For the Love of Work Podcast
For the Love of Work Podcast

Episode 5: The Power of Belonging (transcript)

SONIA KANG:  Has this ever happened to you? Your friend invites you to a party, and you go, but your friend is late so you end up going in alone. And then you stand there, waiting, feeling a bit awkward. And that feeling starts to grow because you don’t really know anyone, at least not well enough to walk up and chat. But the worst part is, no one comes up to say hi or offer you a drink. Not even the host. Everywhere you look, there’s groups of two, three, four, lost in conversation and laughing. And it starts to feel kind of like you don’t exist. Like nobody can see you. So you shuffle backwards out the front door. Maybe you stick around until your friend shows up, but more likely you just go home.

SONIA KANG:  What if that same kind of thing happened to you at work? I know…work isn’t exactly a rager, but what if you showed up, and didn’t feel seen? Or heard? Or included? What if that unwelcoming host was your boss?

SONIA KANG:  I’m Dr. Sonia Kang and this is For The Love Of Work, an original podcast about the employee experience, made possible by Rogers. On today’s episode: how new managers, middle and senior managers can build a strong culture of belonging for every one. And how all employees can influence belonging, within their own teams too.

UNKNOWN CALLER: Hey Sonia. A few months ago, we onboarded a new team member, and she does amazing work. And, we get along really well. But then at her first review she told me that she likes working here but she doesn’t totally feel like she’s part of the team. Some of the other employees with more time at the company have these inside jokes, sort of like a clique. She doesn’t get asked for feedback. And she’s an introvert. So the way we do meetings is tough for her. I mean, that’s a lot. I feel bad for her. And I feel terrible, like I’m a bad boss.

SONIA KANG:  Not gonna lie, this isn’t an easy position to be in, having to foster a sense of belonging, especially as a new or middle manager. Even among researchers and workplace experts, the best solutions are still being debated. So many important and complicated workplace issues come down to belonging. Work/life balance is a belonging issue. Access to proper training is too. Are you made to feel like where you went to school is less than? And then of course, racial representation and sensitivity. As well as things like neuro divergence, gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, physical appearance or disability. Add to that intersectionality, how the multiple identity groups that you identify with, combine and interact to create your unique life experience. More and more, new and middle managers are being asked to make sure that everyone on their teams feels like they belong, because if they don’t, companies know that employees will walk. On the other hand, if they do feel like they belong, employees not only stay and feel valued, they will also do better work and feel good about it too.

SONIA KANG:  So, no pressure, manager. This is what we’re gonna do. As much as we can, we are gonna explore what it means to build belonging on your team, now. We’re gonna learn what belonging actually looks like, in practice. How to recognize when people feel like they don’t belong — just like, voicemail manager. How to adopt the attitude and behaviors of an ally. And more. Learning these skills will be a major differentiator for junior and middle managers, so let’s go!

SONIA KANG:  I know that belonging can kind of be like a vague term and can be intimidating for some people. So can you break it down for us? What does belonging look like in the workplace?

POOJA JAIN-LINK:  Belonging at work means that you feel seen for your unique contributions, connected to your coworkers, supported in your daily life and career development and be proud of your organization’s values and purpose.

SONIA KANG:  This is me talking to Pooja Jain-Link, EVP at Coqual, a nonprofit think tank studying belonging in the workplace.

POOJA JAIN-LINK:  a lot of the way workplaces are right now, they’re not necessarily structured to create a huge sense of belonging for everyone. And so following, sort of the status quo and the existing norms that are within the workplace often leads to a greater sense of belonging for some and not others.

SONIA KANG: And what about someone who says that, okay, I agree with you, but I don’t have a problem of belonging on my team, everyone feels great, they feel included, we don’t have any problems, what would you say to them?

POOJA JAIN-LINK:  That’s probably somebody who does feel like they belong, which is great. And maybe all of their teammates feel that way too. But part of what being an insider is, is you don’t immediately recognize when someone else is an outsider.

SONIA KANG: And this can lead to the kind of homogeneity that we see at a lot of companies.

POOJA JAIN-LINK:  the people who have that likeness with the manager are more likely to get feedback, and especially critical feedback, because that’s what will help them grow and succeed. But when there’s lines of difference between manager and team member, that feedback breaks down, there’s discomfort, fear, I’m worried about saying the wrong thing or offending. And so they don’t give that same type of feedback.

