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Belonging in the workplace

Belonging is at the heart of resilience. A resilient team will flow and navigate around major obstacles and setbacks that would break everyone else. When a team is resilient, challenges only serve to elevate their skillset and quality of work delivered.


The single most important protective factor against adversity is belonging. The science is clear.


But how do you increase a sense of belonging in the workplace?


Let me tell you about a time when I realized that helping colleagues with an additional project was about belonging, not the work itself.


I had just joined a very large team in an organization that had many layers of hierarchy. The beauty of a multilevel organization is that there are many people in charge of many different jobs that make life easier. Computer is acting junky? Call IT. Submit an expense for approval? The Finance Lady is on it. There was an education budget and company vehicle at my disposal. In exchange, I agreed to only play within my cubicle. If I wanted to do more outside of my job description it had to be approved by the powers that be. If I colored outside the lines, record scratch! You just broke a silent rule.


It took me a while to understand that offering to help with projects outside of the job description was a privilege granted by the people in charge of the project. These projects were equivalent to the extracurriculars like ASB in high school. And the homecoming dance was around the corner. The official word was all hands on deck. But the unofficial word was different.


I wanted to help. Because it looked fun. And I always finished my work really fast so I did have the space to help. When I asked if I could pitch in with anything, the answer was “we will let you know.”




I was confused.


On one hand, the team in charge of the big event would repeatedly complain about being “ssssooo busy!” and on the other hand they refused extra help.


Quickly, I realized that saying you are so busy! Was a covert way to brag about how important you were. And accepting help with the big project was about allowing others to be a part of the inner circle, as well as flexing their skills to show they were worthy of promotion when the time came.


Getting asked to help was about belonging.

Getting asked to help was about trust.

Getting asked to help was about deepening bonds among colleagues.

And the message was clear. “You don’t belong. We don’t want your help.”


As a recovering hyperindividualist I have learned through not-so-awesome experiences that asking for help is not a burden on people. It is bestowing trust. It is transmitting the message “you have skills that are important,” and “I want to spend more time and deepen the relationship as we work together.” Asking for help is saying “I let you see me,” because collaboration requires so much communication.


Collaboration calls people to sync their brains together. Collaboration has the side effect as well as the central requirement that everyone working the project mirrors each other. Collaboration simultaneously exalts your strengths and expertise as well as vulnerably showing where I am at the weakest at. Where I lack, you shine. My limitations are the platform for your expertise to lead the way.


I was eventually allowed to collaborate in a different project. I loved it. And I got to know my colleagues at a deeper level. I finally got to understand the logic behind their choices. I understood their magic and how they all fit together.


Eventually, I learned that I didn’t want to spend my energy trying to belong in an ecosystem that didn’t want me. I hadn’t yet understood the art of getting invited to places that wanted you there. It would be years before I got there.


Finding teams where I belong feels like breathing. My body relaxes. It is a joy to work together to bring beautiful things to life for the purpose of elevating leaders to the next level.


In hindsight, everything is obvious in a way it never is when you’re in the middle of it. Now I see that the leadership was not actively participating in creating a positive team culture. When leadership is passive, a few in the team take over to provide some sort of direction for the many. Merge that with my personal lack of understanding on how to enter an established culture and lack of skills at navigating conflict and difficult conversations, then you get a whole lot of awkwardness. It wasn’t sustainable. There were not enough puzzle pieces to complete the picture.


If you are participating in a team, whether you are a leader or colleague, know that asking for help is a tool to deepen connection, trust, and understanding. Use it intentionally to both relieve the weight off your shoulders and contribute to building the team’s capacity to handle adversity.


Here are some basic actionable steps you can take to create opportunities for your team to reinforce belonging.


