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Workplace Culture And Belonging – Eight Helpful Tips

Written by: Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 
Executive Contributor Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway

All organisations have a culture which is developed over time but one of the difficulties is understanding how culture is defined and how it is operationalised. We can consider culture in terms of norms, codes of behaviour, and traditions. Culture is also predicated on the roots of our values, belief systems, as well as the practises we apply according to codified principles that are systematically upheld.

A group of workers inside a room.

One of the biggest employers in the UK is the National Health Service (NHS). In recent years the culture of this organisation has been challenged because there has been a need to revise some of its practices with a greater focus on vision and values, goal setting and performance, support and compassion, learning and innovation, effective teamwork and collective leadership (Kings Fund).


Everyone living in a social setting develops values that are deeply embedded within a culture, ways of knowing and understanding the world in which we live. Organisations also have cultures that give people a sense of belonging. This existing culture is one that an employee must learn how to navigate through a process of learning.


People joining an organisation must become familiar with its rules, regulations, policies, procedures and standards all of which set the scene for how an organisation operates and functions. Those who apply for a job are expected to comply and fit in with established rules, in other words, this is how we do things around here. In a sense we can use the adage birds of a feather flock together, you must learn the language and patterns of behaviour that are an essential part of an organisation.


When employees are unable to meet certain cultural norms, they are not accepted as part of the group or they are ostracised for being different. Within any organisation whether large or small, there is an expectation that a newcomer will fall in line and learn how to become a ‘team player.’ Team players are those who comply with established rules, patterns and ways of behaving. The expectation that everyone will arrive at work at 9.00 a.m. sit at their desk and begin to work is a cultural norm that employees must conform to, not only to earn money at the end of the month but moreover to become part of what is happening and to build camaraderie and team spirit. However, when a member of the team consistently arrives late for work it breaks the convention and can lead to reprisals not just from the leadership team but among frontline staff who might become resentful and destructive in their behaviour. This is why Neil Thompson (1998) argued that organisations are ‘major sites for power and conflicts of interest’, they can do ‘considerable harm because of the potentially destructive processes that go on between individuals.’


They may victimise and reject the person who is perceived to break the rules by failing to conform. Team-oriented organisations work toward the same goals; thus, everyone needs to get on board to avoid a conflict of interest. I have experience working in a team where the director was dictatorial and made unreasonable demands on staff, failing to consider such issues of stress, fatigue and work-life balance.


The world over, workplace organisations reflect the fundamentals of family life where each member is expected to pull their weight and contribute to the life and the success of the team. However, when people do not take responsibility and ownership, they are not considered to be members of the team in the true sense of the word because they are perceived as lacking commitment, and hence, are considered to be less effective. On the other hand, a person might be meeting all the requirements, working hard, and making a real difference, but they do not fit into the fabric of team life for one reason or another. Over-performing is just as dangerous as under-performing since both can lead to bullying derision and exclusion.


Conformity


The concept of conforming is something we all do to a lesser or greater degree; it depends on how much we want to belong. Conformity is acceptable when a member of staff is required to follow policies and procedures, but it is unacceptable when an employee is forced into untenable positions that diminish their sense of belonging and ultimately result in isolation, boredom, exclusion and loneliness. In his book Closing Ranks: My Life as a Cop Leroy Logan gives an in-depth exposition of his life’s work in the Metropolitan Police. He states that from the onset of his career, he was viewed with suspicion and had to give reassurances that he was not a threat. He knew that ‘the investigating team would not embrace him with open arms.’ As his story unfolds, he tells of how the Police Force closed ranks on him because he did not belong and refused to conform to their expectations.


In my culture children were taught by their parents and other significant adults how to behave in different settings. I was taught what was appropriate in order to avoid dishonouring my family and bringing shame on them. At the very base of my family was the value of respect for others. Generally speaking, children living in the community where I grew up conformed with what they were taught through a process of osmosis and self-regulation. As adults we carry our early learning into the workplace, what we have heard, what we have seen, and the values we have been taught have an immense impact on our behaviour and the types of relationships we develop with others. Behaviour is personal, but it is also related to group affiliation. Employees want to belong because it is a human need therefore, they conform to fit in and be part of the scene or to get a much-desired promotion.

Workers and thei laptops on the table.

Tip 1: Examine your beliefs


Believing is related to how the process of belonging begins. The stronger the belief that we want to belong, the more likely it is that unconsciously we will accept and tolerate unacceptable behaviours simply to fit in. A good example of this is the belief that becoming a group member will bring rewards. In order to belong the belief must first exist that it is vital to become part of the group. In the workplace, there are cliques that are exclusive and shut people out on many grounds. For example, those who join a works golf club make it an exclusive activity for those who are part of the group and therefore belong. There might also be other factors and dimensions of belonging that include or exclude people, such as gender, race, class, ethnicity, religion, politics or even personal presentation.


Beliefs about people from different backgrounds can lead to intolerance, discrimination and oppressive acts which are based on the belief that some people are unworthy or do not have the same entitlements or rights as people deemed to belong. This type of belief makes those who are perceived as not belonging appear to be less valued and less accepted because they do not meet a set of criteria. One of the best ways to support a sense of belonging is to believe that every person is entitled to grow and be given opportunities to develop. Believing that we all have a right to belong helps to promote collective leadership.


