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Belonging in the Workplace: Why Internal Comms Must Make Belonging a Priority - theEMPLOYEEapp

Belonging in the Workplace: Why Internal Comms Must Make Belonging a Priority

Belonging in the Workplace: Why Internal Comms Must Make Belonging a Priority

For years, internal communications teams have been chasing improvements to Employee Engagement and Employee Experience. But, perhaps, we need to shift that mindset to a more specific way that workplace cultures can be improved: belonging. At this year’s ALI Conferences Strategic Internal Communications Conference in Boston, multiple experts said that we need to focus on cultivating belonging in the workplace as communicators.

What is Employee Belonging in the Workplace?

Kevin Finke, the CEO of Experience Willow, has a lot to say about workplace belonging and why it’s so critical. “I actually think belonging is better than engagement,” Finke said at the ALI event in Boston. It’s so important that when we don’t feel like we belong, we can feel literal pain, not to mention anxiety.

Bad work cultures are severely lacking in belonging.

But, what is workplace belonging? Cornell University has defined belonging as “the feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a member of a certain group.” So, belonging is a core component of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).

Finke argues that belonging isn’t just feeling affiliated with a group, it’s also feeling accepted within that group. And he maps out a journey that we go on to feel like we belong in a given culture.

Finke gives the example of employees who are part of an acquisition. While you might welcome them, we rarely stop and think about how we invite them onto our teams. Do we ask them to join? Have they been given any kind of choice? Acquired employees have a very different experience than employees who traditionally interview and are given an offer. An invite. And even that one interaction being missing can set the tone for their entire experience at your company.

Why Employee Belonging Matters

So, why does any of this matter? Why is belonging being heralded by internal communication experts as more important than engagement as a metric for organizational success?

Because belonging is what enables us to show up every day. Deloitte research has found that when we feel like we belong:

  • Job performance increases 56%
  • Turnover risk reduces by 50%
  • Sick days decrease by 75%

But cultures high in belonging also see 167% improvement in employer net promoter score (eNPS), twice as many employee raises, and 18 times as many employee promotions.

When we belong, we literally perform better. Or, rather, when we experience psychological safety and feel like we can show up as our authentic selves, we are able to perform.

Challenges of Building Cultures of Belonging

“Empathy is a core skill that our leaders are lacking.” — Kevin Finke, Experience Willow

One of the major reasons companies have been struggling to create cultures of belonging is because we are lacking in empathy both at the executive level and among our people managers. This lack of empathy prevents us from building truly inclusive or safe cultures.

While in some cases, this lack of empathy results from uncaring leaders, more often, it stems from:

  • Not having mid-level managers who are trained as communicators to have difficult and open conversations.
  • Not regularly listening or cultivating cultures where feedback is welcome and catalyzes change.
  • Making assumptions about your workforce.
  • Unwillingness to change as your workforce changes (change is hard!).

But another major roadblock to creating belonging in the workplace is that it only takes one person or negative experience to shake someone’s sense of belonging. It just takes one offensive “joke” or toxic employee being tolerated to make you wonder if you really fit in the culture.

The good news? We have an opportunity to be more mindful about how we create positive cultures so that our employees do feel like they belong.

lightbulb going off over a team of people working

How Communication Can Cultivate Workplace Belonging

Communication is fundamental to cultivating belonging because it is how we:

  • Gather feedback
  • Collaborate on solutions
  • Recognize team members
  • Invite and welcome
  • Share stories to improve empathy

Verbal and nonverbal communication is how we relate to one another and work together. If we aren’t intentional with our communication both as individuals and as an organization, we can send the wrong messages and strike the wrong tone. This is why we have jobs! Because we understand the nuances of language and the impact of both communicating and choosing not to communicate something.

A few tools in your tool belt to start making the communications you send on behalf of the organization more inclusive include:

  • The Do, Say, Think, Feel approach to communication. This is a way of thinking about the objectives behind every single message we send. Each message should have an intended effect, right? We want our employees to either take an action, change their thinking, and/or feel a certain way after each message.
  • Empathy Maps help you uncover the story of certain employee groups within your organization. These allow you to understand the nuances of each employee group and how changes or messages will impact them.

Designing More Inclusive Employee Experiences

It might seem difficult to achieve the kind of workplace in which everyone feels like they belong. There are so many ways that we are different. There are so many cultures and communities that we belong to and that make up our identities.

It might feel like yet another thing being dumped on your plate as the communications team.

While internal comms plays a vital role in designing a more inclusive workplace culture, it has to be a cross-departmental effort with buy-in from your executive team and people managers. We are all responsible for our experience and for creating more positive experiences for our colleagues. It might have to start with you. But it can’t end with you. It has to be a collective effort.

So, how do we design the right experience?

human-centered design cycle. Includes empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

Human-Centered Design

Kevin Finke talks about using human-centered design to solve any challenge creatively. We love this framework because, although it’s a non-linear process, it always starts with empathy. With listening. 

Here are the steps:

  • Empathize
  • Define (the who, the what, and the why)
  • Ideate (brainstorm many solutions)
  • Prototype 
  • Test

This is a great approach because it involves getting feedback and creating an iterative process. Too often, we come up with solutions and run with them without a comprehensive process for testing and gathering feedback. Or we come up with solutions without truly understanding who is impacted and what they need in the first place.

CORE Framework: consistent, open, real, and educational

CORE Framework

Andrew Blotky from Azure Leadership Group spoke at ALI’s Strategic Internal Communications conference about how we might scale leadership communications so that all managers and leaders can communicate more effectively and more humanly.

“It doesn’t really matter what you say. What matters is what people hear.” —Andrew Blotky, Azure Leadership Group

This comes down to designing a way of thinking, leading, and communicating that might differ from what you do today. It requires getting all leaders on board and understanding that they are responsible for communication—because “communication is about the relationships that you build.” You cannot be a leader without communicating.

So, Blotky recommends following the CORE Framework in our communication and talking points for all levels of leadership within an organization:

  • Consistent
  • Open
  • Real
  • Educational

Consistency is all about repeating a core message enough times to stick and not changing the “why” or key takeaways over and over again. It’s also about training all managers on what they can’t say and why not just as much as it’s about teaching them what to say.

Openness is equal parts transparency and open-mindedness. It’s about getting out of corporate-speak and being relatable. Blotky reminds us that communication isn’t a performance…yet we often get caught up trying to make everything perfect. We should focus on being real and pulling in feedback and stories as much as we push out messages and information.

Realness is about “flying at the right altitude.” What level of detail does each audience need? And it’s about being direct. Blotky says, “I think it’s disrespectful when you’re indirect” because it gives the impression that you think someone can’t handle the full truth.

Educational is about getting the right information out to the right people. And making sure they really understand what’s been shared.

graphic with the words "diversity and inclusion"

DEI Work Takes Time

The work to make our workplaces more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, where employees really feel like they are valued, and they belong, is critical. Not just to compete in the modern workplace but to create cultures that are about more than output and profit.

But this work takes time. It is not a switch you can flip or a single DEI campaign away. It will take effort, consistency, and sponsorship at the executive level. But you, as an internal communications professional, are tuned in to the needs of your workforce and the culture. And you are fighting to be a strategic advisor at your organization. If your company isn’t already focused on DEI and belonging, it might be up to you to at least start the conversation.

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