3 Essential Steps to Create a Workplace of Belonging

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A Poll

Have you ever felt like you don’t belong somewhere? Have you experienced a panic-inducing bout of imposter syndrome? Been the black sheep of the group? Or even been verbally or physically excluded from a place or situation? Had no sense of belonging?

I’d bet my bottom dollar the answer to at least one of those questions was yes for everyone reading this. It’s a yes for me too. I was an outsider for most of my life. I grew up the literal black sheep of my family (you can read more about that here), and it took a long time before I could really find my place. It took an even longer time to feel like I belonged in this world. I had to navigate belonging under my own roof and with my relatives. Many are blessed not to have to face that challenge. 

I’m here to talk to you about belonging under a different roof. One that every employee in the world experiences: belonging at work. I have three tried and true recommendations for leaders to create a sense of belonging at work.

The Definition

When I say belonging, I mean “the feeling that you have value, a home or a place in which you are fully accepted”.

To clarify, you cannot possibly know if your employees feel like they belong without first knowing your employees. 

Step One

Let’s begin with step one. You have to seek to understand your employees in their own shoes, with all their intricacies that extend beyond the workplace. The deeper your understanding of your employee goes, the better suited you will be to find the perfect fit for them within your organization. 

One of the biggest mistakes glaring under the microscope of 2020 and 2021 is making assumptions about people. Assumptions lead to microaggressions, misunderstanding, and otherwise harmful behaviors. Start to understand your employees better by practicing active listening and including everyone’s voices in the conversation. However, if you’d like more information on this step, you can read about it in my book under the chapter on listening cultures. You can also listen to this podcast episode with Sarah Bierenbaum.

Step Two

The second step in creating a culture of belonging is to seek out your teams’ strengths and let them shine. This builds off the previous step. If you have already spent time connecting with and getting to know your team better, it won’t be too challenging to discover their unique talents. There are five key ways to uncover your teams’ strengths. I go into detail about them in my book, but I’ll refer to a couple here as well. Go to the employee themself. Ask them where they think they shine and where their biggest area for improvement is. Ask them which part of their job is their favorite; we tend to enjoy doing what we’re good at. In addition, offer your team assessments like Strengthsfinder, DISC, Meyers Briggs. 

Accompany these new behaviors with recognition and positive feedback, even if the result is a failure. Commend your employees for trying and testing their limits. If you would like to learn more about uncovering your teams’ strengths and maximizing them, listen to this podcast episode with Timbra Yoakum. 

Step Three

Ironically, the third step to creating a sense of belonging is, in fact, inclusion. You will only feel that you truly belong somewhere if you are welcomed to the table. Trust is the foundation for any safe space to be possible. There needs to be an explicit and implicit invitation to your employees to speak openly and honestly.

Furthermore, welcoming your employees’ voices helps them feel safe and cared for. You can begin this process of inclusion by sharing your own stories first. Lead by example. If you want a more detailed explanation of this, I invite you to listen to this episode of my podcast with Mark Nagel. In it, we dig deeper into the creation of safe spaces and how to encourage your team to open up and let their voices be heard. 

If you have any more questions about the intricacies of creating a sense of belonging within your organizations, then please join us in the Caring Leadership Community! Also, I invite you to take the Caring Leadership Self-Assessment to gauge where your strengths and areas of improvement are. This will better guide you as you create a culture of caring within your workspace.

How to Inspire Spontaneous Caring Leadership

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A Hard Hit & a Quick Save

Last week I was at my son’s soccer game when I witnessed a beautiful example of spontaneous Caring Leadership. One of the kids playing was hit in the chest with the ball; you know, the kind of hit that knocks the wind right out of you. It was a hard impact, and immediately the coach started to run over to check on the boy. But, before the coach even got there, the referee had stopped the game. He was already doing breathing exercises, helping the boy regain his breath. By the time the coach got there, he didn’t even need to help.  

I had just witnessed a perfect demonstration of leading right where you’re at, in your own shoes, irrespective of title.  

