Have you ever felt like an outsider? For example, I had a year-long weekly class in eighth grade, and I was the only one who came from the neighboring – rival - town. The other kids sat on the opposite side of the room from me and, for twelve months, only the teacher acknowledged my presence. I begged not to go and dreaded each week. To add to this, I was that adolescent girl who was always picked last for teams in gym class—I wasn’t fast, I wasn’t coordinated, I couldn’t contribute much towards a win. I got my poorest grades in gym. (I really hated gym class…)
I’m sure we’ve all had similar experiences. And not just in our youth. The sting of not feeling like you fit in and the desire to feel connected to peers is just as powerful of a driver as adults as it was when we were young. It may not be as overt as the often youthful name-calling can be, but it sneaks into the workplace in subtle, yet impactful ways. A feeling of not belonging is one of the top three reasons people leave employers. Top three! Yikes! We have some work to do!
As leaders, just as we have devoted time and practice to develop expertise in our areas of influence, we need to dedicate energy and effort to strengthening our skills in supporting the belonging of individuals on our teams. It matters…and not only for the new hires or those new in a role. It’s important at every stage of employment, driving retention, engagement, productivity, patient satisfaction, and financial outcomes.
What can you do to foster belonging on your teams? Silvia Siquiera of Hilti Corporation identified five behaviors that impact feelings of inclusion:
- Active Listening
This is obviously a good communication skill in general, but in terms of belonging, it’s about being truly heard, feeling respected. Demonstrate through your actions that you give others your full, undivided attention when you’re with them. Come to the conversation with the realization you may not have all the details and a desire to know more. Seek to understand rather than to respond. You don’t have to always agree with their thoughts. Just acknowledge the opinions and give them full consideration.
- Positive Reinforcement
Markus Buckingham, well-known author and motivational speaker, suggests observing employees and reacting to what works in their performance so it can be consciously considered and further developed. This is not just for praise purposes; it’s to help employees notice what’s working so they can do more of it. Challenge yourself to look for what’s right and call it out, rather than focus solely on what’s not going well. Investigate what’s working in the outcomes and behaviors of each person on your team and find ways to recognize them, encouraging them to continue. (For more on this topic, consider watching Markus Buckingham’s 4-minute video: How to Coach Your Employees)
- Awareness of Assumptions (Biases)
Assumptions occur simply as a result of missing information. When you don’t have all the necessary background and understanding, make the effort to seek out the rest of the details. Probe deeper with curiosity. Be aware of judgments or conclusions you may have before you know the full story.
Clue in to the subtle cues—tone of voice, actions, word choices—that indicate separation from others. Like my 8th grade example, who is physically distant from the group? Watch for:
- A quiet sigh after someone speaks.
- Looking away as one person shares but making eye contact when another colleague talks.
- Acknowledging one employee’s input during a meeting with, “Yes, interesting…” but interrupting while another employee begins to share.
- If you catch yourself sending these inadvertent, non-malicious intending cues, work to avoid them in the future. If you notice these behaviors in the team, use facilitation skills to change the nature of their interaction (e.g., ground rules, mixing up partners for discussions, round robins, etc.)
This requires being in the moment and attentive to what’s happening around you without judgment. It’s about being sensitive to the psychological safety of everyone on the team and addressing concerns as they occur. It’s bringing to the table our emotional intelligence—both in self-awareness and in social awareness—and ensuring they are present in each of our leadership interactions.
Everyone wants to feel valued, as if their contributions are making a difference. You have tremendous influence towards that sense. Commit to strengthening your skills that enables each person on your team to know right there is where they belong.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Corrie Searles, MPT, Leadership Development Educator
In Corrie’s new role as Leadership Development Educator at the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative (RWHC), her aim is to empower leaders to create positive influence that enables others to serve well.