SONIA KANG: That similarity or insider status can lead to bias, sometimes unconsciously, so the challenge is, how do you break a habit if you aren’t even aware of it?

POOJA JAIN-LINK:  question it whenever it comes up, whenever a peer assess you and another middle manager comes to you and cites something about this, really question them on it and start to have people questioning some of these norms around success that really support success for some and not for all.

SONIA KANG:  What questions should managers ask?

POOJA JAIN-LINK:  So managers could think about, do they recognize people’s skills and accomplishments? Do colleagues recognize each other’s skills and accomplishments? Do they seem like they’re being themselves at the organization? And often as a manager, you’re not necessarily going to know, you’re going to know the part of them that they’re showing you. So really, asking them to tell you that, how much do you feel like you can bring your whole self to work is a starting point. Knowing if you’re supporting people at times when they have personal issues.

SONIA KANG:  Bringing your whole self to work means being able to show up authentically and not feeling like you have to edit pieces of your identity to fit in. It means feeling like you can be vulnerable – make mistakes, ask questions, take risks. You don’t have to present a perfect version of yourself, it’s enough to just be who you are.

POOJA JAIN-LINK:  And then you can also harken back to moments in your life where you may have felt like an outsider to really build that empathy and think about better supporting folks and changing how they feel.

SONIA KANG:  So curiosity is really the starting point for helping people feel like they belong. When you’re curious about what’s going on with people, you learn more about your employees, or peers, and that means you’re in a better position to be an ally. In fact, that empathy Pooja mentioned, would make you more of a friend. Friends generally treat each other nicely, right?

SONIA KANG:  So we hear the word allyship a lot these days. What does being an ally mean to you?

POOJA JAIN-LINK:  I love that you said it’s a word you’re hearing a lot these days because it’s absolutely being said a lot more. And I’d of the key things behind allyship is it’s not about just stating it as a fact. It’s not just saying, oh, I’m an ally, but it’s actually about the action…It’s about showing up at a meeting or speaking at it or presenting, speaking up in support of colleagues of different backgrounds and identities from yourselves.

SONIA KANG:  Yeah. I think allyship is a verb, not a noun.

POOJA JAIN-LINK:  Anyone has the potential to be an ally.

SONIA KANG:  It’s relative, sometimes you’re an ally, sometimes you’re a person who’s receiving allyship, like it’s a fluid relationship.

POOJA JAIN-LINK:  Yeah, it’s looking for opportunities to slowly and deliberately change the culture and the norms within the organization.

SONIA KANG: Understanding the definition of belonging can help you recognize when it isn’t happening for your team members, or for you. Managers can also feel like they don’t belong. Being mindful of your biases and becoming curious, can help you connect to more colleagues, and support them. Reminding yourself of times when you felt the pain of exclusion will help you develop empathy. And understanding the very broad range of ally actions, big and small, can have a profound effect on the culture. This is the internal stuff all employees can do. Next, let’s look at some more practical techniques for building belonging.

STEPHANIE CREARY:My sense is, is that once many companies have done all the work that it takes to get senior leaders on board, sometimes it feels like, “Okay, we’re good.

SONIA KANG: Stephanie Creary is a professor of management at the Wharton School.

STEPHANIE CREARY: But that’s not what happens in practice, because people who are the next level down did not benefit from that time spent understanding the why and the what, and the why and the what at the level of middle manager, is very different from the why and the what at the senior level.

SONIA KANG: This is one of the breakdowns that blocks belonging. I would argue that the rarefied, non-diverse air of most C-suites doesn’t help either. But yes, middle managers, even some newer managers, are often stuck with a pretty big job, usually one that’s not in their original job descriptions. But if properly trained, they can also have the biggest impact.

STEPHANIE CREARY: Without a doubt, middle managers are essential. [00:12:30] 

SONIA KANG: Stephanie would know. She has spent a lot of time studying belonging and the role of middle managers. They’re like the connective tissue that holds all of their different team members together.

STEPHANIE CREARY: So, what this looks like is making sure that you’re highlighting each team member’s contributions to the team, as they are emerging. Because not only does that make people want to continue contributing, it also helps other people on the team understand how all of the various pieces are coming together in support of the team.

