In this episode of The Forum Podcast, Adriana Ponce-Matteucci (Rubicon Programs) provides an introduction into the concepts of othering and belonging and practical ways to start introducing belonging to your organization or workplace.
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Belonging is a fundamental need for human beings. The feeling that you don’t belong can be as stressful as physical pain. When you add elevated fears about health or economic uncertainty, belonging at work becomes more important than ever for employee engagement.
If you have stopped your efforts at inclusion, you are missing a critical component.
- Deep knowledge and understanding of Belonging, Othering, and Inclusion
- Master the process for consensus building on shared language
- Capacity to analyze and evaluate your company’s environmental, social, cultural state of belonging
B is for Belonging – Download
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Ben Rue: Hello, and thank you for tuning in for today’s podcast, B is for Belonging: How Defining the Concepts of Othering and Belonging is the Bridge to the Future with Adriana Ponce-Matteucci or Rubicon Programs. This podcast’s sponsored by Best Buy. I’m Ben Rue, program associate here at The Forum on Workplace Inclusion.
Belonging is a fundamental need for human beings. The feeling that you don’t long can be as stressful as physical pain. When you add elevated fears about health or economic uncertainty, belonging at work becomes more important than ever for employee engagement. If you have stopped your efforts at inclusion, you are missing a critical component.
In this podcast, you’ll gain [00:02:00] deep knowledge and understanding of belonging, othering, and inclusion to master the process for consensus of building on shared language and learn capacity to analyze and evaluate your company’s environmental, social, cultural state of being. Adriana was promoted into talent specialist in 2019. As a member of the talent team, she leads the organization towards achieving strategic goals including acquiring and stewarding necessary resources.
In her role, she researches and writes about the latest in HR and talent recruitment, retention, and rewards to increase engagement so that Rubicon can have a workplace culture that is staff-centered.
Adriana Ponce-Matteucci: Hello, everyone. You might be wondering why does belonging matter? It’s because belonging is one of our fundamental human needs that is hardwired into our DNA. Belonging allows staff to show up as their authentic selves which increases productivity, innovation, morale, retention, and engagement. That’s why trainings about diversity and inclusion are not enough.
Building belonging is essential to the success of any team, especially remote teams. This is because working remotely can increase one sense of isolation. When organizations make efforts for their remote teams to connect, the sense of isolation can be decreased significantly. This session will amplify the importance of belonging and how you can start immediately ensuring belonging at your organization.
Before I start talking about how you can ensure belonging, let me start by introducing what belonging and othering mean. Belonging is defined as the feeling of security and support when there is a sense of identity and acceptance. Othering is the opposite of belonging. It is where the us versus them way of thinking starts to develop.
Based on a nationwide survey of almost 1,800 workers conducted BetterUp, [00:04:00] they found employees with a high sense of belonging took 75% fewer sick days than employees who felt excluded. These sick days equated to almost 2.5 million worth of lost productivity each year. Excluded employees also had a 50% higher rate of turnover than employees who felt they belonged, costing organizations about $10 million annually.
Employees also saw a 56% increase in job performance when they felt like they belonged, resulting in a gain of 52 million per year, which is a lot of potential revenue lost or gained for every 10,000 employees. Othering is only one of many ways belonging can be impacted. From the way we dress to the company’s lexicon, we can be sending signals of exclusion. For example, are there different dress codes or expectations within your organization based on your job roles?
It’s been my experience that in nonprofits, the staff who work directly with clients dress more casually to make their clients more at ease while working together. The same is true for the executive team where the dress code is a little more formal because they work closely with partners and funders in the organization. Again, this is all to make the people they work with feel more comfortable partnering.
Both are great in each scenario, but what happens when the two groups of people come together? If not careful, it starts to become an us versus them scenario because of a subconscious separation that takes place.