The Unassuming Leader

We probably hear stories about special moments all the time; good samaritan posts throughout the world frequently go viral on social media. But leading doesn’t need to be some grand sacrificial gesture. It’s the simple act of being present and serving others by meeting their needs with compassion. The referee was a perfect example of this. Because he was there first, the coach didn’t have to attend to the injured player after all. 

In this analogy, the coach is the leader who doesn’t have to get involved. If teams can self-manage and help support one another, the leader is free to focus on other things. The best leaders are the ones who aren’t constantly intervening and problem-solving on behalf of their team. One of the greatest marks of success for a leader is when their team can function just as efficiently without the leader being present. Their ability to work without the leader’s guidance is because they have truly learned how to excel at their jobs. It should be noted that this, probably in part, is due to the investment and distance of their leader. 

A Message for You, Wherever You Are

Whether or not you serve in the most junior position or sit at the top of your organization, I urge you to be alert for moments when spontaneous leadership could bloom. Think of the impact these small moments of compassionate service can have on the function of your workplace. I guarantee that stepping up and demonstrating leadership in the more mundane parts of your workday (or your whole day) will drive up the recognition you receive. Hopefully, your leader will realize the lessening of their workload as you help solve problems here and there, saving them time and energy, two of their most valuable resources. 

Acting independently and using your critical thinking to resolve issues will also provide an example to your peers. Then, they too might assume responsibility and take the lead during some of the daily hiccups organizations encounter. 

Encouraging Spontaneous Leadership

If you feel that your organization’s teams do this well, then wonderful! Keep up the excellent work. However, if you are experiencing quite the opposite and are struggling to think of ways your team independently problem solves, then here are some steps you can take to promote leadership at every level of your organization. 

Step One

First, provide the example; be the exemplary Caring Leader. This means giving your team grace when grace is due, and in some cases, it might be due quite often. Make sure you are filling your cup through self-care and other fulfilling activities. This allows you to continue to give to your team even when it gets tough. 

In episode 165 of my podcast with Eddy Badrina, we discuss the shortage of grace in many of today’s workplaces. Eddy summarized this profoundly when he said, “I think if people had more grace in the business setting, business would be more robust in the long term.”

When an employee makes a mistake within or outside of the purview of their role, if you respond to that mistake by showing them grace, they will feel more comfortable in their role. The more comfortable and safe an employee feels the more they will trust their leaders. You believe in them, they believe in you, and soon they will start acting with authority. The type only a well-trusted employee can perform with, and odds are, they will excel in their performance. 

Step Two

Second, create a psychologically safe space. I devote an entire chapter of my latest book to this concept. The sheer impact that listening to your employees can have on an organization is mindblowing. Listen to your employees, show you understand them, and give them a chance to use their voices. Allow more idea sharing and enforce safe boundaries to keep out microaggressions and prejudice. 

In Episode 57 of my podcast, Mellisa Ebert and I discuss the concept of psychological safety. She expresses, “Build rapport and respect with your team so that they will feel safe to feel vulnerable.” Once you create this space for your team to act in and then take a step back to allow them to function independently, you will be surprised by who will step up to the plate. People will come forward in support of one another and even stretch themselves to make sure things work without having to get their supervisor involved. 

Step Three

Lastly, recognition must be a critical cultural piece of an organization blessed with spontaneous acts of caring leadership. There’s a common phrase, “nobody wants to go unnoticed,” and while as a mom of four, there are definitely times I want to go “unnoticed,” this expression has some truth to it. 

Some stats from the HR Technologist prove this. “63% of employees who are recognized are very unlikely to look for a new job,” compared to only 11% of unrecognized employees who would do the same. Not only will turnover improve, but people who are recognized are proven to perform better. 

The End Game

Empowering your team through the example of Caring Leadership, giving them the space to act and think independently, and recognizing them when they try, will create more spontaneous leaders. These leaders will be just the same caliber as that quick thinking and compassionate referee I witnessed diffuse a challenging moment so smoothly in my son’s game. 

Not sure if your organization needs help creating opportunities for leaders to shine at all levels? Take the Caring Leadership Self-Assessment today to find out where your strengths and weaknesses in leadership lie.