Shifting from Inclusion to Belonging

We’ve all had that feeling when a group syncs. When a collective “gels,” people are more fulfilled and engaged, ideas become more robust, work gets done and connections last longer. In education, teams are an important unit of change; our work is unpredictable and interdependent. It’s critical that we be more impactful than the sum of our parts.

Many Broad Academy fellows cite the bonds they form within their cohorts as one of the most powerful benefits they gain from the program. Our belief is that when professionals at any level have the full support of equally committed peers, they will learn more, stay in their roles and in the work longer and get more sustainable results. This, we know, is good for kids.

Further, we have a deep belief in the power of true diversity. This includes diversity of thought, but also demands diversity of background and experience. Professional teams are sometimes the few spaces where people from different racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds are expected to work across differences. That too, is good for kids. However, it is not enough to assemble a diverse and high-performing team. Leaders must be intentional in designing dynamic, inclusive and long-lasting connections within the team.

One of the most important design principles we encourage is to shift from inclusion to belonging. Rather than inviting someone into a pre-established culture, we aim to create groups where people do not question if they are in the right place or not. This requires a willingness to look critically at group norms, work styles and other aspects of how we work. It also begs for a rethinking of how we engage with one another, especially when a team is in its early stages. Here are three ways to start shifting groups from inclusion to belonging:

Connect as people first.

Prioritizing output before developing an understanding of each other as people can lead to production but rarely transformation. When a group first comes together, it’s important to create a safe and open environment and then allow them to share with increasing depth who they are and what they care about. Knowing groupmates’ values, motivations and interests can have a deeply equalizing effect and can reduce feelings of isolation or imposter syndrome.

  • Change how people introduce themselves. Have new and returning team members show pictures of their families, share their sports teams and celebrity crushes, brag about their proudest non-work accomplishments.
  • Reserve “no-work-convo” hours during which team members may not talk about work projects, action items, strategies or work crises. It may feel awkward at first, but eventually, people will fill the space and get to know what makes people tick beyond their professional lives.
  • Tell and hear leadership stories – personal narratives that explain what events, experiences and values led teammates to take on the work they do. Listen to learn and celebrate, not to evaluate or compare. Each person on the team, no exceptions, should share to make it a common experience without hierarchy. Be respectful of each individual’s comfort level with sharing and encourage vulnerability and candor over perfectly polished narratives.

Help people feel and be seen.

If you’re intentionally creating a diverse team, the racialized and gendered air we breathe is playing a role in shaping the space. Leaders and designers must be intentional about counteracting the effects of those hierarchies while continuing to listen, learn and grow from the experiences of those impacted by those inequities. At both an individual and group level, there must be intentionality to how people see themselves, interact, manage through complex and complicated conversations and how they build towards a better, more equitable culture.

  • Name the dynamics in the room. Acknowledging that power and privilege dynamics exist won’t make them disappear, but they take away the boogie-man factor. Once they are on the table, invite the group to consider how they want to behave and hold each other accountable to reduce the impact of dominant cultures on the group. If you as the leader are grappling with how to overcome or solve an inequity, be candid about it. Others can likely see it so you may as well be real about it.
  • Make sure each person comes in with a connection. Seeing a friendly face – often the recruiter or advocate who invited them to join the group – can go a long way. You should also connect with people in advance and make sure they know what to expect; check in with them often and openly.
  • Do your homework. As the leader or designer of the group, take responsibility for learning and modeling the kind of language, pedagogy, workstyles and communication that allows for all people to be respected and seen. Set the expectation that others too will seek to care for one another, speak their truths and live in the discomfort that comes with that. The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz is a powerful starting point for the kind of group norms that can help the community experience emotionally loaded conversations well.

Redefine what brings status.

It is normal to seek validation or evidence that a person is “in,” that they have approved membership in the group. Typically in workplaces, status comes from achievements and proximity to the source of power. Reframe what leads to status in the group to drive towards the values, behaviors and impact you’d like to see.

  • Celebrate asking and acting more than knowing. When giving accolades, whether community celebrations or formal promotions, lift up instances of people working together, challenging themselves to learn or change, giving or receiving feedback. The results matter, for sure – but name the path so that people understand how to get the same kind of status.
  • Make the shift more visible by rethinking the signals and norms of your culture. Consider a casual dress code and use candid language over polite codes or jargon. Add holidays that represent a range of cultures to your global calendar, even if people don’t get the days off.  Vary the way teams socialize so that it happens during the course of business and in ways that account for people’s needs or preferences.
  • Build group accountability for managing group behaviors. Have the team be guardians of their own values and build in the habit and practice of giving feedback and holding each other accountable. That takes the leader or organizer out of focus and keeps the accountability on the group participants.

What rituals have you implemented or experienced that helped your team shift towards belonging?

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