3 Ways to Cultivate Belonging in the Workplace

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Culture Code" by Daniel Coyle. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why does belonging matter in the workplace? What can you, as a leader, do to foster a sense of belonging in your organization?

Belonging is an important element of inclusion. The key to cultivating a sense of belonging in the workplace is to infuse your working environment with a constant stream of belonging cues.

Here are three tips on how to foster a sense belonging in the workplace using belonging cues.

How to Foster a Sense of Belonging in the Workplace

Developing a sense of belonging in the workplace is difficult and requires persistence. To instill a strong sense of belonging in your team, you need to provide them with a constant stream of reminders (belonging cues) that they are a valued part of the collective. Here are three methods to integrate belonging cues into your workplace culture:

1) Use Belonging Cues in Your Feedback

Belonging cues remind people that your feedback is meant to be constructive and helpful. When team members know they are appreciated and cared for, they are much more receptive to critique. 

Use “Magical Feedback” When giving feedback, ensure that team members know the following:

  • They are valuable.
  • They are part of a special group with high expectations.
  • They have the capacity to match and exceed those expectations.

Avoid “Sandwich Feedback.” “Sandwich Feedback” is the process of delivering feedback in a “positive-negative-positive” format (start with a positive comment, give an area of improvement, and end with another positive comment). This style of feedback can be confusing and doesn’t communicate the information clearly. Give positive and negative feedback separately:

  • Handle negative feedback through dialogue. Discuss areas of improvement, focusing on how to improve, not necessarily on the failure itself. 
  • Deliver positive feedback using energetic praise and authenticity. Genuine enthusiasm motivates and inspires hard-working employees.

Example of Belonging in the Workplace: The Spurs

Gregg Popovich (head coach of the San Antonio Spurs) is known to have a temper, often going off on his star players. However, he is also statistically one of the most successful coaches in the history of the NBA. How does someone express so much anger, yet still yield results? Even though his frustration, Popovich uses belonging cues within his feedback:

Connection: He shows his team members that they are special to him by connecting to them as human beings. He physically engages with them and takes an interest in their lives.

Future: When discussing performance, he insists that the team is special and requires high expectations. He doesn’t accept anything less than that expectation.

Security: He assures players that he has faith that they can match expectations. He then reminds them that there are things more important than basketball. By putting things into perspective, he takes pressure off of his players.

2) Use Belonging Cues in Your Hiring and Onboarding Process

The sooner employees feel connected to the group, the sooner they can become productive members of your company’s culture. Start this process as soon as you meet potential employees:

  • Connection: Show interest in both their excitement and anxiety. Starting a new job is challenging, and your empathy will show them that you care about their current emotional state.
  • Indication of Future: Explicitly show employees their trajectory and the potential upward mobility within your ranks.
  • Security: Express that you are investing in them just as much as they are investing in you. Explain that you foster an open and transparent work environment in which their opinion will be valued, and that feedback and discussion are encouraged.

Take advantage of “threshold moments,” which are first impressions, either the first day that someone joins or the first moment you meet each day. Use belonging cues in threshold moments.

The Call Center That Cared

In Bangalore, India, a call-center called WIPRO (pronounced WHIP-row) was having issues with turn-over. At the end of each year, 50-70% of employees were leaving the company. They tried introducing financial incentives and employee benefits, but nothing seemed to work.

WIPRO leadership decided to bring on a research team to try to help them solve the problem. The research team developed an experiment. During onboarding, they split new employees into three groups:

Group One was given an additional hour after the training process in which leadership talked about WIPRO’s successes. At the end of the session, each new hire was given a sweatshirt with the company’s name on it.

Group Two was given an additional hour after the training process in which leadership asked employees about their own personal experiences, skills, and goals. At the end of the session, each new hire was given a sweatshirt with both their name and the company’s name on it.

Group Three (the control group) did not receive anything beyond the training process.

A year after the experiment was completed, the data showed that members of Group Two were significantly more likely to stay on-board compared to Group One or Group Three. By making a personal connection with the new hires, WIPRO saw a drastic rise in retention as employees were more inclined to stay on board with a company that took the time to connect with them.

3) Create a “Collision-Rich” Environment

Create an environment that promotes interaction through “collision-rich” workspaces. “Collisions” are personal interactions between team members that promote connection through community. These interactions develop chemistry between team members and create a workplace culture in which you and your team can use belonging cues to their fullest extent. To create a “collision-rich” workplace:

  • Keep employees’ workspaces in close proximity to one another.
  • Develop communal spaces for employees to interact.
  • Connect team members with one another.
  • Go out of your way to interact with your co-workers and employees.

Serve the group, even in seemingly small ways. Participating in small tasks sends a powerful message: I am not above you; I am in this with you. This message promotes connection between you and your team and develops mutual respect. Some ways you can begin to serve the group include:

  • Picking up trash
  • Cleaning a communal workspace
  • Ordering lunch for the team

Let yourself (and your team) have fun. This may sound trivial, but genuine enjoyment is essential to developing psychological safety and a strong sense of belonging in the workplace. In fact, laughter is a key indicator of a safe and well-connected workplace. Take the time to create engaging and entertaining activities through which you and your team can simply have a good time and bond. These can be workplace activities (a group lunch once a week or a friendly contest) or external events (sporting events or team retreats)

3 Ways to Cultivate Belonging in the Workplace

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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