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Guest Writer - The End Goal – Fostering that Sense of Belonging in a Workplace

hr wellbeing Jun 09, 2020

Last week I offered the chance for HR Professionals who wanted to talk about Diversity in HR, or Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, my LinkedIn article platform to help them get their message out to a wider HR Network, and here's the first - The End Goal - Fostering that Sense of Belonging in a Workplace by Sinead Sharpe.

Sinead is HR Director with a large FM business based in Northern Ireland (approx 2,000 employees across the UK and Republic of Ireland). She's also a 42 year old mum of one teen and three cats and she lives on the beautiful North Coast of Antrim. 

She started her career with a degree in Law & Politics and went from specialist learning and development roles to generalist HR roles. Sinead has about 18 years' experience overall and recently completed an MSc in Communications, Training and Development and is a Fellow of the CIPD. 

This piece is Sinead's personal view and I hope you enjoy it.

Connect with Sinead here.

Let’s be honest – the Human Resources community loves a good buzzword.  For the majority of us, nothing appeals more to our sense of efficiency than a current trend that can be neatly packaged and tied up with a ribbon using a satisfying (usually complex) phrase.

The reality is, however, the human nature of human resources is anything but neat.  While concepts can be nicely rounded using careful constructs of language, human nature and individual human needs refuse to be packaged.  No better example can be offered than the areas of diversity, inclusion and belonging.  Diversity; we can ‘prove’ it.  Inclusion; we can  ‘do’ it.  Belonging?  Well, that’s a little more difficult…a sense of belonging can be a very personal thing.  And quite frankly, it can be a difficult thing to achieve and maintain in a hectic workplace where targets, delivery and bottom lines are the ultimate focus; especially in current times.

The term DIB (Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging) was credited first to Pat Wadors, Chief Talent Officer at ServiceNow.  She has repeatedly emphasised human-centric management and empathy as the core of achieving a culture which fosters belonging.  There is a wealth of research that evidences the benefits of DIB and impacts on bottom lines; however, time and time again throughout my own Human Resource career, I’ve been faced with evidence of two things that can easily prevent a genuine workplace culture of belonging – or ruin the good work that has been done in creating it.

1)     Fear of rejection.  A member of my team once told me that, for the first time in their career, they felt that they could “be themselves”.  The emotional impact of that statement was clear.  Yet I can’t help but wonder how many of us, as employees at all levels, might feel that we need to ‘wear a mask’ in the workplace?  I know that I certainly used to, particularly during the transition to management; and sometimes I still do.  Usually when I need to switch off my own emotions to focus and deliver the best service I can (redundancy meetings anyone?).  So yes, on occasion it can be a healthy measure of protection for ourselves.

A feeling, however, that you must continuously wear a mask in order to be accepted and to belong within a workplace can also take a personal toll.  Make no mistake about it – fear of not being accepted (rejection) is a force.  It runs deep, and it runs strong.  And it will eventually betray itself through all the toxic workplace behaviours that we hope to avoid.  Fear of rejection is ultimately compounded by blame behaviours.  Ironically, blame will breed blame – because if blame is a cultural normality, failing to emulate those ‘normal’ blame behaviours will result in an even lower sense of belonging within that space.

2)     Belonging is a very personal experience.  What do I mean by that? Belonging is belonging, right?  Well, yes – but what triggers an employee to truly feel like they belong (or, maybe more importantly, not belong) may differ for each individual; and the situation they’re in.

Here’s an example.  Many years ago, I was preparing to deliver some training to a group of employees.  While people were informally chatting, one man approached me, somewhat cautiously, with a specific request before I began: “Can you please not call this a ‘classroom’?”  I listened and assured him that I would not. 

What do you think led to that request?  I honestly don’t know, and I didn’t ask.  I imagine he had a bad schooling experience.  Or maybe he just felt that that word in the context of adult learning was a little condescending.  The only thing I do know for certain was that if I had ignored his request, no matter how I sought to include him, he would not have experienced a feeling of belonging in that room during that training session.  

None of us are robots.  And none of us employ robots.  We employ a full person and everything that has created their personality and spirit – their school experience; their past traumas; their perceived wins and failures.  Respecting this fact is step one towards understanding that, to really achieve a sense of belonging in the workplace, awareness that it is an individual experience will be key.

So, here’s the tough bit – to foster a sense of belonging, we not only need to work hard to meet the numbers of diversity and demonstrate behaviours of inclusion – we need to look beyond these.  We, as Human Resource professionals, need to really ‘see’ individuals and seek to understand their needs on a personal basis in every interaction.  To fail to do so may result in a tone deaf, if well-meaning, response.

And here’s the crunch – if employees are afraid of rejection, they are less likely to share or give you the verbal/ non-verbal clues you need to meet their personal belonging ‘trigger’.  That’s why we, as Human Resources or as people managers, need to create a safe space of acceptance.  It’s more important than ever that we be willing to step up and challenge behaviours which threaten this; that we role model acceptance and, if we‘re not sure, we are brave enough to ask what would help an employee experience a real sense of belonging.

Otherwise, we might just be creating another classroom…

Sinead Sharpe*

*Please note that my views are my own

If you've got a view you'd like to share, please send it to me via email with your article, image and bio along with any hashtags you'd like to include and I'll post two a week for as long as I receive the articles.

Many thanks

Kelly

Kelly is Founder of The Chrysalis Crew and a Global Empowerment Coach for Leaders and HR Professionals at kellyswingler.com. She leads and coaches with an open heart, an open mind and has the courage to challenge the status quo and do things differently so that we can change the world of work.

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