October 29, 2019

How to Foster a Sense of Belonging Among Your Employees

Employees who feel like integral members of an organization tend to be more loyal. 

These are people who feel their opinions are valued, their authentic selves welcomed and their personal development is encouraged. They’re seen as people first and employees second. But they are also more likely to connect meaningfully with one another and embrace the organizational mission and their roles within it.

Indeed, fostering a sense of belonging provides the expected corporate benefits of having an engaged team with boosted productivity. It also gives employees what is perhaps an even greater gift: the action of collectively pursuing a purpose.

Below are five actions company leaders can take to create a sense of belonging among employees — and the benefits that doing this can bring.

Create an Inclusive Organization

People need to feel included if they are to claim a sense of belonging to a group. So, inclusivity should be the goal of every organization. 

It’s worth clearing any confusion over the terms “diversity” and “inclusion” now because those sometimes get used interchangeably. These terms are interrelated but distinct in meaning, says Krys Burnette, an organization transformation and innovation consultant.

Burnette spoke with a friend, who has devoted his career to making US public schools more equal places for school children, about this. Diversity, her friend says, can be thought of in the same way as biodiversity: many different organisms coexisting in a shared ecosystem. These organisms — i.e. people — are different, perhaps because of race, gender, beliefs, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or mental or physical abilities. 

Inclusion refers to the acceptance of diverse people. An inclusive organisation means that diverse groups of people — including those with marginalized identities — feel as if they belong, that they are needed and can ask from the group. Ultimately, they know they are valued. 

Burnette says a true sense of belonging requires that employees feel empowered to speak up, bring about change and make an impact on the way the company is run. Leaders are the ones with the power to create these conditions for inclusivity to thrive. 

Define Your Shared Mission, Purpose and Values

A group of people with a shared purpose work better together because they believe in their cause. A sense of shared belief and shared values also leads to employees feeling a sense of belonging, explains Howard J. Ross, author of “Our Search for Belonging.”

Leaders need to articulate their missions so that all employees understand what the goal is and how achieving it depends on everyone. Ross says: “The more people feel they are the same, the more they see their experiences as collective.”

Shared purpose helps people feel like they matter, like what they do has value. It also encourages people to contribute to goals or causes larger than themselves, explains Randy Conley at Leading With Trust, citing the work of Dan Schawbel.

Purpose among employees comes from their feeling connected to the work they do and how it benefits the customers they serve. Conley says it might even be worth speaking to a customer and having them describe how the team’s work has positively affected their lives. That way, employees can see the real human impacts of what they’re doing. 

Ali Fenwick, a behavioral scientist at Nyenrode Business University in the Netherlands, says leaders must understand that their employees need to know they’re contributing to meaningful endeavors. Meaning, purpose and pride contribute at least as much to employee commitment as a paycheck does. 

But at the core of this approach is a sense of identification, which encourages emotional attachment, and a sense of belonging and loyalty to the organization. 

portrait of a young woman smiling and talking a selfie; fostering belonging concept

Encourage Employees to Be Their Authentic Selves

People will feel like they belong at an organization when they are allowed to be their real selves. But many people feel unable to be who they are in the work context. This is a struggle for black professionals, explains Adia Harvey Wingfield, professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Black employees tend to be in the minority in white-collar positions. Not only do those employees often face blatant discrimination, but they are also endure other psychological burdens, Harvey Wingfield says. For instance, they may feel they need to manage their emotions in specific ways, such as being convivial and pleasant at all times, even in the face of racial issues. 

Leaders must then cultivate a working environment in which no staff member feels the need to censor important aspects of themselves. One way for leaders to do this is to share their own stories of not fitting in or having changed their behaviors because they felt they had to. 

This is what happened at Citigroup, says Sam Lalanne, the company’s SVP of global diversity and talent management. Senior staff shared conversations and personal stories to an audience of employees and live-streamed the chat to the rest of the organization in 96 countries. One told how she’d always feared being found out by colleagues that she never went to college and would try to exit any conversation about it. The story resonated with many, Lalanne says.  

Foster Employee Connections

Employees who connect with their colleagues tend to feel more like they’re a part of community. So, leaders should create a “connection mindset,” says author and performance expert Michael Stallard

The way to achieve this mindset is first to explain why connections matter. Reasons for making these connections include increased trust-building between colleagues, greater respect and recognition, feelings of support, and ultimately a sense of belonging. 

A new hire’s journey starts by wanting respect from colleagues, which soon turns to desire to be recognized and, later, a need to feel as if they belong. When these conditions are met, Stallard says, employees will feel more competent, and their personal development will flourish. 

Connections through open communication lead to collaboration and even friendship among colleagues. Indeed, Annamarie Mann at Gallup Workplace calls communication and collaboration the “cornerstones of an inclusive culture.”

When everyone feels they can communicate without fear or reprisal, they tend to feel more connected and safer psychologically. The result is greater trust and a sense of belonging, Mann explains. 

Diverse female colleagues laughing having fun with smartphone; fostering belonging concept

Promote Employee Development

Employees want the opportunity to grow and develop. When they are able to develop personally and professionally, they will be more loyal to a company, engaged and productive, Amit Gautam at People Matters explains.

Those responsible for delivering learning and development programs should help engage employees in their roles, but they can also help with the wider workplace and organization. 

The way we work and the roles we perform are changing, and this rate of change will only intensify. Learning and development should be considered a lifelong endeavor, say Bhushan Sethi and Carol Stubbings, joint global people and organization leaders at PwC US and UK, respectively. 

Leaders should promote learning as a continuous practice so they can help their employees grow in confidence and be more able to adapt to change. This is not only good for the employer brand, but it will also keep employees more engaged and make them want to stay at the organization for longer. As they do, they will feel more indispensable to the team.

But it’s important to approach learning and development with a fresh perspective, one in which employees feel empowered to learn with greater agency to direct their learnings. Part of this approach also means learning is more personalized, with a focus on just-enough, just-in-time and just-for-me types of courses, Sethi and Stubbings explain.

Increasingly, employees are also able to engage in peer-to-peer learning. And it’s up to leaders to create these collaborative learning spaces and devote time for employees to share knowledge with one another and reflect on these learnings. 

Employees who feel empowered to be themselves and get to see how their work impacts the company’s goals will be more loyal to the company and engaged at work. Leaders need to create a thriving culture of inclusiveness where all voices are heard and celebrated. By doing so, their people will feel like they truly belong. 

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