One of the growing concerns for CEOs is how to find and hire employees with the self-awareness and skills to work in teams. The troubles have little to do with professional skills. The issue is a low supply of employees who know how to apply their empathy, compassion and listening to accomplish extraordinary results.
While some leaders may have their teams convince them that such a labor concern can be resolved with indoor slides or breakfast bars, the truth is that workers today are looking for something a lot simpler: a sense of belonging.
In other words, workers desire a work tribe. In these divisive times, they want to be part of an organization that focuses on forming bonds of respect and positivity, where each person believes he or she can do their best work.
Some may scoff at such “touchy-feely” sentiments. But research shows that companies like LinkedIn and the Container Store have found that boosting the sense of belonging for employees has led to better bottom-line results. Not only does it help recruit and retain talent, a sense of belonging creates an experience of work that leaves employees feeling valued, wanted, and welcomed. Ultimately, breakthrough performances, astonishing results and more cohesive teams become the norm rather than an elusive possibility.
Employees are not just a headcount. They are human beings with lives that are sometimes predictable and at other times chaotic. They have different opinions and perspectives that need to be respected, even if they’re contrary to the dominant ones. If organizations only agree with such sentiments to a certain point – and don’t embrace them whole-heartedly – then the efforts to make employees feel a sense of belonging will fall flat. The result will be less-engaged, productive and creative employees.
The bottom-line results of disengagement are high. A 2012 study shows that companies spent $720 million on engagement solutions. Yet in 2018, nearly 66 percent of U.S. workers are still disengaged. While entertaining elements such as beer walls are fun, they don’t withstand the fallout from an underskilled manager who fails to advocate for his team. The deterioration of relationships or the absence of quality ones will diminish the effectiveness of culture tricks.
The simplest solutions are always the hardest to see. While companies distractedly look for quick hits to make employees “happy,” “motivated,” “satisfied,” or whatever current business colloquialism dominates popular wisdom, the secret sauce – the talents of their people – often go ignored.
One of the companies trying to figure out how to operationalize belonging is LinkedIn. For example, the company’s Innovation Day, or InDay, allows employees to invest in themselves or to help others. These InDays have themes, such as giving back to the community, which has prompted some workers to connect with and help the homeless. Belonging flourishes when employees can contribute, or give back to society in LinkedIn’s example, in a manner that reflects their values and sense of purpose.
At the same time, it’s hard to not feel a kindred connection with colleagues when helping others. Such shared experience builds and deepens relationships. When employees willingly participate in a company’s culture, the good news they spread is that people do care and do want to help those in need. These employees become evangelists for an organization, and that leads to more people being attracted to work at the company and more employees wanting to stay.
Turning employees into evangelists by giving them a strong sense of belonging isn’t just a matter of saying, “You belong.” The companies that have done it successfully demonstrate:
- Connection. Colleagues who spend time together—inside and outside of work—build a
deeper connection with one another. I’ve heard repeatedly: “The people I work with make the sacrifice worth it.” Leaders need to take the time to hear other perspectives, ideas, and even stories. The emphasis is on connection and action rather than a contractual arrangement to do a job.
- Acknowledgment. Acknowledging people for who they are and what they bring to the team is essential. We cannot be sidelined leaders. Leaders are hands-on. And when you or any other leader steps up to the coach, encourage, and have difficult conversations, employees feel valued because they are seen. When employees are seen, they know they are not working hard to benefit senior managers. They are working hard for a purpose.
How ludicrous that some leaders hold on to the outdated belief that the workplace is no place to build meaningful friendships. The denial of collegial chemistry is unnatural. Our human nature has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, and yet some elements of being human have not changed. No matter the social context, when any of us do not feel wanted, unrest ensues. Self-doubt, anger, and disappointment replace progress and growth.
Our need to protect ourselves when we don’t believe we are wanted thrusts us into survival mode. Our amygdala kicks into high gear, triggering cortisol to drive us to fight or flee from whatever is making us feel unsafe. The cortisol induces a state of stress and anxiety, interfering with our desires to establish resonate relationships.
Cognition is impaired. Creativity is curbed. Nothing positive comes from worrying about being accepted for who you are and what you bring to a team.
In companies that fail to create belonging, somewhere there are culpable managers who ignored or gave up responsibility for creating a positive work environment. Over time I have learned that in the spirit of making money, we are cruel to one another. Sometimes it is unintentional and sometimes it is with complete disregard for others. The myopic focus of these leaders is themselves and their agenda.
But despite cruelty (or because of it), belonging waits. It emerges and settles down the hurt and maximizes the joys that come from feeling valued, wanted and welcomed.
As leaders, we can no longer believe that work is business. Work is identity. It is how we make sense of a big part of our lives.
When you create a sense of belonging for your people, you get to be part of this life-shaping experience.
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