Belonging In The Workplace

Full Transcript Below

[ANNOUNCER]: Breaking down everyday workplace issues and diagnosing the hidden sickness not just the obvious symptom, our hosts James and Coby.

[COBY]: Did we lose a patient?

[JAMES]: No that’s just my lunch.

[COBY]: Hey thanks for joining us. I’m Coby, he’s James. Let’s get started with a question. What does belonging in the workplace actually mean?

[JAMES]: Well I think belonging at work really boils down to whether or not I feel comfortable and confident to be able to be who I am at work. To show who I am at work. So for me the idea of belonging if I have to hide uh my opinions or if I feel uncomfortable sharing my opinions, my experiences, my backgrounds, then I don’t feel like I belong, and it really boils down to that idea of; am I able to be who I am and still be and be accepted and belong? For me not because I have to conform to a specific type of person.

[COBY]: Yeah and I think you’re right it has a lot to do with the acceptance part of it, that because like psychological safety is the, I can, you know like, share my ideas and share what what I think and I have the safety to do that. But belonging is almost like the, I’m, you know, I can bring my thoughts and opinions and you know, but also I’m accepted for for what I say. I can, you know, make a mistake or I can, you know, be able to have my own perspective on things and it be normalized. That I don’t have to just go along to get along, I don’t have to, you know, make sure that you know I’m pretending I’m someone else in order to fit in. that my unique insight, perspectives, tools, quirks, are not just known, but they’re accepted and that’s just like, you know, that’s just him, and we’re cool with that.

[JAMES]: Yeah and you mentioned psychological safety and I think that is foundational to belonging but it’s not the same as belonging. I need psychological safety we’ve talked about many times before, and we will talk about many times in the future, because it’s it’s foundational to everything that you need for a healthy workplace culture.

But it in and of itself is not going to create belonging. Because psychological safety is about the idea; do I feel that I can share my opinions, or raise concerns at work, without being feeling like I’m gonna be penalized for it, or there’s gonna be some form of retribution for speaking up. And belonging is more personal than ideas, right? It’s, you can feel comfortable sharing your thoughts and opinions and not feel comfortable, or, and still feel like you have to hide who you truly are. I mean yes we all have a professional persona that we use in the workplace. In many respects my professional persona is just a slightly less messy of my version of my normal personality. But still we we do put on airs in the workplace, we do present a certain face. But how much of ourselves are we hiding? Do I have to hide my foolish sense of humor? do I have do, I feel like, I have to hide my nerdy interests, or more importantly do I feel like I have to hide the fact that I have a disability? You know for me and I might as well say I mean I’ve talked about it in other areas, I do have a learning disability which impacts the way that I work. It’s not a visual thing that you would never know this by by just talking to me, except for maybe the long pauses when I’m talking, when I’m thinking, but do I feel comfortable bringing who I am to the workplace? And that is the essence of belonging?

[COBY]: Yeah and your right as far as the fact, well you were around a lot of things you said, because a part of it is just does the culture allow me to be me? And for me, to be kind of like, you know, be able to be accepted. I mean it’s not it’s because, like you said before, as you said psychological safety is more about what you say, and you can, you know, be able to speak up. But still have to hide who you are. That absolutely happens. Which is why belonging is so connected to a lot of the talk around inclusion and diversity, because part of that is systemic issues in workplaces, you know, allow people that they have to conform and assimilate and, just and, not bring their unique perspectives based on their background, their ability, or so on to the workplace. They have to just like, you know, leave who they are at the door and be who their company wants them to be. And that’s such a common thing which is why belonging is such a big part of the DEI conversation, as it should be, but more than beyond that, it’s really about what the, what the culture of the workplace allows. And it needs to allow for people to be a little bit quirky, to be a little bit, you know, unique, to have good days, and have bad days, and have different needs, and other people, and that just be not tolerated, but, and not even just accepted, but almost like standard practice.

[JAMES]: Yeah, I was gonna say celebrated, but that’s the wrong term. Because, or it’s not the wrong term, the way that we often think about it in the workplace I think is wrong, right? Like it’s not about a,

we can go too far in our enthusiasm trying to celebrate individuals. And to a point where we can actually make people feel ostracized and even less like they belong than if we just shut our mouths and accepted people for who they are.

