February 03, 2022

Work isn’t working for everyone: Individualized support and belonging

As leaders, we can prepare for the stressful moments that we are aware of. Events like onboarding, re-organization, performance reviews, and promotions are generally understood as critical moments in the employee lifecycle, and there’s no shortage of strategies to manage them. But what about the moments in our employees’ lives that we don’t always account for or know about? Moments like caring for sick relatives, facing fertility issues, becoming parents for the first time, or dealing with a breakup? Everyone has experienced the crumbling of the boundaries between work and personal life over the last two years and employees are working longer than before.  We are no longer waiting to return to normal, or even a “new normal.” If our teams are to survive and find their way back to thriving, we must embrace new ways of caring for ourselves and our employees. It is in these crucial, stressful times that we must find a way to re-invest in belonging. 

Bravely Pro and experienced HR leader, Maureen Crawford Hentz, hosted a webinar last month to offer guidance to HR leaders who might be struggling to formulate a plan for belonging and inclusion. She kicked off the webinar with a reminder that “everyone has felt ‘othered’ at some point in their lives. This is the feeling we aim to address and be aware of so that we don’t perpetuate those feelings in the workplace.” Cultivating a sense of belonging requires us to consider psychological safety, pathways for connection, our work’s purpose, and resilience. “When people’s buckets are empty, they can’t be resilient.” How do we foster this sense of belonging with our people and ensure that their gas tanks aren’t constantly running on empty? 

“Individualized support bridges the gap between belonging and not belonging.” 

Maureen remarks, “90% of my coaching conversations with people are about belonging.” Start a dialogue with your individual employees to find the gaps that need to be filled in order for them to feel more supported in their current role. Be prepared to explore options with them, even if you aren’t able to readily offer solutions. Your employees’ lives could be dramatically improved by a flexible schedule or additional opportunities for learning and development, but you have to open the door for them to share what they need to feel supported. This level of autonomy and open dialogue will help your employees see their options within their current role, and be more open to finding solutions to staying. 

Each employee has their own: 

  1. Access needs: What accommodations do your employees require in order to have the same opportunity to thrive? 
  2. Definitions of success: What do your employees want to get out of their lives at work?
  3. Preferred working styles: How do the people you work with prefer to communicate, collaborate, manage, be managed? 
  4. Set of personal circumstances impacting how they show up: What are they figuratively carrying to work each day? 

Maureen explains that belonging happens through interest-based negotiation: “When employees tell us what they need, what if, instead of asking ‘why do you need that?’ we asked, ‘What are the results if I can give that to you?’ In this way, an exchange that might otherwise be transactional becomes a dialogue in which both parties are invested in creating a positive outcome.

Three Stages of Cultivating Belonging at Work 

Stage 1: Pathways

  • Does everyone have the opportunity to seek and gain support that’s right for them? 
  • Do your employees know how to access the resource that you offer? Whether they are employee assistant programs, wellness programs, moments of recognition, etc? 
  • Remember to annually refresh the message of how to access these methods of support 

Stage 2: Empowerment

  • Are people effectively equipped to take ownership of their lives at work? 
  • Do employees believe they can change their work experience? 
  • When was the last time you said to employees “we want you to be happy here? 
  • The first step of empowerment is telling people they have the power to change how they work

Stage 3: Culture 

  • Do the cultural norms of your organization reinforce support? 
  • Culture is the group of behaviors reinforced by a group of people 
  • Culture is not your mission statement, it’s what is celebrated. 
  • If you have a culture of flexible work, your leaders better be doing flexible work to model those behaviors.

A key element to belonging and psychological safety is building trust. As with all relationships, building trust happens over time and there are no quick fixes to repairing broken trust. Creating the space for open communication and ongoing dialogue around your employee’s needs is just the first step. It is crucial to implement action in response to the feedback you receive. Providing individualized support to your employees will not only make them feel valued and supported in their current roles, but is a key component to building an equitable workplace.

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