SONIA KANG: This has probably happened to you at some point. You do a good job on a project, your boss recognizes it, at a meeting. You feel like you belong, not just for the pat on the back, but because your unique contribution has been celebrated. This type of personalization, if you want to call it that, is a core aspect of the “employee experience.”

STEPHANIE CREARY: Workers are wanting to be part of organizations that appreciate them for more of themselves or their whole selves. So, what middle managers can do with the recognition that this is a value that many workers have now, they can advocate for spaces where employees can talk about non-work topics, things that they’re watching on TV, things that they did over the weekend. And what that is looking like in the virtual world is through Slack channels, and various virtual online forums, that allow people to connect with one another in an informal way.

SONIA KANG: They make space for informal connections that foster discovery of each other’snot-just-work identities. But also, they’re not mandatory. Some people want to keep their work lives and home lives separate, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Another thing Stephanie says managers can do is keep their employees in the loop about benefits and encourage them to use them. Like, ones that promote work/life balance. Employee surveys are showing that work/life balance is a big determinant of belonging. But, many people don’t take adequate time off even when it’s there for the taking because they feel like they’ll be penalized for using it. They might miss out on a great new assignment, or people might think they don’t care enough about their careers. So it’s important for managers to model for team members that it is in fact okay by taking time away too, or working from home sometimes in a hybrid environment.

Side note, making sure that everyone takes advantage of these kinds of policies can also help reduce inequality. For example, if men also took parental leave, it might lessen the impact of the motherhood penalty – the lower pay and lowered perceptions of competence and career dedication that have disproportionately impacted mothers.

Stephanie’s research has also shown the benefits of mentorship and sponsorship in increasing belonging.

STEPHANIE CREARY: Managers can act as mentors and sponsors to a variety of people, but they can also create structures on their team, like a buddy system, a peer mentoring set of relationships, that helps their team members learn how to support one another. So, that might be, “This unconscious bias training was just rolled out. This might be something you might want to tell your mentor about, so that they know that this is available to them.” Or, “You’re mentoring and sponsoring people, you might want to go to this unconscious bias training to make sure that in the everyday act of being a mentor or sponsor, that you’re doing that in a less biased way.”

SONIA KANG: So, there’s a lot of things you can do to build belonging. It probably makes sense to be somewhat intentional about it by structuring your approach. Stephanie has developed a system called LEAP.

STEPHANIE CREARY: The first letter in leap is an L, and it’s about listening and learning from your colleagues’ experiences. Because oftentimes people assume they know what it is that somebody else needs, and they don’t know. And so, the more that people learn to listen to the people who they are trying to support, and feel more confident about that, the less fear they have, the less likely they are to actually make a terrible paternalistic mistake. E is actually engaging in different settings so if I’m not Black, or if I’m not gay, and I want to be an ally to these communities, then I need to go meet them where they are, in their spaces. And in organizations, it often looks like an employee resource group, like, go to a meeting and listen to people talk about their experiences, because you’re going to hear a lot more than you’re going to hear walking around the office. The A is asking and appreciating persons’ work-related experiences. What we often hear from people who are marginalized, is people spend so much time asking me about the thing that’s most marginalizing, either my appearance, or my sexual orientation, or my gender, I don’t get asked often enough, as I should, questions about my actual work.

SONIA KANG: This is like when people ask their coworkers of colour, to make them a systemic racism reading list, instead of engaging with them about their real work.

STEPHANIE CREARY: And the P is providing support.

SONIA KANG: The P is a really important part of allyship. We’re gonna expand on what Pooja talked about because Stephanie has a lot of valuable insights here. She says it helps to understand the different levels of allyship.

STEPHANIE CREARY:There’s advice, encouragement, which is sort of the lower level types. There’s what’s in the middle, which is..nominating somebody for an opportunity. And then there’s the higher level stuff, which is helping somebody who’s having a hard time speaking up for themselves, particularly on something that is controversial, being that person who’s going to be the voice, and put yourself out there to say, “Hey, this is what’s happening to X person.”

SONIA KANG: Calling out inequity or bias because you care about the workplace culture is referred to as prohibitive voice.