Another way this can occur is when certain departments get more resources or training than others. This sends a message and/or signals we perceive and use to identify who is and isn’t one of us and treat them accordingly. This way of thinking is great when competing in sports, but not so much in the workplace. [00:06:00] This is counterproductive when the goal is to work as a team. That’s why when people who feel like outcasts may start to compete or bicker with their colleagues, instead of communicating and collaborating.
Another thing that can be harmful to belonging is the use of pronouns and names. Pronouns and names actually matter. When it comes to being our authentic selves at work, our preferred pronouns and names play a big part. They are a key element to the multiple layers of our identities. Let’s say if your preferred pronouns are they and them and you constantly get referred to as he or she, after a while, it becomes offensive and hurtful. You might start to feel unheard or maybe even unwelcome after correcting people so many times.
Another example is being called the wrong name. I know anyone out there with a name that starts with A like mine, you might get called everything under the sun but your actual name. I always hear things like Andrea, Adrian, Audrey, and I just say, “No, it’s Adriana, but you can call me Adrie.” These may seem like small issues to some, but after a lifetime of always having to correct people, you start to develop what’s known as the mosquito effect, which is a metaphor for microaggressions people face daily. Imagine being stung over and over again. At some point, everyone reaches their limit and has what I call a human moment.
Here’s where others might see this as an overreaction. If one is not careful in the workplace, these microaggressions can be seen as harassment, especially when someone intentionally continues to address their coworkers incorrectly after being asked not to. I only think it’s polite to get it right and I always tell new hires, “If you’re not sure how to address someone, just ask.”
[00:08:00] The first thing that could be impacting belonging at your organization is working together while apart. Since March 2020, many organizations have had to pivot and adapt to working remotely. In this shift to working remotely, there’s been this unintentional disconnect for new hires. This is due to they were not part of the daily team building that happens naturally when people are able to work side by side.
It’s difficult for new hires to learn their coworkers’ quirks when they are working remotely. There is a lot that happens organically in those coffee break moments. Understandably, no one can predict how long we’ll be working remotely, or if we’ll ever go back to working side by side like we did in the good old days of 2019, but what I do know is that leaders need to recreate opportunities for their teams to build belonging, which is what I call the bridge to the future.
Here are some tips or steps to building belonging. First, connections bridge gaps. Many employers underestimate the benefit of their new hires having an onboarding mate. Ideally, this would be an experienced team member that would mentor the new hire, checking in periodically to see if the new hire needs any additional training or support.
A study by BetterUp found the addition of an ally to the team counteracted staff feeling left out. Some other ways to increase belonging remotely are to have virtual game nights like Pictionary trivia or any other classic group games. You could also host virtual lunches or coffee breaks as drop-in spaces for staff to stay connected in a casual atmosphere.
Here, they can recreate those coffee break moments and discuss topics outside of work. From these conversations, staff could even be inspired to start affinity groups to have weekly discussions on films, [00:10:00] books gaming or whatever other affinity group of interest. Peer learning groups or employee resource groups also called ERGs are similar but are more focused on skill development, career advancement, or community building through shared experiences.
Whether workplace exclusion is intentional or unintentional, it still has an impact. One way for transformative change to take place is if we can experience the workplace from someone else’s perspective. Imagine how many times you have said to yourself, they just don’t get it because they don’t do my job, and to some degree, you’re right. An example of this came right from BetterUp where their remote workers felt excluded because all of their team meetings were being held at their San Francisco office.
As a way to build empathy for their remote coworkers’ experiences, they implemented remote weeks where the whole company would go remote to better understand what it’s like to be the person on the hangout. What they changed as a result was their meetings activities to better help include remote employees.
Another way for building empathy is to conduct cross trainings to build a better understanding of each other’s job responsibilities. Next, the healing power of storytelling can be a powerful tool for building belonging. Storytelling has a healing power because when stories of exclusion and strategies to improve the situation are shared, it leads group members to open up about their own experiences.
