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How new leaders can create a sense of belonging

March 05, 2021 - 1615 views

How new leaders can create a sense of belonging

New leaders can make sure employees feel they belong by taking an 'asking vs. telling' approach and engaging in rigorous relationship building.

There's a certain level of disruption that occurs when new leaders join an organization. Take the following scenario, which I witnessed firsthand at one of my clients. 

He was the fifth senior director in two years to lead a key department in a global technology company. No wonder the group was suspicious. Based on early interviews with key stakeholders, the mandate from company executives was clear: Help this group of talented individuals evolve into a high-performing team.

So, as this person went through the new-leader assimilation process, he intentionally started by meeting one-on-one with each member of the department with one purpose in mind – to firmly establish why this time would be different. 

Typically, the new-leader assimilation process begins with a facilitated session focused on telling the team about the new leader’s personal style. But doing that misses the most important employee concern of all. When employees feel like they are bouncing from one new boss to the next, they have numerous worries, such as: Do I still belong here? Will this leader appreciate me for who I am and what I can contribute? Does my work still matter

My research with Cognizant reveals that when a leader purposefully shapes the employee experience around belonging, team members are better positioned to be more productive and innovative, while ultimately driving stronger individual and organizational results. This demands that leaders start their new-leader assimilation process from a different viewpoint – one that relies on asking vs. telling and pivots around rigorous relationship building.

The qualities of inclusive leadership

Inclusive leaders are inquisitive. They are curious about individual differences and want to understand how others think and feel, and they empathetically value differences in life experiences. As a recent book published by two senior Korn Ferry strategists warns: “The only way to ignite diversity and all the power it brings is to tap into it, explore it [and] understand it through inquisitiveness.”

Employees certainly want to be connected to a team, but they also want to have their differences acknowledged, leveraged and valued. That became abundantly clear at my aforementioned client when one team member shared: “I can do my job with any tech firm. I just want to feel like I belong and am in the service of something.”

Workplace belonging is not a fuzzy concept. The feelings generated by feeling included, valued, connected and welcomed provide a rich framework for dialog about what it means to work.

It’s in the asking, not the telling

So, what can new leaders do to begin the process of building a sense of belonging? They start by asking great questions that get at what matters most emotionally. Here are the questions to ask to understand and address these emotional factors.  

  • Feeling included: Self-confidence and motivation are heavily influenced by whether we are included in the processes and decision making that affects our work. The act of being included signals that we are important – that our work matters.
    • What motivates you to do your best work?
    • Do you have the materials, equipment and information you need to do your best work?
    • Do you have the authority to make decisions about your work?
    • Are your ideas and opinions actively solicited and acted upon here?
    • Do you receive enough feedback, at the right time, on your performance?
    • Is there something at work that you wish you knew more about?
    • Do you feel like your work matters?
  • Feeling valued: We know we are valued when we have trust-based, caring relationships with our managers and co-workers.
    • Do you think your unique talents are valued and utilized by your co-workers?
    • Do you feel like you are recognized for your contributions and successes?
    • Does this organization encourage the free and open expression of ideas and opinions – even if they are different?
    • Do you feel like your co-workers care about you as a person?
    • What’s the one thing we could change about work that would improve your personal well-being?
  • Feeling connected: Creating personal connections with managers and co-workers is an important part of belonging – it’s about confirming fit with the community.
    • Do you have a group of colleagues who support you professionally in this organization?
    • Do you feel a personal connection with your co-workers?
    • What’s the most effective way for me to connect with you?
    • In what ways might we effectively use technology to maintain our connection?
  • Feeling welcome: The need for social acceptance influences almost everything we do.  Sensing that we can be successful based on what we see, hear and feel increases our willingness to be connected to the team.
    • Do you think this organization’s values are aligned with your own values?
    • Do you think people like you can be successful here?
    • In what ways do you see yourself growing professionally here?
    • In what ways do you need my support to be successful here?
    • Do you feel like you belong here?

Belonging matters. New leaders need to signal that building relationships is important to them.  An onboarding process that taps into feelings of belonging provides that rare opportunity to establish personal connections and create a platform for working together in service of something that matters.  

Digital Business & Technology , Diversity & Inclusion belonging , diversity , inclusion , leadership , newleaders

Margaret Schweer


COO and Managing Principal of Tammy Erickson Associates

Margaret Schweer is COO and Managing Principal of Tammy Erickson Associates, a firm committed to helping organizations...

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