76% more engaged and 50% more productive.

Businesses have a unique opportunity to challenge themselves, reflect on how they’re showing up and build safe and welcoming environments for their people — especially when their employees may not feel that way at home or more broadly in society. More trust means people feel like they belong — they feel safe, inspired, elevated and better connected to their peers and leaders. And, more importantly, when employees feel like they belong, they have greater mental and physical well-being. It’s truly a win-win for all.

How will you build a sense of belonging?

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