The Holy Grail of Culture is Belonging

The Holy Grail of Culture is Belonging
Caroline Baldwin   by Caroline Baldwin. Published: 08/04/2019

On Thursday 28th March, a select group of business leaders gathered in the Merrion Hotel in Dublin as part of our “Accreate Invites” series to hear the fascinating insights of Dr. Anita Sands and Neil Sands on the creation of winning business cultures.

Under the guidance of our two subject matter experts, we explored the theory of “Belonging”, which is what I like to call the advanced corollary of Diversity and Inclusion.

Anita opened the session by boldly stating:

“I am here this evening not because I have an idea, but because “an idea has me” and that idea is Belonging.”

She confessed that two years ago Belonging was not even on her radar. She was interested rather in how companies innovate and how they drive change. But as she started to peel back the layers of the onion, she realised that if people in an organisation do not feel that they belong there, you won’t even get out of the gate when it comes to innovation or change.

As a female board director and a leader in the technology sector, Anita spends a lot of time advocating for diversity and inclusion. It is something she cares about with passion - not because it’s a nice thing to do or because it is the right thing to do, but because she believes that diversity and inclusion are fundamental business imperatives.

Businesses without diversity, she says, will struggle to contend with the threats and opportunities with which they are faced with today. In this era of rapid change, boards will not be able to make the best decisions and protect the long term interests of shareholders if they do not have the right set of skills and experiences around the table.

Every single person knows what it feels like to not belong. We can all think of a moment when we wanted in - and it didn’t happen.

While companies have been genuinely trying to improve on D&I, Anita contends that we haven’t really moved the dial; not here in Ireland and not in the US. Why? Because diversity and inclusion are necessary, but they are not sufficient. The Holy Grail is Belonging.

Working really hard to build diverse teams is not enough because, unless people feel that they belong, you will never realise the full benefit of having them there in the first place. Anita sums this up beautifully when she says:

“If Diversity is the seeds, and Inclusion is the crop, Belonging is how you harvest them”

Anita warns that when competing in this incredibly tight labour market, having a culture where people can bring the best versions of themselves to work every day has to be a culture where they feel they belong.

Reflecting on her time as a student at Queens University in Belfast, there were only seven girls in her graduating class in Physics – every single day they encountered comments or behaviours that made it clear others thought that they did not belong. She recalls living in Belfast, in the political landscape as it was, with her Southern accent and a surname “Sands”, which implied that she belonged to one tribe and not the other, whether she believed that or not. The sense of belonging on Northern Ireland was visceral. As Anita then pursued her career in Canada and North America as a young Irish woman in her 20’s, Anita always felt a strong sense of belonging to one tribe – the Irish diaspora. On Wall Street, where she worked with large, conservative banks she says everything that made her, her, was seen as a liability and not an asset. The message was very clear – Anita you don’t really belong here. More recently Anita’s journey has taken her out to Silicon Valley to the technology industry where she understood, perhaps for the first time, how incredible it feels to really belong. Everything that makes her Anita – her creativity, her ideas, her energy and passion and her “oddball” background makes her an asset.

All in all, the thread that ties Anita’s journey so far together is Belonging; amazing moments when she felt like she did and really painful times when she knew she didn’t. And everyone has their own version if this self-same story.

Imagine you had to go through the feeling of not Belonging every day just to make a living. Why is it so powerful? Because Belonging is a fundamental human need. Anita reminds us that, as humans, we are wired to want to belong – our survival used to depend on it. How can we as leaders expect to get the best out of our people when they are only bringing a fraction of themselves to work? How can we harness all of their creativity when they are spending so much of their energy just trying to fit in?

All the research shows that when you achieve a culture of Belonging, the upsides are huge; higher retention, lower attrition, a better talent brand, fewer sick days, greater productivity, better employee satisfaction scores, more collaboration and more innovation. Alternatively when your employees don’t feel they belong, the downsides are pretty damning.

For companies that do understand the power of belonging it unlocks the collective talent of your employees. Because for businesses today, Anita believes, being innovative is not a “nice to have” it is a fundamental imperative. Diverse perspectives, new ideas, creativity, risk taking - these are all the “super powers” that companies are trying to build”.

But what companies may not realise is that having employees who feel that they do not belong are Kryptonite to innovation, says Anita. Belonging has the power to liberate ideas. Think of it as the gateway through which your employees have to pass in order to bring 100% of themselves to the job. You want to create cultures that communicate to your people we want everything that you have to give and, not only that, it is ok for you to “be” you. This enables you to harvest and benefit from the diversity and inclusion that you have worked so hard to create.

“Employees who feel that they do not belong are Kryptonite to innovation”.

As Anita looks back on her career, defined by moments of Belonging - out of all of it one lesson has become really clear and that is that there is a monumental difference between being included and feeling like you belong.

