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The Value Of Belonging and How to Foster It - Listen, Learn And Lead

Lori Costew, Chief Diversity Officer and Director of People Strategy, Ford Motor Company

Lori Costew, Chief Diversity Officer and Director of People Strategy, Ford Motor Company

As a result of COVID-19 and the social justice reckoning, companies are putting enhanced focus on their people, specifically in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion.

There are countless research studies that quantify the business value of diversity. Companies that have truly diverse teams and leaders, make more money, become more innovative and see an overall boost in performance.This is only sustained when the culture embraces inclusion. 

While this is a great place to start, there is often an element that is overlooked – the sense of belonging.

Diversity is about different experiences, backgrounds and thinking styles; inclusion is where people feel welcome, valued and supported; and equity is providing a fair and equal playing field.When those three things come together is when we start to foster a sense of belonging.

It’s important to remember that fostering a culture of belonging does not happen overnight

Belonging is a fundamental human need.Think back to seventh-grade. You are standing at the cafeteria door anxiously looking around for an open seat at the lunchroom table with friends. Remember the sense of dread when there was no open seat? That feeling of fear and desire to connect stems from the basic need to belong.

Neuroscience has shown the brain processes rejection and exclusion very similar to how it processes physical pain. Lack of belonging actually impacts the body in a physical manner, and we know the times we are in pain, we are not operating at our best level. So if our employees regularly feel excluded, it impacts business results.

Belonging is more than just bringing diverse groups of people together, but rather finding ways to amplify the voices of everyone in the room. As leaders, especially in the HR space, we need to be champions of belonging who actively listen, learn and act with others in mind.

Active listening is key. We all see life through the lens of our own experience. Listening should be at the forefront of any employee experience strategy to understand and gain empathy into the experience of others. Not only should we listen intently every single day, but we should also be focused on providing an environment where people feel safe and comfortable to speak up.

Some ways to strategically integrate active listening into your organization can be through holding focus groups and listening sessions. You can also listen through digging into your disaggregated employee sentiment data. Through these efforts, you can gain real insight to help you learn and understand unique employee experiences and everyday challenges that may have been previously overlooked. In addition, by being curious and listening, you will learn new insights to grow the business.

Small habits can drive big change.Practicing small habits daily, like check-ins, can have a profound impact on creating a culture of belonging. Research shows that even short check-ins prepare a group for participation because everyone is explicitly invited to speak. After people speak once, they are more likely to participate again, and the stage is set for collaboration.

Be an ally. Allies are a pivotal force in combating exclusionary behavior and helping others feel respected and included. When employees have an ally who acknowledges, empathizes and involves them, they feel more empowered and confident to perform.Keep your eyes and ears open and be that person who stands up for others.

Offer opportunities for connection. People can feel a sense of belonging from working and connecting with colleagues who have similarities, such as common interests, outlooks, hobbies or ethnic backgrounds. Employee resource groups (ERGs) also offer community for those who seek connection and can help establish a sense of belonging. It’s amazing what you learn about people when you take the time to simply talk; we truly are more similar than we think. 

It’s important to remember that fostering a culture of belonging does not happen overnight. It takes sustained effort but is imperative to company culture and success. Invite people to join your lunch table; you may end up with some amazing business ideas… and new friends.

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