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We all want to belong. It’s a profound human need, fundamental to our ability to thrive as humans, at work and beyond. Belonging goes way beyond being included. It means being welcomed, being wanted, being at home and being understood for who we are.

The kinds of conversations we have at work have the power to create more or less belonging. Real, respectful and honest conversations build deep trust and trust fosters belonging.

Our sense that we belong comes from the complete range of our life experiences. The way we’re received when we enter a room or a meeting, the way we’re spoken to and spoken about and the way people handle our names are just some of the variables that tell us whether we belong. Not all of this starts or finishes at work. People are contextual: we exist as part of a whole range of living systems, including the organisations or groups where we work. Our life stories already have chapters written before we even start our working lives. Maybe we’ve arrived where we are now carrying a strong sense that somehow we belong, or that we don’t.

Creating deep trust and belonging is not always easy. It can feel like a daunting, complex, shifting task. Misunderstandings or sheer ‘busyness’ get in the way.

What happens to us when we feel we don’t really belong where we are?

  • We don’t trust the person in front of us or don’t feel safe to be ourselves.
  • We don’t really know what’s expected of us. Or we do and don’t buy into it.
  • We feel taken for granted.
  • We pursue a different agenda and don’t identify with the organisation.
  • We have things we need to say, but can’t say them to the people who most need to hear them.
  • We see the future as it’s shaping up around us and don’t like what we see.

It’s pretty unusual for people to front up and tell leaders all this. That’s a leadership pain point for all levels and an organisational risk too; those things that go on under the radar. It’s well known that information gets increasingly filtered and sanitised as it moves through organisational hierarchies, so that by the time it reaches the C-Suite, the reported experience of what it’s like to work in the organisation can be extremely disconnected from most people’s lived experience. All leaders face this invisible challenge. Dr Megan Reitz of Hult Ashridge speaks directly to that risk in her deeply insightful work on speaking truth to power, and how leader’s power can inadvertently silence truth-speaking in their organisations. How your power silences truth | Megan Reitz | TEDxHultAshridge.

This has strong implications for sustainable performance in the organisation, because people don’t simply opt out when they feel they don’t belong. Sometimes they opt into ways of acting that undermine the business.

So what if leaders had a practical way to make a positive difference?

While there certainly isn’t a neat and naïve single solution to this complex challenge, there are practical things leaders can do to make a real difference.

At The Oxford Group, we believe that inviting people into high quality, authentic, well framed conversations directly contributes to creating more trust and belonging in organisations. This impacts levels of inclusion, engagement and sustainable performance, as well as improving talent attraction and retention.

If you’re invested in building truly sustainable, inclusive organisations, we invite you to explore the quality of your conversations. Our flagship “5 Conversations” approach, already benefitting organisations globally, guides leaders every step of the way to having more authentic, more inclusive and more impactful conversations.

What steps can leaders take to increase belonging and sustainable engagement? What will people feel when it’s working?

  • Contribute to build more inclusivity by building a trusting relationship – ‘we meet one another as our real selves.’
  • Release and focus people’s potential and energy by agreeing mutual expectations – ‘we’re honestly invested in one another’s success. I know what matters to the person who leads our team, and why, and they know what matters to me and why. We’re clear that we help each other get there.’
  • Inspire people to honour and leverage their strengths by showing genuine appreciation for them – ‘when we deep dive into my strengths and how I can apply them and let them shine, it feels great.’
  • Be brave in challenging unhelpful behaviour. It stop problems magnifying – ‘we can say even awkward stuff simply, with clarity and respect. We’re honest and kind. We don’t hide from it. We ask, we listen and we figure it out.’
  • Be an ally not a spectator. Truly explore building the future with your people – ‘I feel I matter here. Someone’s helping me realise my dreams. I feel invested in.’

If you want to create a truly inclusive culture where all talents can thrive, start here. Build more belonging, one conversation at a time.

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