What belonging looks like, and the value of psychological safety at work: VIDEO SERIES

belonging at work

Everyone hopes to work for an organization that fulfills and inspires them. But increasingly, the concept of belonging within a workspace is taking precedence over other more tangible incentives for employees across the country. A central and undeniable component of the human experience, we thrive on acceptance and community and crumble in instances of exclusion. Those hurt feelings when you’re the last one picked for a team may register in the brain just like a scraped knee or a kicked shin, according to new scientific research that finds that the brain responds to social rejection in the same way it responds to physical pain. And as important as belonging is on an individual scale, new research from BetterUp proves that belonging is good for business, too. Study findings show that workplace belonging leads to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% reduction in turnover risk, and a 75% decrease in employee sick days. 

Following the concept of belonging for years, Great Place To Work describes diversity as being invited to the party, inclusion as being asked to dance and belonging as dancing like nobody’s watching, because that’s how free you feel to be yourself. Their research reveals that when employees experience belonging in the workplace they are:

  • 3 times more likely to feel people look forward to coming to work
  • 9 times more likely to believe people are treated fairly regardless of their race
  • 5 times more likely to want to stay at their company a long time

To dive deeper into the importance of organizational inclusion, MBAchic is exploring the themes surrounding workplace belonging with two esteemed DEI professionals, Dawn Christian and Dr. Tina Opie

As a DEI expert, CEO and Founder of Belong by Dawn Christian, Dawn Christian helps companies redefine leadership at the intersections of personal values, accountability and community. 

An award-winning researcher and Associate Professor of Management at Babson College, Dr. Opie advises small and large firms as a consultant. As the creator of the Shared Sisterhood movement, she helps organizations work towards gender and racial equality. 

In part one of MBAchic’s three part workplace belonging series, MBAchic focuses on what workplace belonging looks (and feels) like, as well as the value of cultivating psychological safety at work. 

According to Christian, the key part of belonging is to prioritize humanity. 

“To realize that those that come to work are human, which means that they don’t stop being that when they show up, we have to be prepared and open and just curious and willing to build our cultural competencies enough to understand that folks are coming with their experiences even from that morning, they’re coming with their lived experiences over their lives in addition to their skillsets,” she says. “So when we think about belonging in the workplace, we make space for that…Can I show up and be myself and not worry about what somebody might be thinking or if they may discount my skills because I look a certain way?”

For Dr. Opie, belonging is very much centered around individuals being fully accepted and celebrated in the workplace.

“So oftentimes we talk about diversity. Diversity is about numeric representation,” explains Dr. Opie. “It’s a frequency count really. You might say, how many women are there? How many black people, how many gay people, how many Hispanic or Latinx people, what’s the numeric representation? Then we have a conversation about equity, which has to do with justice or fairness. Are people being paid equitably? If people are putting in roughly the same number of hours and the same level of quality work, are they being [paid fairly] for the same kind of role?”

“Belonging is, are people feeling as though they are being respected and accepted and celebrated? Are they able to fully participate in the decision making process? Belonging is almost at a cellular level where you feel like I belong here. I feel as though I really mesh with the culture, with the people who are here. They get me and I get them, that’s how I would encapsulate belonging.”

Psychological safety is a concept that has long been separate from corporate culture, but in recent years that’s changing, largely prompted by shifting priorities post-pandemic. As Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor and author of The Fearless Organization describes to HBR, team psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that it’s OK to take risks, to express their ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes — all without fear of negative consequences. Edmondson says, “it’s felt permission for candor.”

Christian is quick to point out to MBAchic that psychological safety is not something that can simply be declared by leadership. 

“It is cultivated and it is earned,” she explains. “It is a way of engaging with someone over time. So [for example] when we get on a zoom call, [start by asking] are you ready to start? Are you okay with me recording? We’re going to be setting some precedent for the conversation and saying we’re going to be talking about these things. Then also putting some guideposts…just allowing for that space to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to have this conversation, I understand that it may be uncomfortable,’ even saying that allows someone to feel just a little bit more safe and vulnerable.” 

Dr. Opie encourages team members to consider psychological safety in terms of freedom for individuals to speak up and share ideas without fearing repercussions. 

“So for example, say you work in a manufacturing firm or making cars and you see a process that’s happening that you think might be dangerous for the consumer,” explains Dr. Opie. “Do you feel okay going to your supervisor and pointing that out and potentially offering a solution? Or is it the kind of environment where if you say something, you are going to be blamed or ridiculed because maybe you’re holding up the production calendar or you are being pointed out as someone who is not a team player because you’re saying something’s faulty with the organization. The ability to speak up and voice constructive criticism of the culture or of the organization, to point out opportunities for improvement. When you can do that, that is when you know that you’re in a psychologically safe environment.”

belonging at work

Photo by Christina @ WoC in Tech

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