A Culture of Connectedness and Belonging: Built from the Bottom and the Top

April 7, 2020      By Christa Manning

Ultimate Takeaway
  • A survey of just over 1,000 workers in five countries showed that less than half feel like they belong at their organizations.
  • The two biggest obstacles to feeling connectedness and belonging at work are too-heavy workloads and a lack of appreciation/recognition.
  • The onus for fostering culture doesn't rest solely on HR; co-workers, managers, and all employees themselves are responsible.

Once upon a time, I worked for a Fortune 100 company that did “stack ranking” performance management. For those who may not be familiar with this particular HR practice, stacked ranking is the process of placing employees on a bell curve according to their performance relative to co-workers—also referred to as a “forced distribution.”

On the whole, the process is demotivating and demoralizing for everyone, from individual contributors to leaders. One day, the HR department sponsored an employee webinar on the elusive ideal of work-life balance. While I may not remember the specifics of the webinar, I cannot forget the comment the presenter made at the start:

“We are a large global corporation. We will not give you work-life balance. You must take it from us.”

Maybe if I had gotten that advice earlier in my tenure there, it would have made a difference. When I look back on it now, though, it’s clear it was too little too late as other policies like performance management made it impossible. I was burned out by the relentless competition with peers for comparative review ratings and the pressure to be a responsive virtual worker in that toxic environment. Ironically, the research I had been doing centered around the value of face-to-face meetings and the critical ways they foster and sustain trust amongst teams in the workplace.

This situation came to mind again when I saw the results of a 2019 HR.com research study on another similarly elusive touchstone of HR discussions today: The Sense of Belonging in the Workplace. A survey of just over 1,000 workers in five countries showed that less than half (45%) strongly agreed that they feel like they belong at their organizations. Almost the same number agreed (to some extent) to feeling burned out.

According to survey respondents, the two biggest obstacles to feeling connectedness and belonging at work (tied at 45%) were: too-heavy workloads and a “lack of appreciation [or] recognition for contributions.” Inadequate leadership or management, a popular target of blame in and out of the HR field, came in third at 37%.

These findings are not really surprising. So why are most organizations not able to do better? Something tells me this has less to do with the policies and programs organizations offer their people, and more to do with how people experience what the workplace offers.

One factor that clearly differentiated those who had a strong sense of belonging was agreeing with the statement: “My organization is supportive.” Sadly, only one in three of those surveyed reported that their organizations conduct regular satisfaction surveys, or that they can get answers quickly to questions or concerns about work and working for the organization.

The onus for fostering connectedness and belonging doesn’t rest on HR alone, though. In this new research, 62% of respondents stated that the people most responsible for making others feel like they belong at work are their co-workers. Managers come in second at 49%, followed by workers themselves at 45%.

Recently, I’ve personally felt the truth in that result. After hearing my current employer is merging with another industry leader, many reached out and asked what I think will happen to our renowned culture moving forward.

I believe our culture will become even stronger in the future—and that’s because of our people.

Culture is definitely established at the top, but an effective and positive culture is sustained by the people in it. After all, fewer than one in three respondents to the research survey identified executive leaders as the ones responsible for creating a culture of connectedness and belonging. It’s everyone’s responsibility to share the workload, treat people with respect, and mutually trust that their peers will do the right thing. The best leaders deputize everyone, and, in doing so, leave their best legacy.

Shortly before I left that Fortune 100 firm, I attended a local town hall meeting with the CEO and his direct reports when he was in town to receive an award. I got there late, so I had to sit in the front row, but decided to make the best of my exposed spot and took the opportunity to ask a candid question.

When I asked about a key investment that had held back progress in my area for the five years I had worked there, the CEO did not have the details. So, he deferred to his team, and one by one, all four of the other execs punted the question down the line. The last one even said, “We have been asking this question for 20 years. Technology like [X] is going to fix that.”

Basically, a no-answer answer.

After the session ended, I slunk to the back of the room to chat with the only other person I knew there, a VP in client management. He laughed and said, “Nice try.”

Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. The CEO said hello and introduced himself by name. Then he said, “Thank you for asking that question. And keep asking it until you get an answer.”

Culture is not just how a company treats its employees, but how employees treat one another. Culture is how senior leaders empower everyone to create an environment of responding to questions and acting on concerns, supporting colleagues as well as customers.

Another wise CEO once said, “The true measure of a company is how they treat their lowest-paid employee.” Notice the they in that sentence. By its nature, they is a pronoun that can mean anyone.

More than anything, culture answers the question, “What’s it like to work with us?” And in that way, our employees will never lose it.

Ready to make a culture change? Click here for expert insights from industry leader Joey Price on how to create a winning culture from the inside out.

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