Tip 2: Watch out for your values


One of the values that should be embedded in our thinking is the right for people to be respected and treated with dignity. This can be achieved by challenging inappropriate behaviours usually communicated verbally and nonverbally. The value that some people do not belong to a group can lead to derision, exclusion and discrimination. The best term to use for this is ‘freezing out.’ The law has made provisions for action to be taken against direct and indirect forms of discrimination. Such laws need to be enforced, reviewed and monitored regularly. We cannot change people, but we are responsible for the values we hold. Unacceptable behaviours must be challenged and zero tolerance operationalised in meaningful ways. To do so will give those who are most at risk the right to complain knowing that action will be taken to support them in speaking out. In a recent broadcast on the BBC of incidents of misconduct by some MPs it was stated that the complaints made by the victims of bullying and inappropriate touching were not expedited with urgency. The long and torturous process of having their complaints heard not only led to isolation but to social injustice.


Tip 3: Create a sense of safety and acceptance


We all need to feel safe as a human right. It is impossible for people to feel safe or comfortable if they cannot develop a sense of belonging. Maslow’s hierarchy teaches that belonging leads to self-fulfilment. It helps with building positive and productive relationships. It also supports a sense of identity and connectedness. However, the juxtaposition is that when a person cannot relate to others it increases their isolation and they feel disconnected from what is going on around them. They may over-compensate for feeling like an outsider by taking on roles that rob them of their identity. It is impossible to fit round pegs into square holes, therefore people who do not have a sense of belonging will experience negative and sometimes contradictory feelings that will deprive them of what they are seeking to achieve, namely belonging. True belonging begins and ends with acceptance of one’s self and being authentic. A false sense of self-worth is what is imposed by others to create a quasi-version of belonging. Therefore, as a leader, you must create a sense of safety and acceptance.


Tip 4: Show commitment to equality


Demonstrating commitment to equality requires making clear statements that will assure each member of staff of their right to belong, and to express their views knowing that leaders will take action when this rule is undermined. A culture of fairness and a vision of what people bring to the table should be written into vision statements. The commitment goes far beyond rhetoric to actually taking actions that are effective and meaningful. Those who are on the margins of a culture that fails to recognise their talents, abilities and contribution will never make it possible for people to feel a sense of belonging. Thus, creating a written policy on how exclusion will be tackled is imperative.


Tip 5: Be transparent


Open and transparent discussions and conversations must be held in the board room and trickled down to each member of staff. Discussions should include and contain statements concerning the importance of people’s health and well-being. One effective tool is to provide a statement that is written and displayed on walls so that people can see and read them regularly. Keywords such as Empowerment, Acceptance, Difference, and Equality can be used to demonstrate transparency. Actions to support those who are being excluded should be explicitly written into the mission statement alongside actions to be taken if policies are disregarded.


Tip 6: Be curious about belonging and its impact on workplace culture


It is important for leaders to be curious about what is happening across each level of their organisation. This can be achieved by setting up small interest groups that will ask people how inclusive the organisation is and what helps them to feel a sense of belonging. Findings from the interest groups should be reported back to the senior management team and an action plan should be devised to manage issues of exclusion. Inviting different members of staff to participate in discussions at management meetings will help to ensure that people have a platform where they can speak about what could help them to feel a sense of belonging as well as where they fit into the structure and culture of an organisation. It all begins with being curious about behaviours that are destructive among staff members.


Tip 7: Help others to make a genuine contribution


Set up systems for monitoring bullying and unacceptable behaviours that go against stated principles and organisational values. It may even mean becoming aware that everyone has the right to make a genuine contribution and not tokenistic gestures. This will begin by ensuring that each member of staff is given a handbook explaining expectations and how to meet them as well as the action to be taken if standards are not met. A good tool for monitoring is to set out a list of questions designed to test knowledge of what is contained in the handbook. These questions can be given periodically to existing employees and to new employees as they join the organisation as an integral part of their induction programme and are mandatory for all staff. During team meetings become consciously aware of those who lack a voice and give them the opportunity to become involved and make every effort to include them. This approach will provide a supportive framework for all staff.


Tip 8: Encourage compassionate support


A culture of compassionate support is essential. Compassionate support takes the individual and the physical working environment into account as well as their emotional struggles. It is this type of support that provides a sense of belonging even under conditions where a member of staff is under-performing. The key to compassionate support is to build a framework of safety that is intended to uphold the rights of each individual to belong. Compassionate support focuses on empathy and targeting the right type of support to help those members of staff who are on the margins of an organisation.


Summary


An organisation that focuses on inclusivity will have the desire to attract a range of people from different cultural groups, and at the same time help them to acquire a sense of belonging without changing who they are. As Brené Brown rightly said: ‘True belonging does not require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are.’


If you are struggling with how to help your staff feel a sense of belonging contact Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway now to take advantage of a free half-hour coaching session.


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Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway Brainz Magazine
 

Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway began her career in 1982 when she qualified as a social worker. After making child-care her specialism, she became a team leader and a manager. She has worked for forty years in the public and private social care sectors making a significant contribution to the development and learning of others. In her role as a manager, she developed leadership skills which she has used to teach and influence others. She became an educationalist working as a lecturer for many years. As a life coach, keynote speaker and author Dr Ince-Greenaway is known for her enthusiasm and passion concerning such issues as leadership, social justice, social inclusion, empowerment, personal development as well as the development of others.

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