Q. What is the essence of belonging? How does it feel as opposed to othering?
Belonging is a feeling. It is being able to be yourself, share yourself, and be honoured in all the contexts where you want to be a part. It is essential for learning, growth, and full participation.
Belonging feels like a soothing bath, a friendly hello, or respectfully engaging in disagreement. Othering, by contrast, is treating people from another group as essentially different from and generally inferior to the group you belong to. It is being made to feel less than, projected upon, or reduced to a stereotype. For example, showing up to an event and being asked to show credentials when no one else is or being invited to a meeting without having expectations shared in advance. Othering can also be explicit forms of racial or gender discrimination. The environmental cues of othering—such as who is featured, who is promoted, and who can literally access a space—can belittle some, putting one identity or group above another, or disempower others.
Both belonging and othering show up everywhere around us. But what belonging means to one person is likely to be different from what it means to another. This also changes depending on the context. The same is true of othering—the way it feels can vary a lot.
Q. Where should the learning start to make it a part of organisational culture?
Learning to design for belonging can start with dialogue; asking colleagues when and where they feel belonging is an excellent first step. I often advise leaders to begin work on belonging with their team by doing a mind map of all the definitions and feelings teammates have about belonging. From there, doing emotional journey maps is a great tool. If everyone on the team does an emotional journey map, with the x-axis being time and the y-axis being places they have experienced highs and lows of belonging, it allows you to see when and where people feel belonging and when they don’t. If you notice patterns, then you know right where to dig to begin to address feelings of not belonging. You might find there is a particular meeting that needs attending to, or a stage in development that could use a redesign.
Q. How can a smooth flow of this feeling be ensured across silos?
Organisations can and should inquire about belonging at regular intervals to identify specific contexts where belonging is weak. This could be in existing culture checking mechanisms like employee engagement surveys or step back meetings, but you can also bring it up in casual conversations. If you really want to find out how things are going, a walking meeting or group dinner are even better options.
Q. What are the benefits it offers in terms of collaboration?
Strong teams come from building belonging that supports work across differences. This is fuel for creativity and leads to both more abundant and more innovative ideas. For example, I worked with a corporate team that was struggling to figure out how to innovate its internal processes, even ones it knew were inefficient. By applying the belonging lens to its work, it started building more ways to bring people together. It started a TED-like storytelling series as a way to get to know more about each other's backstories and was pleasantly surprised by how much collaboration it saw afterwards.
Also read: Move from command and control to discovery: Rita McGrath
Q. What are the three most impactful design levers organisations can employ?
Once you know where you need to build greater belonging, you can use design to generate new ways to build it. Start with space, roles, and rituals. These are the levers of design that we often think of as fixed, but when you flex them intentionally you can build great belonging.
Space can cue people with visual stories about the diversity present in your organisation. Imagine how different it would feel to come to work if the lobby, the very threshold of your workday, were filled with stories of your teammates and your customers. Whether you choose large physical banners, or screens to share media, seeing and hearing from the diversity of people in your organisation sends important signals about belonging. You might also investigate ways for people to ‘leave a trace’ of themselves. This can be casual like notes on a chalkboard or grander portraits of everyone in the company or a featured group. Finally, furniture that invites relaxation or small group conversations can be useful. With furniture, flexibility is great, especially if you consciously curate new ways to use it for different sized groups and desired collaborative outcomes.
New roles can be crafted to invite, welcome, support and engage. It’s helpful to remember that not all roles need to be permanent. I worked with a group of executives and when we realised the junior teammates were intimidated by the senior executives and this was impeding their ability to collaborate. We brought in a belly dance instructor for a 1-hour lesson. This small intervention allowed the team to loosen up and see each other as people who could have fun and learn new things.
Rituals are an excellent way to build new connections and trust. A simple starting point that I love is to add a check-in question at the beginning of every team meeting, large or small. This is a way to learn about your workmates and if it becomes a ritual different people will step up to ask different kinds of questions. Your role as a leader is to get the ball rolling.
Q. How can physical spaces serve as an invitation for moments of belonging?
An unlikely, but excellent example of physical space used as an invitation can be found in hospitals where patient rooms are made to feel like home, plants are abundant, and there is enough space for loved ones to gather and care for a sick relative. Virtual spaces too can be orchestrated to build belonging by inviting people to be present in more than two dimensions. You can invite online participants to bring in family members, to share objects from their home, and to step away from the screen for physical activities.
Q. How is dissent a facet of belonging?
Dissent, protest, and offering critical feedback are important measures of belonging. One does not try to improve a situation, make it better, offer new visions of what’s possible unless they feel a sense of belonging. We must pay attention to dissent and cultivate our ability to work with it.
Each community should know how to work with dissent. It cannot thrive without this understanding. If you are othered for raising issues, it is likely that the group needs to dig more deeply into supporting differing opinions and how they can be productive. Mistrust, disgust, and despair can arise without dissent. If people cannot express a grievance or share a disruptive idea, they might as well not be there.
Q. What is the role of leaders?
Leaders can take responsibility to bring belonging into conversations at every level of the organisation. You can share your own stories and encourage others to do the same. You can make it clear that you want to know where opportunities for belonging are not felt and work to remedy them.
Dr Susie Wise is the founder and former director of the K12 Lab at Stanford d. school and author of Design for Belonging: How to Build Inclusion and Collaboration in Your Communities
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