How to Create Cultural Belonging in the Workplace

Bonnie Elgie

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Belonging is a fundamental human need. Author and researcher Brené Brown puts it another way: “When you get to a place where understand that love and belonging, your worthiness, is a birthright and not something you have to earn, anything is possible.

The idea of culture of belonging is a timely and relevant one for organizations looking to attract and retain a diverse workforce. Jessie Sutherland, founder of Intercultural Strategies, talks with us about how to create a culture of belonging in the workplace, and her insights include:

  • The importance of practicing new skills to help to build the culture of belonging;
  • How to bridge the gap between lived experience and the system influencers;
  • The resources tech companies can access to create a pathway to change; and
  • The importance of understanding worldviews when hiring.

It’s a fascinating conversation and one that will challenge us all to think of our role in creating cultural belonging in our workplaces.

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Creating a sense of belonging in the workplace is every bit as important as finding where you belong personally. It’s a passion that has fuelled Jessie Sutherland — an international speaker, trainer, consultant and the founder of Intercultural Strategies — who has devoted her career helping  organizations and communities to engage diversity, build belonging and ignite intercultural collaboration.

“I was always very attuned to the people most impacted by social problems and supported their voice and leadership,” she says. “And what I realized was that the crux of any given human problem is a culture of belonging. In order to address complex social and people-made problems, we need to build cultures of belonging.”

Jessie says that a culture of belonging includes two-way, or even multi-way, relationships. First of all, there are the people who are impacted by the social problem you are trying to address: the ones who were “pushed out”, and who can speak to what relationships and values were eroded in the process. Their journey to build a culture of belonging includes asserting their voice, dignity and leadership. Then, there is the rest of the community, including system influencers, like HR leaders, who will help to build the culture of belonging by practicing new skills. Skills like listening in new ways to the people most impacted and acting on what they hear to support their voice, dignity and leadership. And then together collaborate on facilitating change – from attitudes and behaviours to policies and practices.

I believe that every single human being has a gift to contribute to the whole, and culture of belonging is the key.

For human resource leaders, an example of a people-made problem could be racism in the workplace. From a belonging lens, the people most impacted by racism in the workplace are the experts.  They know what activities, behaviors, attitudes, policies and practices create the conditions for racism to exist and persist. The system influencers are the ones that have influence over the whole workplace culture such as the CEO, senior leadership and HR directors. The gap exists between lived experience and the system influencers who, if they don't have the lived experience, might miss what the real problem is.

Jessie explains how to start to bridge the gap. “When you talk to people with lived experience, they'll know the pathway to creating change. When system influencers listen to people with lived experience they will be better equipped to influence the systems that have the potential to create lasting change, such as orientation and training or shifting certain policies and practices. There's all sorts of different things system influencers can do after they've listened, and then acted on what they heard to support the voice, dignity and leadership of those most impacted and together build a culture of belonging.”

To illustrate, Jessie suggests that if tech companies are trying to figure out how to include people with disabilities or Indigenous people, there are easy ways to understand how to create a culture of belonging such as reaching out to non-profit organizations supporting impacted people and asking meaningful questions to people with lived experience. In the case of people with disabilities, where to they naturally convene? How can we convene this community and find out what supports they need to be successful in the tech industry?

When it comes to hiring, it is important to understand the importance of worldviews, particularly when companies are keen on increasing Indigenous engagement. For example, for some cultures who value being humility and acknowledging collective effort they may not be comfortable answering a question about a time when they were really successful. When the same question is reframed as “tell us about a time you were part of a team that contributed to an organization’s success?”, the same individual may have a lot more to share. Simple things like changing interview questions and including the presence of elders in the hiring process and can significantly increasing Indigenous representation in their workforce.

From a retention standpoint, cultures of belonging are not an end product but an on-going process. When companies work to build a robust culture of belonging, Jessie recommends they embed reflective learning practices. In this way,  teams will have regular opportunities  to internalize these values in their actions, behaviors, and decisions. Reflective learning practices also offer human resources leaders a framework to turn agreed upon values into guiding principles to inform the creation of policies and practices that are essential for strengthening and sustaining cultures of belonging.

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“You can do this by turning your company’s values into guiding principles by adding verbs. For example, if your value is diversity. Are you promoting diversity, engaging diversity, or ensuring diversity? What are the values and principles that your organization is standing up for? How is a company helping teams internalize these values and principles and seeing concrete changes in attitudes and behaviours? By asking these questions, you can create reflective learning practices,” she says. A simple tool, such as a brief survey at the end of a meeting, will provide a temperature read on an organization’s culture of belonging.

When we asked Jessie about neuro-diversity and building cultures for belonging, she says prefers to use the terms “neuro typical” and “neuro creative”.

“The way I look at neurodiversity is that really we are all neuro diverse. There is no one brain that is exactly wired like another brain,” says Jessie. “Neuro creative people have a way of seeing patterns and coming up with solutions that a neuro typical person might not.  I recommend having Belonging Matters Conversations (a program offered by Intercultural Strategies) with any group a company wants to engage, hire and retain.  That way you will build quality relationships and understand better what works for them. For example, you may discover what their rhythm is in productivity and have flexibility around hours. For others, you may come to understand that some people need help getting started or with prioritizing, so having tools in place that people can use to keep them on track and work together collaboratively respecting differences and leveraging everyone’s strengths.”

To be an innovative company, it’s essential to think about what is the diversity needed to foster innovation? This includes cultural diversity, as well as diversity in how our brains are wired. The typical way that people get evaluated around productivity and performance don't necessarily take into consideration diverse ways our brains are wired. The wiring of the brains that are excluded from that performance scale, or don't rate as well, are actually the ones that may see opportunities for innovation, or see things in a different way, and therefore see solutions where others don’t.

Adds Jessie, “The more diverse a company becomes, the greater their competitive edge in the global market. If you have people within your organization that have a heritage from the countries you're working with, you have cultural and language intel built into your team that will give you a competitive advantage.”