WHAT DO YOU NEED TO FOCUS ON TO BUILD A CULTURE OF BELONGING AT ALL LEADERSHIP LEVELS?
By Jane Counsel Published June 2018
Jane Counsel trains and coaches leaders towards inclusive leadership. She also has a rich experience of working at senior leadership levels in large corporates. We asked her how a ‘culture of belonging’ works for leaders at all levels.
Jane, there’s a lot written about creating a sense of belonging for employees in general, but what about leaders? How do we create that sense for them?
Leaders are no different to their teams in the sense that we all have a basic human need to belong and feel safe to be ourselves in the workplace. Part of this is the psychological hard wiring we all have, to “want to connect” to other people, as researcher and author Brene Brown puts it. When we can’t connect with people we experience a deep sense of shame, which is often the trigger for that self-preserving, political behaviour sometimes demonstrated by leaders which gets in the way of collaboration and happiness in their teams. Brown argues that “connection is the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard and valued and when they can give and receive without judgement.”
Creating a sense of belonging in organisations starts at the top. It’s really all about psychological safety – individuals feeling safe to take interpersonal risks. If leaders want to create a sense of belonging in their teams they need to be more vulnerable themselves by admitting their limitations, expressing their concerns and frustrations and also sharing experiences that shaped them and helped them learn and grow as a leader - this creates that “safe” human environment and gives others permission to open up and feel safe.
Have you had a personal experience of a culture of (leadership) belonging? Can you talk a little about that experience?
I’ve been in teams where I felt that my personality and uniqueness was accepted and I wasn’t judged for speaking up – in fact this was encouraged and valued as a critical part of my job. This meant I could be my true, honest and authentic self and it was clear that these were the qualities that people most admired about me.
What about examples of companies in which there is a strong culture of belonging in leadership across the organisation?
When I look across the corporate landscape in Australia I think there are examples of companies doing it well, like Atlassian and Google. Most organisations have pockets of belonging but it’s still a long way off being embedded into organisational cultures. Why do I think this? In my opinion, the short-term focus of share markets in Australia has driven a focus on high-performance and efficiency. This means that organisations focus too much on results and ignore the poor behaviours that drove those results.
Often they are rewarding non-inclusive behaviours that encourage a command and control style of leadership. This approach limits diversity and sends a strong message that individuals need to adapt to the predominant style or behaviours or leave. I’ve been in roles previously where I know I’ve done some of the best work of my career, but I haven’t felt included nor have I felt that my true, honest, authentic self was good enough. In my experience, people don’t leave organisations; they leave poor leaders who fail to ensure that the individual feels valued and respected.
What can a company do to foster a sense of belonging?
The biggest impacts on culture in organisations are the tacit assumptions that people make based on the behaviours of leaders. Actual behaviours trump espoused values every time. Many organisations are out there promoting themselves as diverse and inclusive yet the behaviours of their leaders often suggest otherwise. In all the training that I do on Inclusive Leadership in organisations, I often get feedback about these contradictions.
And then, given that culture is a fairly abstract and intangible beast, how might leaders actually experience a culture of belonging?
As I’ve said previously, the needs of leaders on belonging are no different to the teams they lead. If they themselves don’t have a sense of their purpose and direction, of being able to speak up freely and openly and of bringing their whole self to work, then they will struggle to project that sense of belonging within the teams that they lead.
Leaders at all levels need a safe and supportive team environment. They need a clear idea of how they are contributing to the organisation’s performance and overall direction. They need to feel comfortable speaking up and calling out problems as well as respecting others who speak up. If leaders themselves don’t feel comfortable and safe to be themselves and at ease being honest and open then that will be the culture projected through the organisation.
Finally, what are the benefits of paying attention to ‘belonging’ at leadership levels? What’s in it for the company and the individuals?
There are enormous benefits for those organisations that can create a culture of belonging, particularly when it comes to unlocking opportunities for innovation and collaboration.
Many of the organisations I work with say that they’d like to get better at innovation but need to understand that the answer lies in creating a ‘belonging culture’. Some great Australian-based research from Catalyst shows that where individual team members feel included, safe and unique there is a higher motivation to innovate.
Google has also proven through two years of research into its high-performing teams, that high-level performance isn’t about having the best and brightest working for them – rather, it’s about whether individuals feel psychologically safe in their teams.
This brings me back to the point that I made at the beginning – feeling safe is a major basic need that all human beings have and when people don’t feel that it is safe to be their true whole-self at work without any judgement or retribution then they will never feel a sense of belonging. This is the biggest barrier to performance and business success.