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6 Min Read

4 Steps for HR Leaders to Create a Culture of Belonging

Nicole Klemp

Most people leaders today understand the critical importance of promoting equity and inclusion on their teams and building a more diverse workforce. But one letter usually missing from the DEI acronym that we believe should be included is B—for belonging. 

Even in organizations that prioritize DEI, too many people feel like they don’t truly belong at their workplace or can’t be their authentic selves at work. According to SHRM, a recent Jobsage survey found that while most employees value authenticity,  7 in 10 feel they must adopt a different personality at work. 

Ritu Bhasin, author of We’ve Got This: Unlocking the Beauty of Belonging, has experienced this struggle first-hand, as she shared on a recent episode of 15Five’s HR Superstars podcast. Ritu talked with host Adam Weber about how the personal growth of individual people leaders impacts organization-wide belonging and how the complexity of belonging, leadership, and self-discovery intersect to create inclusion in the workplace and authentic work environments.

What does belonging feel like in a workplace?

Being on a team and belonging to a team can be two very different experiences. So, what does belonging actually feel like? How do you know if employees feel they belong? 

BetterUp recently researched the role of belonging at work. Their data showed that belonging closely relates to other personal experiences, including mattering, identification, and social connection. The unifying thread is that all these experiences revolve around a person’s sense that they’re accepted (as they are) and feel included by the people around them.

This tracks with the way Ritu explained belonging: “I define belonging as the profound feeling that we hold inside ourselves. Of being honored and accepted for who we are, first and foremost by our own self. And this is what inspires us to claim belonging with others… You know that sensation of calm and flow and ease that we have when we’re with a team member or a colleague—or most importantly our leader—where we feel seen, and we feel like we can exhale and just be.” 

Belonging starts with authenticity

A feeling of belonging in the work environment is systemic and directly impacts employee experience. While the feeling itself occurs at an individual level, chances are, if one person doesn’t feel they belong or that they can be their authentic self at work, others across the organization probably feel the same. 

For Ritu, committing to a life of authenticity began within herself, as a professional and a leader. “I started to belong to myself… Which included things like getting people to say my name correctly, talking openly about my cultural identities, being proud as a woman, about my gender identity, no longer conforming as it related to my appearance, and so much more. So, belonging to ourselves is about embracing our authenticity at work. Belonging and authenticity go hand in hand.”

What can HR leaders do to drive a culture of belonging?

For belonging to become systemic, Ritu says it must start at the individual level. But how can HR leaders embrace that concept in practice? 

Ritu recommends the following four steps to start embracing your authenticity and laying the groundwork for others in your organization to be their authentic selves, creating a culture where everyone can feel they belong.

1. Start by creating a life of belonging for yourself 

Earning the title of CEO or CHRO doesn’t automatically come with a feeling of belonging. Even leaders have to put in the work to become comfortable in their own skin at work. As Ritu shared, “Even in our bodies, we literally carry the pain, trauma, and hurt from all of the hateful, harmful things that have come our way from our personal life, starting back when we were children… To create a company culture rooted in belonging, first and foremost as individual leaders, we must do our own healing work… we must start with this place of understanding that our individual healing work is critical as it relates to leadership.”

2. Create a culture rooted in belonging 

Employees look up to their leaders to set the example of how to conduct themselves at work. So, when you bring your authentic self to work each day and make authenticity the norm, you create psychologically safe spaces for employees. “We want people to be who they are—their beliefs, their opinions, how they laugh, what their accent is like, their disagreement, and so much more,” said Ritu. “When you as a leader exercise humility and apologize publicly and openly in front of others when you’re making a mistake, or you engage in bias or make a misstep, you signal to others, ‘I’m a safe place for you to make a mistake because I just made one and said I’m sorry.’”

3. Develop your “core wisdom” 

According to Ritu, your core wisdom is the inner knowing that helps you better understand your own thoughts and feelings and how they impact the way you communicate and react to others. Your core wisdom enables you to tune in and hear your thoughts and feel any discomfort in your body that comes along with those thoughts or feelings. “This is what belonging looks like, when we as a leader use our core wisdom to better modulate and monitor what we’re thinking and feeling—and therefore, how we behave—so that we create space for other people… we signal to everyone around us that this is what it looks like to be an inclusive workplace.” 

4. Stand in your power 

To create a culture of belonging in your organization, you must first genuinely feel it within yourself. And that requires owning who you are as a person and a leader and advocating for others to do the same. As Ritu shared, “It’s about using our voice and our actions to assert ourselves. And it’s about being an ally. It’s about calling out inequities. It’s about apologizing. It’s about using our voice when we are being interrupted to say, oh, actually, I’d like to finish my thought… The more comfortable we become with who we are, the more employees feel comfortable being who they are.”

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