Black History Month is all about celebrating the contributions of African Americans throughout history. In the workplace, we should strive to elevate the voices of those who aren’t always heard and recognize the contributions of those who are often over-looked or under-appreciated every day. In doing so, we create a culture of belonging that is good for everyone and good for business, too.

What is belonging and why does it matter at work?

Belonging is defined as the feeling of acceptance, security and support. Belonging is one of the most important determinants of joy and meaning in our personal lives and a primary driver of engagement and performance at work.

There’s ample research that proves when employees feel like they belong, companies reap substantial bottom-line benefits. High belonging is linked to 56% increase in job performance, 50% drop in turnover and 25% increase in financial performance. 

Intuitively this makes sense. When people feel comfortable being themselves, they are more likely to speak up and contribute because they’re less worried about protecting themselves. 

When more people contribute, you’re able to look at challenges and opportunities from many unique perspectives and ideas. That leads to more thoughtful and innovative decision-making. And better decisions leads to better outcomes. 

Also, people want to work in successful organizations where they feel valued and appreciated which makes it easier to attract and retain talent who encompass many dimensions of diversity. A culture of belonging can create a virtuous cycle that’s good for the soul and good for business.

When employees feel like they don’t belong at work, their performance and their personal lives suffer because they spend way too much time trying to fit in. This is a phenomenon known as “masking”. Research shows that 61% of people (not just women or people of color) mask something about themselves work. Feeling like you consistently have to “be someone else” to fit at work in is exhausting and ultimately erodes confidence and engagement.

How to foster belonging at work with Everyday Acts of Inclusion

First, determine to what degree your workplace culture has a feeling of belonging or not by observing team meeting dynamics – both in terms of how you feel in meetings as well as the interactions among others. If you often leave a meeting thinking, “I wish I would have spoken up” but didn’t because you were afraid of negative consequences, your workplace culture lacks belonging. If in meetings people wait for the most senior person in the room to speak before speaking up and when they do, it is just to confirm what the senior person said, that is in indication that people are unwilling to speak up or take risks because a sense of belonging is missing.

Most organizations have a culture of tolerance versus belonging. A culture of tolerance often feels like a professional environment in which differences are put up with, but not proactively invited or fully embraced.

The good new is, moving from a culture of tolerance to a culture of belonging is easy to do by slowing down a bit and being a little mindful about how you interact with others. Here are examples of simple Everyday Acts of Inclusion you can implement in your day to day to foster more belonging at work:

  • Be present with others. Listen carefully to what someone is saying and summarize what you heard to ensure you heard them accurately. Be sure to use someone’s name with speaking with them. A person’s name is the greatest connection to their own identity and individuality. 
  • Express appreciation toward others. Share very specific feedback on what someone does well, their unique contribution to a project and why they uniquely add value. Make an effort to say ‘thank you’ often throughout the day.
  • Be curious about others. Ask more thoughtful questions than, how are you? Try, what are you learning that’s new? or what are you excited about? When you ask about weekend plans on Friday, follow up with a specific question on Monday.
  • Invite others into conversation. Proactively ask others for their opinions or ideas. Don’t end a meeting without checking in to ensure everyone has had a chance to speak.

Building a culture of belonging at work takes time, but when everyone contributes small efforts will have big impact.