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  • Haley Urbanik

Belonging - Your Key to a Healthy Work Community - Webinar Summary

Today, our sense of belonging and connection at work is being challenged by ongoing remote work and furloughs occurring in response to COVID-19, as well as growing racial tensions. When senior leaders are faced with unprecedented times such as these, they focus energy and ideas on developing or updating policies and programs to deliver the strategies that ensure employees feel safe, welcomed, and included in the workplace.

A recent Deloitte study found that 79% of survey respondents said that fostering a sense of belonging in the workforce is important to their organization’s success. 93% agreed that a sense of belonging drives organizational performance. However, only 13% of organizations said they were very ready to address this trend.

Deloitte Insights – Belonging – From Comfort to Connection to Contribution. May 2020.

We know that it is challenging for organizations to design solutions to improve the sense of belonging at work. Fortunately, there are simple steps that everyone can take today that will kick-start a culture of inclusion and belonging while their company’s leaders focus on their transformation plans.

First, let’s better understand why we humans care so much about belonging to our work communities.

Our ancient minds are hard-wired to desire connection. To our ancestors, community meant food, shelter, and protection. To be an outcast meant certain death. Although we have evolved, this innate need to belong has stayed with us, living deep within the limbic system of our brain. Our amygdala, which responds to threats by releasing the stress hormone cortisol, is triggered when we receive exclusion signals from communities where we wish to belong. This includes our workplace communities.

Dan Coyle shared some great insight in his book, The Culture Code, on belonging cues our brains are scanning for that tell us we have been accepted into a group.

These include:

  • Proximity

  • Eye contact

  • Mimicry

  • Body language

  • Vocal pitch

  • Attention

  • Inclusion

When these aren’t present, or when we feel removed or isolated, our ancient brain is triggered and our stress increases. This impacts our ability to concentrate, to be creative, and to innovate. Think about what is happening in our communities today - COVID-19 distancing, virtual work, layoffs, challenges to our sense of inclusion because of racial concerns. It is certain that our workplace communities are in a high state of change and this is undoubtedly affecting the sense of belonging for many across the globe.

The beauty of belonging is that it isn’t created by policies and programs - it is created by people, one interaction at a time. Companies can start improving the sense of belonging at their workplace by reminding employees of the power they have to create positive human connection.

We know the impact that just one person can make, so D. Whitney Consulting invited two professionals to discuss their experiences with belonging in the workplace.

Omari Jahi-Aarons, the President of the National African American Insurance Association of Boston, connects racially diverse professionals in the insurance industry to advise and counsel organizations on diversity and inclusion practices. He also works for Liberty Mutual in the Customer Advocacy Office as the Director of Employee Enablement. He has been part of the insurance and financial services industry for the last fourteen years.

Beverly King, the Director of Client Development and Consulting for Graebel, Inc., supports big corporations with transferring employees around the world and assists with various consulting projects. Before Graebel, she had a long history of Human Resources roles, particularly employee benefits, wellbeing and recognition programs.

Here are some powerful insights from Omari and Beverly:

Omari - “If we ask the right questions and do the right things, it will really say to people that when we say bring your whole self to work, we’re not just saying the parts of you that we find acceptable and are easy to talk about…really all of you.”

Asking connecting questions that allow employees to express their true selves shows them that they belong and they matter.

Beverly - “There is a healthy way to respect personal boundaries but still let people know we care. Be tolerant and make some acknowledgment when people are struggling; if someone’s not quite themselves, then acknowledge there must be a reason why - it’s not their normal character. Be sympathetic, be kind, be understanding, try to ask the right questions but not be intrusive.”

Letting others know that you care and are there to support them can have a tremendous impact on their lives. If people feel that they are cared about in the workplace, it will create a stronger sense of belonging and an environment of psychological safety.

Omari - “In the past, I think we’ve given a lot of companies and organizations credit for just having the conversation <about diversity>. It’s an important distinction that at this moment in time you have a lot of people that are saying ‘hey, we’ve had this conversation before.’ Now we’re seeing a groundswell of support and advocacy from both our customer bases and from our internal employees to say, ‘talking is not enough.’ There needs to be an action plan.”

Diversity strategies are strongest when everyone is included in the solutions. Make a plan to address important issues with cross-organizational teams. Communicate it transparently and follow through. This will create more trust among employees and leaders and is another step toward belonging.

Beverly - “There was a client I was talking to a few weeks ago, early on in COVID, and she was sharing with me that she was in a virtual group meeting where everyone was going around giving introductions and sharing how they were doing. Everybody was saying ‘I’m good, I’m good,’ but my client was the only person that stepped up and said ‘you know, I’m actually quite anxious and worried about things.’ She said that once she shared that, others began opening up as well. Until she took that brave step, they were quite nervous to say something. It’s important to be open and honest, and people will follow that. We are all anxious at this time, so it’s often the case that by talking about it, it makes things easier for everyone.”

Belonging is strengthened when people are brave enough to be their real selves at work - authenticity creates connection. Once employees and leaders begin speaking up about how they’re truly doing, the workplace environment will become one of trust and empathy.

What are 6 Simple Shifts you can make today to create Inspired Human Connection at your workplace?

  • Self-Reflect Truthfully

Inspired Human Connection starts with understanding what you’re bringing in to work relationships. Ask yourself if you’re giving your teammates empathy, sending positive belonging cues, staying open and respectful, and checking-in on those who may be outside of your inner circle.

  • Ask Connecting Questions

Powerful connections are forged through a deeper mutual understanding of diverse backgrounds and ways of thinking. Set the tone for authenticity by being vulnerable first, and attempt to use open-ended, present-focused questions as much as possible. It’s important to understand your impact on others and look for ways that you can make others feel valued and included.

  • Listen with Empathy

Connecting questions lead to real-world, emotion-based responses. Strengthen your listening skills to fuel mutual empathy. Be open to feedback, listen to the emotions behind the words, acknowledge and validate feelings, repeat what you’re hearing, seek confirmation, clarify anything you’re uncertain of, and again, send belonging cues.

  • Reinforce Shared Values

Studies show that communities are strengthened when they share a common purpose and can see successful contribution toward group goals. When you’re building connections, learn what’s most important to people and find common ground through shared purpose. Stay open to diverse ways of thinking, and use shared values to help frame difficult conversations. This can provide insight into acceptable community norms and behaviors.

  • Sustain Human Connection

Inspired Human Connection is not built in a single spark of interaction. It’s fueled by intentional, sustained contact. Create ongoing connection opportunities, keep track of and build on what you’ve learned from earlier conversations, check on what the individual needs today, and continuously reach outside of your inner circle to build connections and strengthen company-wide relations.

  • Own your Impact

Inspired Human Connection is not built by supreme efforts, it occurs through simple daily interactions that communicate, “you are valued, you belong, you make a difference, you move us forward,” day after day. You create hope@work. Be sure you recap agreed upon actions with your teammate(s), respect and protect individual privacy as you seek solutions, openly discuss progress and setbacks, follow through when given a sincere ask for connection or help, advocate for what you need, and own your potential to create change.

For more information or to view a recording of the webinar, contact Haley at

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