Hana works for a national Australian organisation.
Twelve months ago, she accepted an interstate transfer that she was excited to accept as it meant a promotion and an opportunity to lead a new team project.
But from day one, she worried she had made a huge mistake.
Despite all her best attempts, she didn’t feel accepted by her colleagues.
Hana is of Japanese descent. She is quietly spoken, highly intelligent and always considerate of others.
Her strong work ethic and attention to detail gained her a reputation for diligence and efficiency. Wanting to appear fair and considered, she would listen attentively to her team members before giving a careful and well-thought-through response thinking this would demonstrate her caring and empathetic nature.
She thought her efforts were finally starting to pay off, until her first 360 review when she discovered her team thought her aloof, unapproachable, and arrogant, the complete opposite to how she thought she had tried to portray herself.
In tears, she told me she didn’t know what to do and was contemplating resigning.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you felt like a fish out of water, where everyone around you looks different, talks differently, and thinks differently from you?
What does Hana’s experience make you think?
Does she just need to toughen up?
Do you think she was the wrong person for the new role?
Do you relate to her situation because you too have had that experience of not fitting in, and were made to feel different?
For all the talk about diversity and inclusion, it can be a lonely struggle to feel you truly belong.
Belonging is a fundamental human need. It matters because it’s what sparks your desire to contribute more, to seize opportunities, to step up your performance and fulfill your goals.
It’s also the single most important driver to your health and wellbeing.
Defined by The Cambridge University Press as “a feeling of being happy or comfortable as part of a particular group and enjoying good relationships with the other member of the group,” belonging determines how we show up, present ourselves and compare ourselves to our peers.
A lack of belonging causes harm by creating a culture of low psychological safety and isolation.
Loneliness is known to be as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
According to Deloitte “belonging” is associated with a 56% increase in job performance, 50% reduction in turnover risk and a whopping 167% increase in employer net promoter score and 75% reduction in sick days taken.
Clearly, there is a strong business case for belonging, but the other element at play is that a lack of belonging leads to the expense of a lot of energy in attempting to fit in or covering over our differences. This is exhausting, feels socially awkward and contributes to lower performance.
Think of the effort required to show up day after day wearing that mask, hiding the person you are because you don’t want to draw attention to the fact you feel different from your peers.
In their White paper “Uncovering talent”, Professor Kenji Yoshino and former Deloitte University Leadership Centre for Inclusion Managing Principal Christie Smith identify four categories where people “cover over” their identity.
Maggie is an African American who straightens her hair to de-emphasise her background.
Joseph is a devout Jew, but never wears his kippah at work.
Terry is in her late fifties and is careful not to reveal her age because she worries about ageism.
Teagan is a lawyer and single parent to her 7-year-old son Dylan. She doesn’t talk about Dylan at work in case others think she isn’t committed to her career.
Hung is the son of Vietnamese refugees. He stays quiet when others make comments using Asian stereotypes to avoid drawing attention to himself.
Marty is happily married but chooses not to bring his husband to work functions.
Can you relate to any of these scenarios?
Are you aware of any of your colleagues who may be covering up?
“True belonging”, according to Brene Brown, “doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are.”
Creating and enabling belonging starts with recognising we all have our blind spots and remembering too, that when we come from a place of privilege, it’s harder to notice our own biases and prejudices.
Boosting belonging requires each one of us to focus out, to notice, ask and listen, staying curious to what the experience of individuals is.
If you don’t ask, how will you know?
- It’s about acting in response to concerns being voiced, committing to reducing bias and being intentional in rooting out exclusive behaviour.
- It’s about mentoring and allyship. Taking time to get to know your colleagues, especially those you see as different from you, can uncover invisible threads of relatedness, and assist in understanding another person’s story.
- It’s about turn-taking in meetings, giving everyone a voice and nurturing trust and respect.
- Belonging is not a right or wrong but working towards getting it right more often.
Fitting in is hard.
Nurturing a culture of belonging drives inclusion, tolerance and understanding, that, in a world full of difference enables each one of us to be our own authentic selves.
Dr Jenny Brockis is a board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace-based health consultant, trainer, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her latest book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase