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For many employees, the workplace is an irritating, bureaucratic organism. Research shows that one in three black employees, one in four Asian employees, and more than one in seven Latinx employees say they have felt out of place at work because of their race or ethnicity. Healthy workplace culture doesn’t magically exist. Nor will not magically come about. It’s created over time through the policies, procedures, and practices that leaders establish, the decisions they make, how they interact with employees, and how they frame how employees engage with each other and within the organization. Therefore, leaders carry the organization’s culture and set the tone for how employees feel within the workplace. Workplace culture cannot be transformed into friendly, people-centered spaces where employees — regardless of their gender, racial or ethnic background, sexual orientation, or position — feel a strong sense of belonging unless leaders show up in their roles differently.
Recently, the think tank Coqual (formerly the Center for Talent Innovation) and many scholars published research on belonging. They developed a quantifiable definition of what it means for employees to feel a sense of belonging at work. The main variables are that employees must feel:
- Proud of the organization’s values and purpose
Unpacking belonging in this way is incredibly useful. It provides senior leaders and middle managers with a framework to lead a culture of belonging to transform employees’ effectiveness, make the job more enjoyable, and create a better environment.
Since senior leaders must bear the brunt of the responsibility to create and enhance belonging in the workplace, I assert that they must cultivate a leadership brand and make an ethos of belonging a central component of that brand. Significantly, the hire and performance of leaders must now — of necessity — be measured by their ability to grow teams where all individuals feel valued and included and inspired to deliver their best work. In this article, I will discuss four ways leaders can harness the power of their leadership brand to lead a culture of belonging, deepen their impact and meet the new demands of today’s workforce for workplace well-being.
1. Define your leadership brand
Your leadership brand is how your personal brand shows up in the social process of leadership. Your leadership brand signals your capabilities and expertise and reflects who you are as a person and communicates the values that are most important to you. Your leadership brand is essential to leading a culture of belonging because it determines how you relate to employees and colleagues to get the job done and the kind of environment your leadership creates in the workplace. To define your leadership brand, take stock of how your personality and human skills. Are you an empathetic, kind, and supportive individual? Are you a good listener? Human skills such as empathy, kindness, and listening are critical to establishing positive workplace relationships and navigating issues to do with employee well-being.
Defining your leadership brand also involves a deep awareness of your values — what you believe in and the principles that guide your actions and decisions. For example, do you believe in equity, inclusiveness, and belonging, and how do you reflect these values in your policies and the way you lead? Employees cannot see inside of you, but recognizing your values comes from what they see you do, from observing your day-to-day actions. Therefore, it is vital to be transparent about and actively communicate your values and aim to illustrate what you are committed to and what you stand for or do not stand for through your actions.
2. Become a people-centered leader
Be clear about what kind of leader you are or aspire to be to become a true agent for yourself in leadership. In my experience working with senior leaders for over 20 years, leaders tend to represent two polarities on a continuum: mission centric versus people-centered leaders. Mission-centric leaders put the mission first. These leaders are primarily focused on the organizational goals, the projects that need to be completed, and the objectives that must be achieved. They also have a laser focus on the budget and earnings report. Unfortunately, these leaders see employees mainly through the lens of performance targets, deadlines, results, and outcomes. Consequently, the employees’ personality risks taking a backseat to the overall mission. Employees become cogs on a wheel with a one-dimensional identity — that of a laborer.
On the other hand, people-centered leaders understand that employees are the nucleus of the organization and that the mission cannot be accomplished without engaged, hardworking employees who feel a strong sense of job happiness. They know that while the mission is critical, employees must be supported in their roles and must feel welcomed, valued, acknowledged, and included. For these leaders, the employees’ well-being and belonging are central to their leadership brand. They model this in the policies and procedures of the workplace and how they treat employees. In other words, people-centered leaders care about and cultivate belonging. They make belonging a part of their leadership brand.
3. Cultivate and care about belonging
To be an effective, impactful, and trusted leader, your leadership must align with an ethos of belonging. As a leader, your ethos is the premise on which you lead. It gives you the authority to lead and makes others respect and trust your leadership. To lead a culture of belonging, leaders must care about and cultivate an ethos of belonging by placing the concept at the center of their brand, a critical component of their values and make it a priority in the spaces they lead. Yet leaders must first understand what belonging looks like tangibly. I recommend that leaders imagine the illustrations of belonging posited (employees must feel welcomed, known and seen, included, supported, connected, and proud of the organization’s values). The idea is to see them as representing different employee networks they lead at the workplace and galvanize colleagues around actuating each of these.
For example, start by thinking about which aspect of your leadership brand (your human skills and core values) would be an asset in any of these networks. Next, identify which area each team member could contribute the most value to and lean into that. For example, how would you make someone feel welcomed if they are a new hire or welcomed when they are already on the job. To lead a culture of belonging means making employees feel included and supported, especially those who feel the most marginalized. Support is a big one for employees and a missed opportunity for many companies to evolve their workplace culture and find new ways of helping employees improve their performance.
Being supportive here also means making employees feel known and seen. How would you draw on your human skills to make someone feel known? Leaders can accomplish this by being intentional in getting to know the personal brand of each member of their team. Ask questions about their human skills, expertise, and passions. Then, assign them work reflective of the unique value they bring to the table and in which they can excel and feel confident. Many of my clients talk about how demoralizing it feels to be given assignments that are not reflective of the unique attributes and value that they bring to the table.
To illustrate that you care about belonging, leaders might also prioritize discussions about and actuate inclusion in a tangible way. For example, how can leaders lead a culture where every employee feels included regardless of background or position? According to strategic leadership and work management consultant Shawn Daniel, “leaders should aim to build teams with diversity of perspectives. Surround yourself with people who may not agree with you, who think differently, who may come from different backgrounds and who take different perspectives and different approaches; someone who is not always handpicked by that executive; someone who might challenge the status quo and the leader should find comfort in them doing so.” To cultivate a sense of belonging, leaders must actively and intentionally prevent situations where only the dominant voices get heard.
Related: Shaping a Healthy Workplace Culture
Leaders must commit to performance reviews and employee-led appraisals that take account of workplace culture. Successful leaders must inspire and motivate teams to meet company targets, coach, mentor, and illustrate strong communication skills. Being accountable for workplace culture has to be a critical inclusion of how leaders are evaluated. They need to be responsible for their actions in leadership and the environment their actions create. Finally, hiring for senior leadership positions must also include clear criteria for evaluating competencies around clear barometers of belonging, such as making employees feel welcomed, supported, included, known and seen, connected, and proud of the organization’s values and purpose.