When we can share these types of experiences, there is a restorative healing in our resilience and bond-building with others who, to put it simply, get it.
BetterUp tested this exercise by asking the excluded team members questions like, what would you say to support someone else who felt left out, and what [00:12:00] would you change to make the situation more fair, inclusive, and enjoyable? They also had them read reports by others who had been excluded, including how they would work through the experience.
What BetterUp found was that all three of these post-exclusion interventions worked to ease the pain of exclusion, with the first two questions being most impactful so much so that people who were excluded afterward had similar or higher levels of engagement as those who had felt fully included throughout the simulations.
The more frequent storytelling opportunity you can implement regularly is starting your team meetings with check-in questions that allow for stories to be shared. These check-in questions will create a space for everyone to feel part of the team and like they belong. I find the healing power of storytelling and other HR restorative practices to be amazing because when we can process life events, it allows us to move forward and build a community with shared experiences and language.
But how do we build a shared language? Language can build relationships but it can also impact one’s sense of belonging. When using inclusive language, you can create a sense of being valued, respected, and part of the team for those around you. Inclusive language is thought of as language that avoids the use of certain expressions or words that might be considered to exclude particular groups of people.
Inclusive language can also be useful when wanting to avoid offending people based on stereotypes or personal perceptions. Two components of inclusive language are person-first language and identity-first language. [00:14:00] Person-first language is for people with disabilities, and when referring to a person with a disability, you should put the person first, rather than the disability. For example, you should say a person who is blind or visually impaired rather than a blind person. This emphasizes the individual and not their disability.
On the other hand, identity-first language is the opposite. You refer to someone as their identity first, then as a person. For example, you would say an epileptic person instead of a person with epilepsy. Which to use is based on the individual that is being addressed and varies from person to person, so don’t make assumptions. To be inclusive and respectful of people with disabilities, you should ask which terms that person feels more comfortable with.
Now, here are some tips for building inclusive language. When in doubt, ask. If you’re not sure how someone prefers to be addressed, just ask them but make it clear they can choose not to identify as well. Another tip is, avoid company or team acronyms. If you need to use acronyms, create a glossary for new hires. Use plain language in your writing rather than expressions. What may seem common to you might offend or be misunderstood by others.
Use designs or images that reflect a diverse group of people. This helps new hires see themselves reflected as well as potential clients or partners.
Now, here are some ways to analyze your communication. We have to be mindful of how we communicate in all formats, not just verbally. Inclusive language is not just for face-to-face communication. It also matters when you write your job descriptions, emails, chat, or text messages. To ensure your communication is not exclusive, [00:16:00] there are many online tools you can use, such as Textio, a writing tool that identifies if you’re using gendered language in your writing, or words with strong feminine or masculine associations.
There’s also Conscious Style Guide. A resource on conscious language that breaks down exclusive language into categories. Lastly, there’s also a hidden bias test that you can take created by psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington to uncover how your bias might be hindering you from expressing yourself more inclusively.
If you walk away learning only one thing today, I hope that it’s our words can have a lasting impact on others. They can either break people down or lift them up. That’s why I believe it is essential we use inclusive language, something so simple yet empowering can help develop a culture where everyone feels respected and safe. When people feel respected, they will go above and beyond to contribute to their communities, clients, and organization’s mission.
I’d like to close with my favorite quote that, for me, best describes belonging, which is “diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice heard.”
Ben Rue: Thank you so much Adriana for that wonderful podcast. Thank you to our listeners for joining and a special thank you to our sponsor Best Buy. New episodes of The Forum Podcast are available at workplaceforums/podcast. You can also find us on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Anchor, and Stitcher. Thank you again for listening. Have a great day.
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Augsburg educates students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders. An Augsburg education is defined by excellence in the liberal arts and professional studies, guided by the faith and values of the Lutheran Church, and shaped by its urban and global settings. Learn more at Augsburg.edu.
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