STEPHANIE CREARY: So, when I interview people who have experienced a microaggression, oftentimes what they say is, “I just wish somebody would have said something so I didn’t feel alone. So I don’t know, A, if it’s that people didn’t think that that was bad, even though I thought it was bad, or B, they thought it was bad, but they were too scared to say anything.”

SONIA KANG: It’s on leadership to break the silence. To encourage people to speak freely. We’ve spoken a lot about the role of psychological safety. It allows for such honesty and gives so much momentum to discussions on a variety of issues, including belonging.

STEPHANIE CREARY: So, what are the factors that contribute to silence in the workplace, and the hierarchy that exists in a company or on a team? So, if it’s that every team meeting is dominated by the manager, and the rest of the team members never get to talk, well, that’s already setting yourself up for people not speaking up when there’s a problem. Because we’ve already learned that we’re not here to talk, we’re here to receive.

SONIA KANG: And so, if you actually want people to join the conversation, even when things get tricky, you need to educate your team members and yourself about what causes silence.

STEPHANIE CREARY:And certainly saying, “I would love to hear about the experiences that some of you are having that are not so great. So, if you want to set up a meeting with me and tell me about those, I will listen to them.” Being open to hearing about people’s not so great experiences, is also important to beginning to create a culture where more people do speak out against these negative experiences.

SONIA KANG: Then you have to go further, because just like with people not taking time off because they’re worried about the negative impacts on their careers, employees often stay silent for fear of retaliation.

STEPHANIE CREARY:You have to say, “I want to ensure that whatever you to me is not going to fall back on you in any negative way.” And sometimes what that means, is you have to allow that person who’s going to show a negative experience with you, to have a witness. Either a friend, or someone from HR, or a mentor there present, while they tell you about this bad thing that’s happened.

SONIA KANG: And once the silence is broken, hopefully, everyone starts talking.

STEPHANIE CREARY: And so, if we just start there, it’s like, well, what does it mean to be able to bring out the best amongst people on your team? So it’s not just all about you, it’s also all about them, and empowering them to do a better job? Well, what you need to do is you actually need to provide them with the tools, the resources in order to do that.

SONIA KANG: Belonging can’t happen in a vacuum. Empower managers with the knowledge they need to carry out belonging initiatives. Celebrate employees. Create space to let them show their whole selves, if they want. That will hopefully remove the burden of code switching,  – feeling like you have to switch up the way you speak, dress, act, do your hair, etc. to be accepted at work –  because employees won’t feel like they need to be a different person to belong at work. Encourage and model healthy work/life behaviors. Listen and learn. Meet people on their turf. Create an environment where people feel comfortable confronting bias. So I know that’s a lot, but it paints a pretty awesome picture of what can happen when belonging is prioritized. It’s like that party I was talking about at the beginning, except in this case no one feels left out, or unseen. Sometimes real life experiences outside the office are a great illustration of these workplace concepts. So I want to tell you about something that happened a few years ago on the East Coast. It’s a good story.

LISA GOWER: Nobody was prepared for the emotional needs of these families.

SONIA KANG: This is Lisa Gower. She lives in Amherst, Nova Scotia. Like many communities did a few years ago, hers decided to sponsor several Syrian refugee families.  Amherst is a pretty small town. Population, nine thousand or so.

LISA GOWER: There’s not a lot of diversity. A lot of Caucasian blue collar workers that live here, industrial work.

SONIA KANG: A community so tight knit, even Lisa doesn’t always feel like she belongs, even though she grew up like a few hundred kilometers away, in New Brunswick.

LISA GOWER: It’s really hard to make roots in a community that has grown up together all their lives, right?

SONIA KANG: So imagine being an observant Muslim family, flying into Canada from a refugee camp in Lebanon.

LISA GOWER: I heard comments..about why we would bring Muslims here, the danger, what if they ever did something bad in our community? Why aren’t you helping locals? Why are you helping foreigners?

SONIA KANG: This sentiment wasn’t just shared by neighbors. It came from inside Lisa’s own house.

LISA GOWER: I have a son who’s now 26. So at the time he was about 21 and still young and a little immature and a little naive..Despite his mother’s best efforts to make him well-rounded and open-minded and open-hearted, he succumbed to the fear-mongering. So that was the hard part: create a sense of belonging for a family of newcomers while confronting fear and bias. This was all happening, right up until Mazen, his wife Sultana and their three kids arrived in Amherst. And Lisa was on the Rotary sponsorship committee.