[COBY]: Right I think a good example of what it looks like to just it be normal practice is, so you share a little bit about you having a learning disability, those who know me I have a, I have a germ phobia. And it, I you know, I don’t hide it, but it doesn’t, it’s not an obvious thing that when you see me. But like those that I’ve worked with for a long time, those in our office knows, in other offices in the past, always do a little normal things or things are normal for them, but show me that I belong. Like for example, whenever someone brings like a dessert to the office. People will often have a separately wrapped one just for me. Or they’ll say, I bought a box of donuts, Coby do you want to get the first one before other hands get into it? And those are things that to me, that’s a perfect example of normalizing someone’s quirk. And it just being the standard practice of, just you know, of thinking about another person and knowing them, and taking the time to know them well enough just to do little things that show them that you’re not just accepted, that’s just who you are and we’re cool with it. And that’s why you belong. And I think that is probably the essence of what the experience should almost look and feel like on a micro level. And that’s the thing about, I think, why belonging can be challenging talking about it from the workplace. Is because it is experienced at the micro level.

[JAMES]: And solutions, workplace solutions, tend to focus on the organization and not the individual, right? What is it from a broad strokes, what is one thing that we can do that will affect everybody? It may not affect everybody equally, but it’s kind of the idea of the greatest amount of good for the least amount of effort, right? That’s how a lot of our workplace solutions, well not OUR workplace solutions, but a little plug there for Roman 3 Solutions, but that’s often how we collectively think about making changes to the workplace. Is, what is one thing that I can do that will impact as many people as possible. But belonging doesn’t happen with mass approaches, it happens, like you said, at the individual level. And it takes effort, but it takes, it’s not that one person in the organization is responsible for creating the perfect solution, because there is no one perfect solution. It’s about everybody in the organization understanding that all of us have quirks, all of us come from different experiences, different backgrounds, different race, religion, creed, it doesn’t matter, we are all bring ourselves, we need to bring our true selves to work. And that we talked a little bit about diversity, I also want to kind of mention, like, without belonging you can’t also can’t get diversity of perspective. If people feel like they have to conform or hide who they are to meet a superficial standard that the organization sets. Then you’re only going to get perspectives and opinions that already align with your preconceived ideas. Or with this avatar that you’ve created. But if you can accept people for who they are and what they bring, diversity of perspective can bring so many benefits to an organization. Because as people share their experiences and as people share who they are, that’s, you’re able to take advantage of huge innovations, new ideas, new ways of doing things, as well as just the tremendous benefit of having a workplace where people actually feel connected to each other right.

[COBY]: And I think that, and that’s a really good case for the benefits that belonging creates, but I think that what would be is really helpful for people to understand is when belonging in the workplace happens, as you said it’s not one person, it’s not the CEO responsible for every one of his thousand employees to feel like they belong to him, and to and to every other person in the organization. What belonging in the workplace actually means is, belonging in your every day. That your team that you deal with every day, the managers that you see all the time, the colleagues that you interact with on a daily basis, those that are part of your everyday. That’s the collective that you need to feel connected to and belonging with. It’s not about creating this massive initiative where, you know, every employee in the office on the east coast has to be best friends with everyone in the office on the west coast. Because that’s impossible to do, and impossible sustain. It’s just about that people can bring themselves to work, it’s almost like we have to change our default thinking that everybody is professional as their default, to everyone’s kind of a weirdo, as their default, and we have to be cool with that. And try and make sure that, you know, that we are cool with their weirdness and that people try and keep their weirdness from not affecting their job negatively, and letting their weirdness be part of what affects your job in a positive way. And that’s kind of I think what the defaulting is to be, but part of that really is about the individual level. That I need, the people that I see every day I should be comfortable around, and be able and they should and I should build the familiarity that that they know me well enough that we can talk and that I can you know be able to kind of be my weird self and have that just be what is kind of what is commonplace