1. Identify projects that move the needle towards the big goals that require a diverse team. This can be a great way to source talent from inside the team to accomplish big things that are usually time limited. Think of it as extracurriculars for adults in the workplace. In the past, I have been a big fan of “side projects” that fell outside my job description because, at bare minimum, they gave me opportunities to do something fun to break up the monotony of the job. At a deeper level, these were opportunities to reinforce the relationship with my colleagues and even people outside my department that I normally didn’t have opportunities to interact with. Ascending the corporate ladder requires strong skills in relationship building. Side projects were a valuable opportunity to network with people at higher levels in the organization in a fun and low pressure environment. I always appreciated the department supervisors that had this insight and focused energy and time in creating these spaces for the staff. Without them, it would be almost impossible to open up these opportunities on my own due to the inertia of corporate life. One of my friends who has been in a band for years, worked in a packing warehouse that had long hours during harvest season but slowed down significantly during winter. It was physical work that required a lot of the body but very little of the mind. A team made up of the warehouse staff banded together to make a splashy music video as an ad to promote a particular product that their company launched. It looked like it was so much fun to put together and I envied them a little bit. The video was high quality in visuals, production, and music because it was financed by company money. The team of warehouse workers became a bit of a local celebrity after the video made the rounds. He got to use his creative skills while working with his friends, and contribute to the company in a deeper way that his job description alone didn’t provide. He got to bring something of his personal life that energizes him, into his work life for a result bigger than him and beyond his garage band.



2. Make sure to be hands-on in the forming of the teams. The larger your team is, the wider breadth of temperaments you will have. You may have to personally invite the team members you think would benefit greatly from any given project because you will have the ones that are always excited to do more (and may or may not have the bandwidth to do more), and you’ll have the ones that are too shy even though they might be very interested in it. For this to work well, everyone needs to truly volunteer for this project. But you may have to be mindful of using guardrails in the beginning to avoid gatekeeping, overtaxing some members, and a cluster of similar skills and voids of other skills. If you have inherited a team that you didn’t get to hand pick, there may be dynamics that you want to get rid of. Unfortunately this requires a lot more output than if you had the opportunity to build your own team. But it’s doable. The key is to keep it simple and know where to be more hands-on and where to let go a bit. If there are unhealthy dynamics that you wish to get rid of, you get to be more hands-on to make sure belonging is strengthened rather than reinforcing toxic patterns. If you chose projects with certain people in mind, call them one by one and explain how this could be interesting to them and how their skills would be valuable to the team you’re forming. The invitation is an opportunity to affirm and praise their strengths. Even if they declined, there was already a benefit from that conversation.




3. Focus on a variety of projects. If your team is larger than 15 people, open the opportunity for projects outside of the organization. There are many volunteer opportunities in your community that speak to the different people in your team. Banding together with other organizations can invite creativity and strengthen a sense of belonging by doing good for others. My first job was with a national corporation that gave me tremendous insight on what high performing teams and scattered teams look like and what it takes to sustain either energy. One of the highest performing teams was always inviting the rest of the corporation to participate in fundraising opportunities like Coats for Kids. They made it really fun and heartwarming. Even the team leads that were usually at odds or competing with each other got to be on the same side and push in the same direction. The sense of unity and accomplishment was sweet. It definitely built social capital and deepened a sense of connection and belonging which smoothed out friction and kept the competition on a healthy level.


 

Extracurricular projects can be such a fun way to invite creativity, the spirit of volunteerism, and move further on big goals in a way that isn’t overtaxing the staff. When done well with the right amount of input and support from the leadership, it can deepen a sense of belonging and reinforce the organization’s mission and vision as part of their individual identity. When people’s identity is aligned with their work, they take pride in their efforts, they look out for their team, and their positive communication skills expand.


As long as you focus on benefiting your team members rather than getting more work out of people, side projects are a wealth of value and experience for everyone.



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Karelys Davis
Karelys Davis
Jun 16, 2023

I was so pleased that someone asked for the research on this topic! So I am going to include some links for the people who like to understand the science behind everything.

This research provides a new integrative framework for belonging. The paper provides a lot of background and the research that got us to this point in time. I believe it is a great starting place. https://tinyurl.com/belongingintegrativeframework


The Harvard Business Review has a nice article that compiles a lot of the research on belonging at work. It cites search showing that rejection and exclusion is damaging and how the sensation is akin to physical pain. https://hbr.org/2019/12/the-value-of-belonging-at-work


Transcend Leadership Collective trains leaders to create environments of belonging based on the most…

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