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Go Beyond Inclusion with Belonging – 7 Tips for Leaders

June is an important month. Not only is it Pride, it’s also our National Month to celebrate and recognize the contributions of Indigenous Peoples. While most organizations now have people dedicated to building more inclusive and diverse workplaces, there is still so much work to be done.


It’s my observation and belief that leaders need to more deliberately behave in ways that go beyond their diversity and inclusion policies and targets. They need to ensure that every employee feels a sense of belonging.


There are a few analogies about the difference between diversity, inclusion and belonging, but the one that resonates for me is this quote from culture change catalyst, lawyer and VP of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix, Verna Myers. She says, “Diversity is being invited to the party, Inclusion is being asked to dance and Belonging is dancing like no one’s watching.”


An organizational culture that doesn’t cultivate belonging sees higher rates of employee burnout, lower employee engagement and increased turnover. So, leaders, here are 7 tips to cultivate a sense of belonging within your teams. I challenge you to make a deliberate effort to do more of these things this month, and in the months ahead as we slowly (and hopefully) enter the post-pandemic era.


Your employees are watching and waiting to see what happens. Many of them, according to latest reports, are also a part of a growing group who are planning to find a new gig – a.k.a. “The Great Resignation.”


How can you retain your talent? By ensuring that employees not only feel valued, but like they belong.

1. Understand Your Role in Creating Psychological Safety


First and foremost, spend a little bit of time understanding the concept of psychological safety in the workplace and your central role as a leader to enhancing it. Just like employers play a role in ensuring the physical safety of their employees, they also influence their mental wellbeing. In fact, there are 13 psychological health & safety (PH&S) factors that can impact employee mental health. It’s important that you know what they are and how to positively affect them.


How can you do this?


Learn more about these 13 factors by visiting the Mental Health Commission of Canada and watching the series of informational videos linked at the bottom of their webpage, or by clicking this link.


2. Take Stock of Your Vocabulary


Consider spending the next week, observing the lingo and slang you use. Does it include heteronormative terms? Are you unknowingly using sayings that are rooted in prejudiced norms? Do you use microaggressions? Now, work to eliminate any language (or tone) from your vocabulary that could alienate someone and therefore make them feel excluded, or worse yet, unsafe in the workplace.


How can you do this?


Here are some simple tips:

  • Stop using acronyms

  • Start using pronouns in your email signature

  • Take the time to learn how to say names correctly – if you aren’t sure, ask

  • Lose the old-timey phrases/colloquialisms. Lots of them are discriminatory.

  • Use plain language

If some of the ideas expressed above are new to you, you should consider completing some training. Check out LinkedIn Learning or find out what your organization’s L&D department has to offer. Ultimately, it’s on you do the work.


3. Learn Basic Coaching Skills


Organizations with a coaching culture see a multitude of benefits from increased growth and profits to higher retention rates and employee engagement scores. In addition to these benefits, those who work for a leadership team that regularly utilizes coaching techniques are more likely to report a sense of belonging.


Great coaches are empathetic, strong listeners and ultimately ask more questions, while offering less advice. They seek to understand and to make people feel safe to share ideas and feedback (both positive and constructive). They see infinite potential in everyone and look for opportunities to support their team’s continued development.


How can you do this?


Starting by reading Michael Bungay Stanier’s “The Coaching Habit – Say Less, Ask More and Change the Way You Lead Forever” and find out if you can take some courses on coaching employees.


4. Co-create Team Guiding Principles


Most organizations have a mission, vision, and values on their website and in their boardrooms, but how many live up to them? Why not work with your team to co-create a set of action-oriented values statements, a.k.a. guiding principles, that communicate team norms while helping them to collaborate?


Encouraging the team to share what values and behaviours are most important to them, not only as individuals, but in each other, can help develop greater trust. This activity can also help codify a set of standards that the team will aspire to achieve every day.


How can you do this?


