Creating a Culture of “Belonging” from the Vision to the Work of Transformation

How does an organization achieve a sense of Belonging for its teams? In this article, the third in a series, THEO Executive Group experts Robert O’Toole, Daisy Jenkins, and Jack Cox, MD, share their insights on how we can build cultures where every employee has the experience of knowing they are a valued member of a work community.

When an organization is ready to establish a culture of Belonging, there are many steps to spring this culture to life, the first being creating or refreshing an inviting vision. How does leadership invite people to share in this vision? 

Jack Cox: The vision enables Belonging. It’s the invitation for individuals to align their goals. Vision creates a line of sight on how each individual contributes to the organization and celebrates these contributions.

Daisy Jenkins: It’s the vision that communicates to the employee population that leadership has given significant thought to creating a culture of Belonging and that there is an expectation that this invitation will be accepted and welcomed by employees. 

Robert O’Toole: A good vision is cast in front of people to see the future. It tells a story to capture the heart and invites people to join in and build that sense of Belonging.

Once employees share in the vision of Belonging, how do we prepare them by describing the expected behaviors?

DJ: First of all, leadership must embody the expected behaviors and communicate to employees that these actions are a condition of their employment. However, it’s not just on the employees. They must feel that they can bring their authentic selves to work and that they are valued not only for their contributions but also as human beings who are at the nucleus of the organization. The other thing is that they expect that if they are going to help build a culture of Belonging, they will also be the recipient of Belonging behaviors. It's a two-way street and essential for operationalizing the vision.

This is an extraordinary culture that you're creating. How do you move toward realizing this exceptional culture? You can always measure the success of an organization's culture through employee surveys, but sometimes the best evidence is anecdotal. If I'm a new employee in this culture of Belonging, what’s that “oh wow” moment when I realize that leadership has established a different environment?

RO: New employees are observing and watching. They ask, "Did I make a good decision coming to this organization?” I agree that surveys can measure what the sentiment is, but qualitative feedback is the best, and people will tell you if you ask. I think a new employee would see evidence of the values being lived out, not just the rhetoric or a plaque on the wall in the lobby. Once, I joined an organization, and they did not have any office space available for me on my first day or the first week. I was shoved from location to location, and I did not feel welcomed.  If I had that experience of Belonging in my early stages of joining a new organization, I would sense that I belonged and that I was indispensable.

JC: For new employees, I think they bear some of the responsibility about getting to the “oh wow.” I have always encouraged new candidates to go out and talk with some of the employees and ask, “How does the organization recognize you? How does the organization develop you, and what does the organizational vision mean to you?”  If you get solid answers to those three questions, I think that that's a good reflection that this is an organization that embraces belonging and will optimize your contribution as a new employee.

In past discussions, you've given some tangible examples of Belonging and how it can be deeply ingrained into the culture. We now know how Belonging looks and feels. But once you've calibrated your talent and culture into this revitalized and inviting vision, you're ready to integrate Belonging into your business strategy. How do you set a realistic strategy and position for success? 

DJ: If we're not careful, Belonging becomes something we add to the strategy. However, Belonging is a meaningful outcome, and it requires so many different intentional elements. It is aspiring to and planning for an environment where we have mutual respect and accountability. The work includes having diversity in hiring, equity in promotion and compensation, and authentic celebration of our differences. We also have to remember that the strategy is very important, but you've got to live this with intentionality, and it starts with the leadership who models that behavior and the board that reinforces it. All these people are accountable for ensuring that such a culture is realized.

Most organizations are also very concerned about efficiency. How do you align the quest for efficiency with the desire to have all these voices heard?

DJ:  I'm glad you asked that question because it’s often asked how you can have quality if you have Belonging and diversity. Well, guess what? When people feel that they can bring their best efforts to work and are respected and valued, performance is so much higher. There is nothing worse than being in an organization, and you know they don't value who you are because you look or speak differently. I can tell you from experience that you're so busy trying to fit in that you're not always at your best. But when you can bring your best, you can knock the socks off in performance.

RO: I agree, Daisy. Fast doesn't mean efficient. It takes time to stop and connect with people and meet them where they're at, but I believe the benefit of doing that and developing a Belonging culture, as Daisy said, will pay off dividends.

People reading this are going to say, “I get it. It's transformative. And it's important. But this sounds hard.” So how do you build an infrastructure to ensure that you can overcome some of the hurdles? How do you build for success?

RO: Everything has to be integrated, so the technology that you use to manage all your processes, procedures, and policies, the compensation systems that you design, the reward systems, and all of the infrastructure that supports your strategy comes together to build that sense of “I belong here, I'm a part of it.”

Any other comments?

DJ: Four decades ago, I would run to my car and cry because I was not doing my best work. They said I was a great performer, but they didn't know what great was. Being in a firm like the THEO group, there’s a different energy. Something in your core wants you to be your best, and you don't always have that when you don't belong. I empathize with people, and it pains me that in the year 2022 there are still people who don't feel valued and don't feel they belong. If we can move in this direction, I don't think companies realize how far-reaching it can be. I'm happy, especially with my colleagues, because I know they believe in it. I feel it from them. And it makes me feel amazing.

Jack Cox, MD, MMM, is an expert in improving health care quality and the patient experience, helping health care leaders drive transformation within organizations. Dr. Cox has more than 25 years of health care leadership experience with health systems, hospitals, and medical foundations.

Daisy Jenkins, Esq. specializes in human resources, diversity training, and executive leadership navigation, development, and acceleration. Prior to leading her consulting firm, Daisy held several senior executive human resources positions and is the recipient of numerous leadership honors, including African American Women at the Top in Corporate America (Ebony Magazine).

Robert O'Toole has more than 30 years of experience in human resources with an emphasis on talent and performance management, leadership, organizational development, and employee relations. He is widely recognized for his business acumen and ability to form collaborative teams.

Daisy, Robert, and Jack are Senior Advisors at THEO Executive Group. Together with their clients, THEO invites the Extraordinary in leaders and institutions to deliver their communities wellbeing. THEO is noted nationwide for being agents of organizational transformation with proprietary methodologies that deliver, inspire, and perform.

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