When she looks to the future Anita sees a world in which the question of Belonging will become more precarious, and more consequential by the day. These are complex, confusing and challenging times. Last year one-quarter of a billion people globally are migrants according to the UN. This massive movement of people will challenge our very notion of what it means to belong to one place or another. Just look next door to our neighbours and Brexit which raises such complex questions about Belonging not just for the UK. But for all of us who are affected by it. Here at home – 17% of our population is made up of people who are not born in Ireland - people who come from 200 different countries which bring with it so many benefits but also the complexity of being a multi-cultural society.

Anita concluded by stating that, for organisations to succeed and for our economy and our country to continue to flourish, the onus is on all of us to cement Belonging into all of our futures.

Neil Sands followed Anita onto the podium to share his direct experience of how the creation of Belonging fueled and enabled cutting edge innovations within a wide range of organisations.

Over the course of Neil’s time in Silicon Valley, he has had the opportunity to work with large companies and a number of successful small start-ups and he was responsible in particular at Salesforce for Ignite – a programme and a professional services offering that brought design thinking to major Salesforce customers.

His responsibility in leading that charge was to find a diverse group of people, be they artists, entrepreneurs, technologists, accountants, design thinkers and even a couple of salespeople and bring them together under the Ignite team. The team at Ignite were pioneers in design thinking for technology. Making this truly diverse team feel like they belonged was a very important part of the work because at the centre of design thinking is the human experience. As they grew the team from just three to almost 1,000, a continuous and conscious effort was necessary to embed this sense of Belonging as they built technology services for customers.

At Ignite, Neil and the team built a methodology focused on human beings because when they focused on this they found that some very interesting things happened. For example, because of the focus on making people belong, the applications to join the Ignite team skyrocketed; attrition was fractional when compared it to anywhere else in the industry and they saw a number of Ignite teams popping up across competitors who also recognised the power of the Belonging theory and replicated the approach.

At Ignite, Neil focused on Belonging very consciously, but, he says - here’s the thing that most companies do not appreciate:

“Whether an organisation decides to involve itself actively or passively in the question of Belonging and to attempt to shape or actively influence the sense of belonging – Belonging is happening anyway”.

Many companies have not yet begun to think about this but there are a few that have started to do this very well. One of the Silicon Valley favourites is Airbnb. They declared that Belonging was going to be part of the Service that they offered so that a stranger could stay in another stranger’s home and get a sense of belonging in a city to which they were not native. But beyond this, they decided to make Belonging part of their culture. And that if they could engender a sense of Belonging among their employees, partners and customers they could offer this service in a very holistic and native way. This is a very powerful declaration to make as a culture statement.

As a designer, Neil always looks for what makes design principles great. At Ignite he concluded that when they went out to practice design thinking with customers, there were three major principles that were most resonant and came up repeatedly. These were:

1. Transparency

2. Trust

3. Tolerance

While there is no hard and fast science to Belonging, there is a tried and tested methodology through which they worked regularly, to inspire customers to engender a sense of Belonging both within their organisations and out to their customers.

The design principle of Transparency is a regular design principle today. For example, mytaxi or uber use it to allow us to know where a taxi is, how much it’s going to cost, how it’s rated; or McDonald’s who used to keep their kitchen in the back part of the restaurant, now place the kitchen up front and visible. This is a design principle that has become very important to the consumer of today.

Transparency, as it pertains to Belonging, is how we as managers, colleagues or employees can bring our best self to the conversation where we can talk about our story of origin. Telling our story at work should be as easy as getting dressed for work. If we feel comfortable telling our story this starts to build the second principle which is Trust. We cannot expect to build a human connection with somebody else unless we are ready to be transparent about ourselves.

The last design principle then is Tolerance. Once we have been transparent with our own story, and once we have engendered a sense of trust with those around us, we have to be ready for what happens next. When people no longer feel that there is a mask they need to where this is when the magic really happens because they are bringing their true self to work. After all, Belonging is not only about treating others how you want to be treated, but it is treating them how they want to be treated.

In Neil’s current work with a large financial institution in Ireland, while they have been very efficient in how they have gone about attracting and retaining talent, they can see now that engendering a sense of Belonging, giving respect to Transparency, Trust and Tolerance, is not just a method or for inclusion in some brand deck around culture, but like Airbnb, if they can embrace it they can create products and services that put the human at the centre of the experience. And if you can figure out how to put the human at the centre of the experience you’re half the way there because at the centre of the experience is Belonging for a human.

Neil concluded by inviting us at work to have a conversation with a colleague, tell them a little of your story, ask them a question – pose some questions that might feel a little bit awkward, and be ready for the positive consequences.

Dr. Anita Sands is an independent board director (Symantec Corporation, Service Now and Pure Storage), advisor, and public speaker. She writes and comments regularly on issues relating to boards, digital disruption and diversity & inclusion.

Neil Sands is the founder and CEO of Fox Design - A global expert in design-thinking and technology, he advises organizations on the creation and implementation of innovative customer and employee experiences.