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Leaders, researchers, and productivity experts talk endlessly about teamwork, but teams don’t exist just because an org chart or a boss says they do. To turn a group of individuals into a team, you need them to feel like they belong to one. To feel included is a basic human need. When we belong, we create a safe environment where everyone is willing to offer their diverse perspectives, and take in others', in service of their team and their shared objectives.
Belonging is central to success in the modern workplace. And it’s an area where the data shows many leaders could easily improve. In fact, one in four employees feels they don’t belong at work, according to recent research from my company, BetterUp. The good news is the same research also suggests simple interventions that can increase belonging and team performance.
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The business case for belonging
The fact that 25% of your workforce may feel left out is disheartening on a human level. We are all hardwired to want to feel part of a tribe. But it also impacts performance. When employees feel they can’t be their authentic selves at work, when they feel left out, when they feel their talents are not properly welcomed, their performance takes a hit.
In fact, a multi-year Google research project found that the most important factor for a team’s success isn’t the IQ or talent of its members. Instead, it’s psychological safety — the feeling that your colleagues appreciate you and have your back. Our own research at BetterUp shows that employees who have a high sense of belonging are 10 times more likely to be satisfied with their jobs and more than twice as engaged at work.
These findings make psychological sense. Humans are less creative when they feel threatened and less loyal to groups and organizations they feel aren’t loyal to them. The research is clear: Belonging is objectively good for business.
Happily for leaders, fostering belonging is not rocket science. You no doubt learned the basic principles of inclusion back when you were in kindergarten. The key insight here isn’t complex interventions, it’s an awareness that the same principles of kindness and fairness apply on the playground and the professional realm. A shift in mindset that views businesses less as machines with cogs and wheels and more as ecosystems made up of people in search of connection and self-actualization, helps leaders reap all the benefits of a strong sense of belonging. Here are a few specific ways to foster that feeling:
1. Acknowledge exclusion
Empower your team members to take control of situations of exclusion. When you sense that someone is feeling excluded or that their ideas aren’t being properly valued, don’t stay silent. Simply engaging in a conversation non-judgmentally about the situation and giving them the space to talk about their experience and feelings can actually increase their sense of belonging. Listening alone is enough to start to move the needle.
Start with something like, “I noticed that we talked right past your comment about the data on the dog-owner market. That surprised me given you owned that customer data. What did you make of that?” Never force a conversation, but if your colleague is happy to talk, you can take your intervention a step further by asking, “What would you change to make sure everyone feels included?” It is everyone’s responsibility to foster belonging.
2. Be an ally
You don’t need to wait for someone to feel excluded to take action. One of the best ways to build a culture of belonging is to remind yourself regularly of the importance of including everyone and treating teammates fairly.
Managers and leaders play a critical role in supporting belonging and inclusion. Managers are the primary driver of employee experience — directly through their interactions and decisions and indirectly by setting the tone for the team through their behaviors. Building a culture of inclusive leadership should be central to any leadership development efforts.
Ask yourself: Am I hearing from everyone on my team? Make a list of team members and periodically track how often they comment across meetings and virtual platforms for a week. Address patterns and imbalances by being deliberate in inviting people into the discussion, slowing meetings down, or using collaborative documents or other asynchronous activities to solicit input rather than a free-for-all discussion.
As a leader, praising allies who are supportive and stick up for colleagues demonstrates you value belonging. Think of these actions as an immunization against exclusion and the damage it can do.
3. Gain perspective
Exclusion thrives in darkness. Shine a light on the problem with open conversation and you’re likely to see problems of lack of belonging diminish. Encourage team members to reflect on their own experiences of exclusion and to discuss how to better help others who face similar challenges.
These interventions are straightforward. The only trick is having the courage to actually do them, and the earlier you start, the more benefits you’ll see. Rather than attempting to repair damage caused by exclusion, be proactive. Sow the seeds of belonging in your workplace now by reflecting on the value of belonging and beginning thoughtful conversations around the topic.
That can be harder than it appears on paper, so if you’re nervous about how to proceed, a coach, therapist, or other trained pro can help guide you. The research is clear that this small investment in belonging will pay off in higher performance and well-being down the road.
Co-founder & CEO