Many organizations have embraced diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEI&B), yet individuals still struggle with knowing how to foster a greater sense of belonging in a multicultural workplace. Some folks are so worried about saying or doing the wrong thing that they do nothing at all, which further perpetuates an Us versus Them division.
Fostering a culture of belonging is not a luxury — it is mission critical in today’s diverse workplace.
Taking action is urgent because so many people report that they do not feel a strong sense of belonging in their organizations. Whether you are a leader or a co-worker, it is possible to increase belonging without fear of causing harm. Here are three actions anyone can take.
1. Use Words to Re-Frame Belonging
When discussing different departments in an organization, many people fall into outdated Us versus Them phrasing. For example, “Those guys in accounting” or “Those people in Houston.” While these words are not inherently negative, these phrases offer us a chance to re-frame a sense of belonging simply by using words that emphasize the connectedness that does exist. “Our partners in accounting” or “The team in Houston” convey a we culture where everyone belongs.
2. New Norms of Behavior
Proximity to people who are different from ourselves has increased as workplaces have grown more diverse. Yet, face-to-face engagement with people outside our familiar circles often lags behind. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many professionals defaulted to sharing lunch, coffee, or a conversation with those who look or sound similar and share many identity characteristics. Now that many of us are starting to return to the workplace, we all have a rare opportunity to make new and deliberate choices that will result in face-to-face interactions with people outside our familiar circles.
As we return to old spaces, resist the urge to return to old patterns that resulted in face-to-face engagements with the same folks. Make a deliberate effort to seek out one new engagement per week, such as an invitation to share lunch or seek someone’s counsel. Creating these opportunities and then listening to others will provide priceless chances to connect on a meaningful level. These simple efforts to connect with others will broaden the definition of who belongs in any space.
3. Ask to Borrow Something
You may not need a cup of sugar at work, but, from time to time, we all misplace small items. The simple act of asking to borrow a common item can provide the opportunity for what I call a we-moment of connection, where you do more than just say “thanks.” Leverage the exchange by asking a simple question or making a comment to your co-worker as a bid to connect. Asking for a favor will put the other person in a secure position of being the giver, so there is less risk of anyone taking offense. Most people at work are happy to lend a stapler or a roll of tape to a co-worker, and, if this turns into a we-moment, all the better for everyone.
Fostering a culture of belonging requires ongoing attention, somewhat like achieving a health goal that requires monitoring on a regular basis. But, like establishing any good habit, once best practices are in place, maintaining a culture of belonging will become second nature for all of us.