[JAMES]: Right and you raised a couple points, there’s one thing that’s been bugging me for a little while since I read it. There’s one thing that I, you raised some good points there and there’s one thing that I want to expand on a little bit in more detail because, you talked about, you know, the people that I’m surrounded with. The people that I’m in physical proximity to, I should feel connected with, or I should feel like I belong, and that is true. However there was a recent there’s been a number of news articles recently on some comments made by Malcolm Gladwell who’s an author and speaker and essentially I’m, I’ve got some notes here that I want to share. Because I want to make sure that I’m actually quoting him properly. But his statements were along the lines, he says “if you’re sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom is that the work life you want to live? Don’t you want to feel a part of something? If we don’t feel like we’re a part of something important then what’s the point? If it’s just a paycheck then it’s like what has your life been reduced to? It’s very hard to feel necessary when you’re physically disconnected. As we face the battle that all organizations are facing now and getting people back to the office, it’s really hard to explain this core psychological truth which is we want to have a feeling of belonging and feel necessary.” And his entire thesis is that you cannot create belonging unless it’s in the workplace, sorry in the office, in a shared physical space. Gladwell’s promoting this idea that you have to be in physical proximity to other people in order to feel belonging. And I wholeheartedly disagree. I believe there’s many, there’s several points that he makes throughout his talk that I agree with. You know remote work has raised some new challenges. With in-game how how we engage with people, how we feel make people feel that they belong, and are connected to a larger goal. And he’s right that purpose is essential to us as human beings, right? Where I deviate in my thinking is, actually in many areas, but primarily I want to dispel this idea that the only way to create belonging is physical proximity. Yes, like as you said, when you know it’s easier when you can walk to somebody’s office that’s beside you and carry on a conversation, there’s, but that’s a tool remote work is merely a tool, and the way that we create belonging needs to reflect the tool that we are using. And it’s a poor carpenter who blames his tools.

[COBY]: Right and I think that is, and that it is a really good point for us to really kind of, you know, dig into and diagnose kind of what the meaning of that is. Because the problem with that is it’s almost like the assumption of, well when you’re close to people that creates belonging, but like proximity doesn’t inherently create belonging, there are people who are who feel completely disconnected like they’re a thousand miles away from the person sitting right next to them. But then there’s also people that are a thousand miles away that have that good connection and good rapport that they can call someone up on the other coast and feel like, you know, feel like they’re beside them. So it’s definitely a false equivalent when someone says that when Gladwell or someone else says that belonging is only about proximity.

[JAMES]: And I know absolutes, like sound bites are catchy and absolute statements make for catchy little sound bites but what in life is absolute, right? Death and taxes. Those those those are our absolutes and we’ve known that for quite some time. Outside of those two things absolutes really don’t exist. I liked your comment about, you know, we can feel more connected with people a thousand miles away than we do with people in the same building because we have experienced this personally. Like we work in a office space is a shared office environment there are several other organizations that are in the same building that we are and we have good relationships with many of them, a cordial relationships with everybody, but there are some people there who we are in, or I can speak for myself, there are some people there that I’m in close proximity to that I feel absolutely no connection with, right? They are they are in the same building as I am we smile at each other and you know exchange pleasantries of “Oh it’s hot today.” But that is not belonging in connection contrast that with we’re currently working with a fantastic guy in Australia right now and who we have only ever met through Zoom. And you know we’ve had several conversations over the uh last few months but there’s a connection there because there’s a sense of shared values. Because there’s we’ve allowed the the rapport to grow to a point where we can share some level of vulnerability, or this is who I am and what I believe. Our conversations have really revolved around, you know, our Roman 3’s approaches to workplace culture and really exploring, there’s definitely some alignment there in the values that we hold and the values that he holds. And that has created a far stronger sense of connection or belonging with that individual than it does with people in the same building as me.

[COBY]: Right. Yeah and I think it’s a really important to state that familiarity and belonging are not the same things.

[JAMES]: No they’re not.

[COBY]: I think that, again I don’t want to, again I hate to say that Malcolm Gladwell, you know, like we took a snippet of his terms and we know exactly what he means. I hate, I never want to do that. But it, because like you know, as you said sound bites are catchy but they’re not necessarily accurate. But if anyone is thinking that familiarity and proximity are the same thing as belonging then they really, then they’re missing the point. Because it is about the fact that, that different people, but mostly but also different settings and different organizational structures, have to approach creating belonging in different ways. I think if you say that, you know, well belonging’s done in one way and if it’s not, and if you can’t make belonging in this one way then you can’t get it. If that’s part of the argument then that is a terrible argument to be made. Because it’s about like I said before the CEO is not responsible for everybody to be to feel belonging in their thousand person organization. It’s kind of up to the group that interacts. Leadership needs to be insisting on creating this culture of belonging, but it is up to the manager of the teams to be leading by example, but it’s also everyone else’s responsibility to show that everyone else’s weirdness, and everyone else’s unique perspectives, and views, are okay with them and to allow people to just be themselves. And but to make that happen that needs to happen in different ways. So yes it won’t look the same doing that in a close-knit team, in person. You know that’ll look different than it being, you know, team across states or across countries or whatever. That’s not going to be the same, but it’s important that you don’t take the same approach, that you try and figure out what works and work with the people to help them find out what works for them too.

