Why Feeling A Sense Of Belonging At Work Matters And How To Cultivate It

Why Feeling A Sense Of Belonging At Work Matters And How To Cultivate It

Executive leader Julia Duthie on how to cultivate a sense of belonging at work

Julia Duthie

It’s undeniable that over the last year, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) initiatives have faced unprecedented levels of pushback from many of the organizations that initially welcomed them: tech giants like Google and Meta have slashed their DEI budgets by as much as 90% and in June 2023, the US Supreme Court overturned its own Affirmative Action policy. But as Julia Duthie knows, employees feeling a sense of belonging at work is still imperative to a company’s success.

One look at Julia’s career history shows you how much she’s achieved: she’s a partner at a portfolio value-creation business, a bestselling author of The House on Dogbone St, and boasts extensive experience, including two CEO positions and co-founding a US dot com startup. At first glance, you might wonder how someone with such success could relate to the struggle of lacking a sense of belonging, but, Julia left home and school at 16 after a childhood overshadowed by abuse and neglect and found herself in the unique position of holding several executive level positions without ever having gained a university degree – something that set her apart from her peers and led to an acute sense of ‘otherness’ from the beginning of her career.

“The extreme nature of my childhood always made me feel like an outsider. From my clothes to my lack of ability to relate to my friends’ home lives, I always felt like I was looking in from the outside,” she recalls. “Luckily, I was blessed with a quick mind and a natural (some would say necessary) instinct to please, which made me popular for what I could do but not for who I was.”

The ‘being accepted for what you can do, not who you are’ argument is perfect fodder for the DEIB deniers, who might equate it to the idea that today’s workers are less resilient and more quick to offend – after all, what are employees there for if not to get the job done? – but, as Julia’s experiences showcase, feeling that you do or don’t belong in a team or organization has a profound effect on the quality of work you actually produce.

“I have worked with some of the best and some of the truly worst leaders imaginable,” she says. “Under the best leadership, I had agency within my role, freedom to express myself, was valued for my work, and recognised for the person I was. During these times, work felt like purpose, colleagues felt like friends, and I was at my most productive. Under the worst, I compromised my values, doubted my abilities, felt unsafe and ultimately had no choice but to move on.”

She goes on to explain that her reasons for leaving were never the work pressure, pay or benefits: “it was how I was made to feel, and in very extreme cases, I was affected both mentally and physically. Being constantly vigilant to daily threats caused so much tension in my body that it started to break down, with anxiety, poor sleep and back pain being the most significant symptoms. I look back now and can’t believe I put myself through it.”

The evidence is there in the research, too. BetterUp, a coaching platform for workplace transformation, found that when employees feel like they belong, companies enjoy 56% improved job performance, 50% lower turnover risk and 75% fewer employee sick days.

“Creating a culture where everyone feels they belong is vital for a company’s success,” Julia reiterates. “It’s a huge competitive advantage as people communicate more honestly, challenge each other healthily, and problem-solve more easily. If people feel connected to a firm, they stay longer, work harder, take less time off sick, and achieve more for themselves and the organization.”

This, she says, is very different to ‘fitting in’. “Fitting in means scanning the room to see how people act and finding the cracks in between to connect. It’s constantly evaluating who is safe and who should be avoided. At its worst, when people merely “fit in”, they leave their authentic selves at the door, work as they feel others wish to see them, and then re-occupy themselves as they exit the building.”

It’s this level of “duality” Julia believes deprives the person and the organization of everyone’s unique gifts: “A culture of belonging embraces the person you are and allows full expression of that self. Belonging matters to us all. It’s in our DNA, and we consciously and subconsciously seek out those we can connect with to feel comfortable and perform to our fullest potential.”

So what signs of not belonging should leaders be looking out for in their teams?

In Julia’s experience as a C-Suite executive, the signs are often subtle. Team members might initially contribute with enthusiasm, sharing their ideas and opinions, but gradually withdraw when they feel it’s unsafe to be themselves or say what they think. This can quickly lead to the dreaded ‘quiet quitting,’ and, if the isolated feelings persist, escalate into conflicts with colleagues or even criticism of the organization itself.

But there are things leaders can do to avoid this. From “walking the floor” and creating more connection opportunities to making space for long form conversations that inspire “debate, exploration, enquiry and curiosity,” enhancing the sense of belonging doesn’t have to mean major structural shifts.

And as a longtime mentor to employees, Julia has five actionable pieces of advice to cultivate your own sense of belonging.

Seek out people who like who you are, not just what you do

Julia suggests actively seeking out the people with whom you feel a sense of ease and inspiration and actively avoiding those who either don’t celebrate your successes or who undermine your values.

“I used to tell my children, ‘choose friends who make you more of who you are,’ and it’s no different with colleagues,” she says. “They say that colleagues cannot be friends, but I disagree. Some of my most enduring friendships began at work. As with getting together with great friends, fostering meaningful friendships at work hugely influences your sense of belonging.”

Be open to the idea of connection at work

For Julia, leading with curiosity has been a key piece to feeling more belonging at work. “Take an interest in others. Be genuinely curious about how others think and get to know their true selves. Ask lots of questions and listen intently to what comes back. Practice open questions like “How did you come to that thought? Or “What led you to be here today?” These generous questions of genuine warmth and interest will create a meaningful exchange and be hugely satisfying for both parties”

Get to know who you are

It’s so easy to move through the world simply reacting to what goes on around us, but Julia suggests a more proactive approach: “Take time to know who you are and what makes you thrive. After all, you can’t connect with others if you can’t connect with yourself. There are great books and podcasts on knowing what makes you uniquely you. Find those that chime with you and invest time in learning what makes you tick.”

Pay attention to how work makes you feel

As we’ve already explored, feeling like you don’t belong can have a huge impact on your well-being and the aim should not be to merely ‘fit in.’ “When we belong, our energy oscillates at a pitch that puts us in our flow state, but when we are merely trying to fit in, our energy is off, rather like unmeshed gears, which can lead to all kinds of physical and mental health issues,” Julia explans. “If you find your physical or mental health is affected by your work, seek help or better still, find a new opportunity.”

Seek out great leaders and hold them to high standards

There’s a famous saying that whilst you can’t choose your family, you can choose your friends. Julia believes this is true of your boss, as well.

“Rather like a bad breakup, leaving hurts, but you have to trust that there is someone better for you out there. Seek out businesses that champion your values and make you feel more of who you truly are.”

“Relentlessly pursue places and people that make you feel more of who you are, accept and cherish all you bring, and give you the freedom to express yourself fully. Do that, and you will find a place where you truly belong, and the difference will be life-changing.”

To read more of Julia’s thoughts on belonging at work, head to her Substack newsletter here.

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