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How to build belonging at work (even if you’re not a manager)

Creating a workplace where people from varied backgrounds are thriving doesn’t end with hiring, but it can be everyone’s job.

How to build belonging at work (even if you’re not a manager)
[Source images: Rawpixel/iStock; Jumpeestudio/iStock]

Think back to the last time you started a new job. Chances are, it took a minute before you felt like you fit in. It doesn’t matter how qualified you are or how cool the vibe is. Just because you got the job doesn’t mean you feel like you belong there. For people from historically marginalized and underrepresented communities, this struggle is particularly pervasive and often long-lived.

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That’s not some touchy-feely problem for social justice advocates to solve. That’s a cold, hard business problem that affects all of us. When we feel out of place, we don’t perform at our best. We keep novel ideas to ourselves rather than risking ridicule by sharing them. We’re afraid to say “no” to requests, then we deliver subpar work because we’re stretched too thin. Eventually, we take our talents elsewhere.

Creating a workplace where people from varied backgrounds are thriving doesn’t end with the hiring process. Inclusive facilities such as all-gender restrooms and lactation rooms are a massive step forward, but work remains to be done.

The final, crucial piece of the puzzle is fostering a sense of belonging across the entire company. Solving this problem is a nebulous, occasionally messy, oh-so-human endeavor, and at no point will you clap the dust off your hands and say, “Well. Glad that’s sorted.”

The good news is that anyone can be part of the solution, no matter if you’re the CEO or the intern who started last week. Managers do play a special role in this endeavor. First, they set the tone for their teams, so it’s important that they model vulnerability and authenticity. Those are big concepts, but bringing them to life can be as simple as publicly owning mistakes or giving your team a heads-up that you’re struggling with something in your personal life right now and may not be as available as usual. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a downer. Being open about your dorky obsession with turn-of-the-century operettas counts too.

Showing your whole self at the office—warts, quirks, and all—helps to create psychological safety (assuming your whole self isn’t bigoted or boorish). Your team won’t stress about asking for help when they need it and will feel more comfortable flying their own personal freak flags because you’ve given them permission by doing so yourself. In fact, research shows that 94% of workers feel mutual trust and respect are vital to a team’s success, and 19% say it’s the number one factor in their team’s emotional well-being.

Team leads also play a unique role in the culture where making decisions and setting goals are concerned. Even though there’s nothing explicitly diversity-flavored about setting goals, including your team in the process lets everyone know that their input matters. Plus, you’ll benefit from the variety of perspectives. Share your department’s big objectives, and ask team members to help figure out how to get there. They’re closest to the work, so they’ll know the best ways to contribute.

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When it comes time to decide who gets which projects, make that a collaborative process as well. If you need to put your finger on the proverbial scale, use your influence to make sure the high-profile, career-defining projects are distributed across the team instead of always going to the squeakiest wheel.

For individual contributors, it’s about how you interact with your teammates day-to-day. Meetings are both fraught with peril and full of opportunity when it comes to belonging. Women, remote employees, and people of color are far more likely to be interrupted, have their ideas appropriated, or left out of the discussion entirely compared to their white, male, colocated counterparts. The behavior is usually unintentional, but it’s still harmful. You can counteract it by interrupting interrupters and giving the floor back to the original speaker, and by giving credit where credit is due when a teammate (of any identity) comes up with a great idea.

Also, consider starting an affinity group that brings people with shared interests together from across the company. You might organize a monthly lunch where parents can swap stories and advice. Or a learning circle for people interested in artificial intelligence. Even if the group’s purpose isn’t related to your demographic identity, people will make connections that foster a sense of well-being and improve morale. You’ll have a lot of fun too. My favorite example is the #metal channel a colleague started on Slack, which brings people from a dozen countries and three generations together.

Despite your best intentions, you will probably say or do something at some point that makes your historically marginalized teammate feel marginalized yet again. “Don’t lose sleep over it, but don’t brush it off like it’s nothing,” says Aubrey Blanche, global head of equitable design and impact at CultureAmp. Stepping on someone’s toes leaves them with a sore foot, even if it was an accident.

It’s your job to make the first move. Blanche recommends keeping it simple: Apologize for the hurt you caused and ask them if there’s anything else you can do to repair the relationship. Then leave it at that. “Don’t ask them to make you feel better about messing up,” she cautions. “And don’t launch into a monologue about how woke you are. They shouldn’t have to do any emotional labor for you.”

Reminding ourselves and others how not-racist or not-sexist we are isn’t useful in this situation. It tends to block us from recognizing our mistakes and improving. “We’re human,” Blanche adds. “Instead of obsessing over how bad you feel, let that feeling be a learning device and move on.”

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A diverse workforce includes all demographics, no matter how dominant or marginalized. While some differences, such as race and age, are easy to spot, others, such as religion, sexual orientation, or disability status, are less visible, so it’s important to think beyond surface-level characteristics. By fostering belonging and taking ownership when we fall short, we can create an environment where minority and majority groups alike can do the best work of their lives.


Sarah Goff-Dupont is a principal writer at Atlassian.

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