One simple, yet collaborative activity, starts by using sticky notes or a digital whiteboard and asking team members to contribute responses to the following questions:

  1. What values/behaviours are most important for our team to achieve our goals (a) now? (b) in the future?

  2. What values/behaviours do I/will I hold myself accountable for?

  3. What values/behaviours do I/will I hold my teammates accountable for?


Then facilitate discussion around common themes. Take the feedback away to develop draft guiding principles for further input and discussion with your team.


Note: an important aspect of this activity is ensuring everyone feels safe to contribute. For some employees, they might not want to vocalize their ideas, so that is why sticky notes (paper or digital) are a great tool to build a sense of safety and neutrality that encourage participation of everyone.


5. Normalize a Culture of Learning


Most employees strive to do a good job.


But, if they are constantly worried about the consequences of making a mistake, it'll be hard to feel a sense of belonging. Proactively implementing tools to encourage learning, rather than perfection will not only improve employee experience scores, but your organization’s ability to grow and face disruptions.


How can you do this?

Shifting towards a Learning Organization model is no easy task. If this is a new concept, start by learning about what it is. Then, start small within your direct team. Some ways to do this include:

  • Establish a team value or guiding principle about continuous growth/learning

  • Make time for team and individual learning and experimentation

  • Adopt a regular practice of conducting “lessons learned” or “post-mortems” to gather key insights for future projects/initiatives

6. Ensure Staff Can Come to You… With Anything


Like tip number 5, your employees will struggle to feel a sense of belonging if they can’t come to you with a problem or admit a mistake. Not all professional gaffes will be the kind where you’ll want to lend a shoulder, but it’s important to create a supportive culture where no matter the problem, an employee can come to you.


If you don’t do this, you run the risk of creating a culture of fear and deceit.


How can you do this?


Don’t just tell employees they can come to you with anything. Show them. Each conversation is an opportunity to develop deeper trust and connection. Make it a habit to ask, “how are you doing, really?” and “how can I support you?”.


If an employee makes a mistake, seek first to understand. Then, apply tip 5 – what can we learn from this experience?


If all else fails, think back to a moment where you made a professional mistake and reflect:

  • What was the impact of your manager’s reaction?

  • Were they understanding and helpful, or did they make you feel horribly for the mistake?

  • Which type of leader did you need in that moment?

7. Lead with Authenticity


Authentic leadership requires you to bring YOUR whole self to work. If employees can get a glimpse into your home life, hobbies, interests, and stories, they’ll be more likely to connect with you while also feeling like they can take their masks off as well.


For the most part, we can sense when someone is being genuine, open and honest. It’s this kind of leader that people want to work with. When you lead from a place of authenticity, others are more likely to be authentic. Now this doesn’t give everyone a license to be an *$$. No, it just means that we can share more of ourselves, respectfully, and cultivate deeper connections and belonging as result.


How can you do this?


  • Idea 1: Think of a leader you admire and would consider to be authentic. Spend some time observing them. What do they do to create authentic connections? Now, is there anything they’re doing that you could adopt in your own unique way?


  • Idea 2: In tip 6, I suggested you reflect on a moment you made a mistake. One quick way to become a more inclusive and authentic leader is to start sharing more stories about your setbacks or failures – not just your wins. Why? Because it humanizes you.

If you made it to the end of this article, congratulations! It’s a bit longer than my usual blog and that’s because there are so many ways you can start building a culture of belonging where you work (and beyond). While this article focused on leadership practices, we all play and important part in building a more diverse and inclusive society where everyone belongs. So, how are you going to be a part of the solution?


About Lauren McCreery


Lauren is a Leadership, Executive and Career Coach. As the founder of Swerve Coaching & Consulting, she helps leaders to build healthy, burnout-resistant workplaces where everyone can thrive by collaboratively designing programs and strategies focused on reducing burnout risk.


Lauren also helps professional millennials who are stressed, stuck or burnt out to transition towards work that's engaging, energizing and empowering. If you're looking for some support, feel free to email Lauren at lauren@swervecoaching.com.

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