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Belongingness at Work

Casey Mazzotti

February 20, 2021

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When we talk about diversity or inclusivity, we're often attempting to open up a well-intentioned conversation regarding maintaining diversity in the workplace and how we might go about doing that. Oftentimes, it's what gets left out of the discussion that can be most important in retaining that diverse workplace - it's called belongingness, and while it may seem self-explanatory, it acts as a bridge that allows us to hold a deeper, more meaningful and direct conversation about how different people experience the workplace differently, and how to foster a sense of belonging amongst everyone.

Let's start with first defining what we mean by 'belongingness' - what it all boils down to is a sense of connectedness within a group. If you feel belongingness within your team, you might feel accepted, secure, supported, or valued by your team members.

Iris Bohnet, a behavioral economist, Harvard professor, and Academic Dean of Harvard Kennedy School, published a book entitled What Works: Gender Equality by Design, in which she discusses how we need to move beyond the bias training of employees and management and emphasize de-biasing the system by which we hire, promote, and evaluate employee performance.

In her talk (linked above) she states that she has not yet found a study to support diversity training (i.e. no studies have proven it's worked), and instead, she argues, that diversity training sessions are working on 'fixing' our minds or 'fixing' the underrepresented group, most often women and/or people of color.

When it comes to the hiring of candidates, as a predictor of future performance, she suggests a few strategies to help:

1) Perform a structured interview - ask the same questions, in the same order, of each candidate and then rank those answers after the candidate has answered the question.
2) Evaluate candidates comparatively - compare each candidate with the other candidates and not the vision of who you think fits into this role.
3) Create sample workplace evaluation tools - have the candidate do something that will be expected of them once they join the organization.

She suggests avoiding unstructured interviews, as this can allow for unconscious bias to creep into the process. For more strategies and insights, check out her talk or book.

Once a candidate is hired, though, how can you foster a sense of belongingness? This is difficult to say, as there are so many variables about how you can go about doing this. There are some strategies that show up more than once amongst different sources.

Talk About It!

One way to bring about a sense of belongingness is to discuss it openly - let people know it's normal to worry about feeling like you belong or fit within the company or group, and that it takes time for that to happen for most people. Don't be afraid to have frank conversations about the different and similar hardships that people from different backgrounds face - this can actually bolster a sense of belonging and community, regardless of background.

It's also helpful to have lighter conversations that allow people to share more personal aspects of their life - hobbies, interests, family life, etc. This can also shine a light on similarities that otherwise might not have been made known, thereby building connectedness and belonging.

Build Good Relationships

One way to help people feel connected is to support them with a mentor in the company. Having a mentor can help a person learn the social dynamics of the company, navigate the system more effectively, and a mentor can serve as an advocate for the team member, which can provide a sense of support and belonging that would not have been there otherwise.

Another way is in team-building. Start with a more comprehensive focus on how you build your teams, how they interact, how decisions get made, and how management sets up an environment conducive to multiple insights from different people.

Have A Larger Vision

When group members feel a sense of vision with other team members, they are more likely to feel connected and included within that group. Ensure that your team members have a clear understanding of the goals, vision, and values of the company; if they are shared amongst the employees, it gives a greater sense of belongingness and connectedness with everyone there.

At a recent WITI talk, Dr. Margery Sendze, Ph.D., shared her research on black women in STEM who have been in the field long-term. Dr. Sendze has her Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology, and she evaluated several factors surrounding this topic that included both work-related and personal factors.

What she found was that, of the women she interviewed, they noted that having a strong support system, both inside and outside of work, allowed them to feel seen and heard, which contributed to their desire to stay at their job.

Having a welcoming work environment that encourages flexibility, diversity of thought, and community work was also a factor in whether the women stayed for the long-run in their position.

A sense of purpose provided a link to both their job and their community - many women interviewed felt a strong sense of responsibility to contribute to their respective communities, and they felt they would be sacrificing their opportunity to be a role model if they left their profession.

While Dr. Sendze spoke about other factors, such as confidence, resilience, and financial security, the factors listed above can all contribute to a sense of belonging within the workplace, which may contribute to retaining talent for the long-term.

Based on this evidence, it seems that it's time we shift our focus from diversity training - or trying to fix our minds or rid ourselves of unconscious bias - to accepting that there will always be unconscious bias, regardless of background, and implementing strategies that avoid allowing it to enter into our decision-making process. It also seems that we need to have more frank discussions and more opportunities to find similarities while celebrating and acknowledging differences. Encouraging diversity of thought and a shared vision amongst employees can also contribute to fostering a sense of belonging, which seems to be a factor in employees staying in the long-term. All of this together can start to bridge the gap in eliminating unconscious bias and fostering a sense of belonging in the workplace. That, in turn, will hopefully create and retain diverse teams for a longer period of time.

Bibliography:

1) 6 Ways To Foster Belonging In The Workplace Taking Diversity & Inclusion To The Next Level. Culture Amp, https://hello.cultureamp.com/hubfs/1703-Belonging/Culture-Amp_6-ways-to-foster-belonging.pdf.

2) Carr, Evan W. et al. "The Value Of Belonging At Work". Harvard Business Review, 2019, https://hbr.org/2019/12/the-value-of-belonging-at-work.

3) "Iris Bohnet On Gender Equality". The RSA, https://www.thersa.org/video/events/2016/08/iris-bohnet-on-gender-equality.

4) Martin, Julie L. "The Benefits Of Belonging". Association For Psychological Science - APS, 2014, https://www.psychologicalscience.org/video/the-benefits-of-belonging-2.html.

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