[JAMES]: And that’s the key point. It’s not going to look the same. It will likely feel the same because belonging, that sense of belonging, is a distinct feeling we know inherently when we are in a group of people whether or not we feel like we are a part of that group. We have a natural way of sensing that. The most important, or the person who will have the greatest influence on whether an individual feels like they belong to a team is the manager. If you are a manager of a team, a leader of a team, a leader of an organization, I don’t care, if you are responsible for leading other people it is your duty, it is your responsibility, to create the environment where people feel like they belong.

[COBY]: Right and whether that is leading by example with those you interact with every day. Or if it’s you know intentionally working towards a culture where those that our managers beneath you can make those that they interact with every day feel like they belong.

[JAMES]: And it’s also about like you have to get to know the person on your team, not just the position that they fill.

[COBY]: Right, so one thing though that I think I kind of want to loop back to, going back to some of the, like not necessarily the talk from Malcolm Gladwell, but it’s almost like the reactions to his talk, is that people are, whether they’re correctly or incorrectly you know putting meaning to his words, and they’re kind of saying that belonging can’t happen in work from home or remote working. And I think then it that for those that take that takeaway I think that’s a dangerous scapegoat to put out there. To say that belonging has to be intentionally created whether you’re in person or whether you’re remote in any workplace, you need to be working towards creating it in a way that’s going to be meaningful. We said that a number of times. But if you, but if the idea is of saying “No, no your efforts are fine managers and CEOs, it’s not your mistake of not making the effort to kind of make things work. It’s work from home that is the villain. And you have to get rid of that if you want to create belonging.” I’m afraid some people are taking that away from this discussion about belonging and work from home. Is they’re blaming it for it being where belonging is not coming from. And that’s not true at all, and I think that it’s a dangerous thing to scapegoat the lack of belonging, because honestly, you said it’s a tool. Working from home, that is a tool and if we are saying that, what we are saying, you and I, Roman 3, is saying no matter where you’re located effort has to be made to create belonging. And work from home is not to blame for poor belonging. Work from home requires you to not just use a single approach to create belonging, it requires you to maybe put some more effort into how you do it. But it is not to blame for a lack of belonging.

[JAMES]: Right and that’s what bothers me so much about the statements that Gladwell has made. Is that whenever I see the statements, or the talk referenced, it’s always used as a excuse to force people back to the office. And it’s really frustrating to see organizations latch on to an easy answer that’s wrong. It is, I mean, well that’s why scapegoats exist. Because it’s the easy answer. What in life? When is the easiest answer really the best answer in life? You will experience a whole host of new problems if you’re forcing people back into the office, just because you want to have them under your thumb, or you want you need to exert that control over the workplace. I saw another statistic recently that said as many as high as 65% of workers say that remote work or work from home options has directly impacted their decision to accept or reject a job offer. And I’ll make sure that we actually have a citation to that statistic in the description, because I want to make sure that, that is clear. Like this is hard and fast data. If you’re already, and how so many organizations are already struggling with recruitment, and if you latch on to these easy answers and force people back into the office just because you believe that it’s going to create belonging, or make your life easier, you’re only, you’re only making other problems worse.

[COBY]: Right, and I think what we’ll do is, I think, work from home is a whole another topic, I think we’ll make that, maybe the topic of an upcoming podcast. Because I think that we can dig into that, but I think we should probably kind of summarize what are, what are we really prescribing from this diagnosis of the workplace. I think it really is to understand that creating belonging in the workplace means creating belonging in your everyday, with the people that you interact with whether virtually or in person, and making sure that everyone else’s weirdness is known accepted and becomes normal place. We also have to make clear that familiarity and belonging are not the same things. and that it’s about, you know, realizing that proximity doesn’t create belonging inherently. Efforts will have to be made. And when it comes to things like work from home and remote working, being a problem with it. Those are just tools, and a poor carpenter, as you said, blames his tools. So these are the things that we think are, that I think are really important for people to take away from this conversation. Because again, all the stuff is kind of, is unfolding and they’re big topics, but I think those key points really can really help create clarity around this issue.

[JAMES]: Yeah I agree.

[COBY]: All right so that about does it for us. So For a full archive of our podcasts and access to the video version hosted on our YouTube channel visit our website at Thanks for joining us.

[JAMES]: Thanks everyone.

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