LISA GOWER: Logistics wise, we had a lot of our ducks in a row, but the social, emotional, the challenges. Once they settled and got safe, sometimes that’s when the psychological stuff happens when you are actually finally safe. It happened even with some of the kids, where some of that trauma that they experienced bubbled up. Who’s prepared for that?

SONIA KANG: Even more mundane tasks like going to the doctor, or hairdresser, were a challenge because Sultana wears a headscarf in public, and the town wasn’t set up to accommodate that.

LISA GOWER: But because we learned that, then we knew, okay, we have to book a private appointment where they can take it off respectfully and feel comfortable to do so. But try to have that conversation when they don’t even speak English and understand why they’re so terrified, understand why when they got in cars with Rotarian men that they were so nervous, A, they’re strangers, B, they’re male strangers and C, they’re driving on rural roads with trees everywhere and you’re like, “Where are you taking me?” Like things that they couldn’t articulate and express that came later, we had to learn.

SONIA KANG:  And many things got lost in translation.

LISA GOWER: There were times where I asked questions that might’ve made Mazen uncomfortable, maybe said things that weren’t really appropriate and sometimes having to say, “I’m sorry, and that’s not what I meant. And here’s what I intended.” and not get huffy and be like, “Well, that’s not how I intended, so how dare you take it that way?” But truly just authentically say, “This is what I meant. That’s not how it came out.” And if I asked him any questions, I apologized because I’m nosy, but I’m curious. And so I’ve had those fears too, of have I done enough? Have I said the wrong thing? Have I offended you?…

SONIA KANG: Sometimes being an ally means we’re gonna mess up, but that’s okay because we’re learning and always trying to do better.

LISA GOWER: getting uncomfortable, allowing yourself to feel some shame and some vulnerability and discomfort is the only way that you’re ever [01:04:00] going to make space for growth.

SONIA KANG:  By facing that discomfort honestly, things started to shift. Many people in the community just naturally did some of the things Stephanie Creary talked about. They listened and learned, and they supported. They met Mazen and Sultana at their level by getting curious about their needs and then adjusting certain things to their Muslim customs. And when Mazen looked for work, they treated him like any other guy looking for work instead of an outsider to be feared or tolerated. They treated him like someone who belonged there, as much as they did.

SONIA KANG: Over time, Mazen, Sultana and now four kids settled into the community. Mazen got a job at a food processing plant, and they bought a house.

LISA GOWER: Mazen told us he’s very happy in his second country of Canada. He feels safe and he feels like he has freedom here.

SONIA KANG: With that squared away, Lisa had some reckoning to do back at home with her son. There’s always more you can do to foster belonging.

LISA GOWER: And so we had to have really hard conversations about truth. I think it was an eye opener for him. I think that he learned a lot. I think it encouraged him to start considering two sides of the story and other perspectives, other narratives. We continue to keep talking about it.

SONIA KANG: The work that happened in that small town in Nova Scotia is the same work that can happen, on your team, at your company, or even in your own family.

LISA GOWER: The one thing I’ve learned is that all humans just want to know that they matter, that they belong, right? That they have some sense of validation. And if we just always look around the room and say, “Who looks like me and who am I going to gravitate to to feel most comfortable,” we’re just going to keep doing what we’ve always done and get what we always got. We’ll never evolve.

LISA GOWER: When you get to know someone, when you learn who they are and you withhold judgment to learn who they are, that’s the only way you can build those bridges and cross those bridges is through exposure and experience.

SONIA KANG: I don’t even know if we need to summarize that further. Let’s give Lisa the last word.

LISA GOWER: No matter what you do, your guideposts have to be, am I supporting these people socially and emotionally to feel like they matter? Whether I work with them or I’m bringing them as refugees or I’m just inviting new people into my home for dinner, to me, that’s my ultimate guidepost. And that comes from just being a good human who’s kind and reflective and considerate.

SONIA KANG: Thanks for listening. I’m Sonia Kang. And this is For The Love of Work, an original podcast made possible by Rogers. Find us at…for the love of work dot c-a. Talk soon.