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  • Deb Urbanik

Belonging – Step Back to Move Your Company Forward

Your company is its own community. Your employees join, and stay, because in addition to their compensation, they connect to your purpose, values, goals and culture. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines “community” as:

Community - com·​mu·​ni·​ty | \ kə-ˈmyü-nə-tē A unified body of individuals:

  1. the people with common interests living in a common area

  2. a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society together

  3. an interacting population of various kinds of individuals in a common location

While your workforce may unite behind shared principles, they're also heterogeneous; an interacting population of various kinds of individuals in a common location. Imagine each employee as a single point of many interlocking communities. They walk in your door with emotions that have been shaped by the attitudes and actions of their neighbors, families, political affiliations, and churches. Today for many, that emotion is pain.

Personal connections already strained from COVID-19 are now polarized and torn by racial divide. Change shifts our instinctual brain back to scanning for fundamental safety and belonging in our environment. To heal your work community and move forward together, you’ll first need to step back to the basics; the fundamental need to belong. Although our brains have evolved, we’re still hard-wired to seek a group acceptance in order to survive. 

“Modern society is an incredibly recent phenomenon. For hundreds of thousands of years, we needed ways to develop cohesion because we depended so much on each other. We used signals long before we used language, and our unconscious brains are incredibly attuned to certain types of behaviors. Whether we are aware of it or not, our brains are constantly scanning for safety and belonging cues.” - Alex Pentland – MIT Human Dynamics Lab

As a leader you can start to heal your organization by demonstrating those safety and belonging cues. By stepping back to fundamentals, you can move your business community forward. Ask yourself, am I...

  • Showing empathy? People are hurting and the first step to move forward from a place of hurt is to acknowledge it. It’s never been more important for you to put time and energy into communicating your authentic and vulnerable interest in understanding and helping your people. You may not share in their identity or their history, but you can be their ally and seek answers together. You can take action by:

    • Asking the hard questions. Uncover experiences of racism on your teams, explore feelings of fear from COVID-driven changes, and learn how your own actions may have affected someone else.

    • Listening effectively to the answers. When you ask tough questions, you have to be ready for difficult responses. Stay open, validate feelings instead of reacting to words. Practice reflective listening to make sure you are understanding unique perspectives.

  • Articulating acceptance? The first level of psychological safety is to feel that you’re included in the group. Remind employees that they're valued and that their contributions matter. Think about the last time you paused in a meeting with an employee just to say, “I’m glad you’re part of our team.” Remember that people are scanning for fundamental cues that say, “You’re safe here.” Don’t make your team search for signs, build a billboard of acceptance. Consider these practices:

    • Articulate acceptance in one-on-ones and coaching conversations by acknowledging, “You belong here. You make a difference”

    • Appreciate employees frequently, authentically, and visibly

    • Encourage and instill accountability for your management team to do the same

  • Celebrating differences? When seeking a community, people aren’t thinking about things that make them different.Their brains want to see commonalities. But when it comes to the workplace, everyone brings unique identities and backgrounds through the doors. Most adults spend one third of their life working. Your company may be the place people have chosen to spend the majority of their time with individuals least like themselves. But study after study shows that diversity in thinking, and being, improves group dynamics and performance. Today it’s critical to share how embracing unique backgrounds, affinities, and perspectives makes your organization stronger. Consider:

    • Highlighting examples of times where diversity in thinking has improved outcomes.

    • Celebrating instances where cultural awareness made a positive impact to a marketing campaign, training, or new product design. When you demonstrate that each individual’s unique perspective and background is valued and important, your people and your business will thrive.

  • Reinforcing shared values? People seek communities where they live and connect through shared principles. This is how they validate that this is a group they want to be a part of and learn expected behavioral norms. Now’s the time to clarify and emphasize your organization’s purpose and core values. You might try:

    • Highlighting how your values framework has shaped your decisions around your COVID-19 response and how it’s guiding your response in today’s racially charged environment.

    • Reflecting on how your values are showing up. If your values are seen more as posters on the wall than as guideposts for decisions, it’s time to take action. Engaging in a co-creative values design process with employees across your organization will allow you to strengthen your community’s belief system together.

  • Discussing sustained belonging? COVID-19 has created instances where people who had achieved belonging have had their work communities taken away from them through furloughs and layoffs. These types of changes send earthquakes through a population, that shake psychological safety down to the core. Remember, to our primal brains, loss of community meant loss of food, shelter and protection. To our inner caveman this equates to death. Beyond affecting employee productivity, uncertainty in employment challenges individual mental health and physical health. As a leader, you can’t escape having to make hard decisions, but you can leverage tools to ensure that those leaving and those who remain have easier experiences. Consider:

    • Providing transition resources to departing employees to connect them with new allies whenever possible. Recently we’ve seen examples of CEOs advocating for other companies to hire their downsized employees encouraging the creation of new communities for them.

    • Communicating quickly, openly, and honestly to the employees remaining after RIFs that their community is intact. This helps to quiet the instinctual fear response generated by the primal need for safety belonging.

To heal today we must be reflective and develop plans of action to embrace our differences and our fears, and let them improve our thinking about tomorrow. To move your company community forward, you must first move back to the basic needs of human belonging.

Co-authored by our consortium of Culture, Change, Crisis and HR consultants Debbie Urbanik, Carolyn HudsonBen Cook, and Christina Itzkowitz

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