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Retention and Sense of Belonging

Smiling Coworkers

Employee Retention Series: Part 2

Management Topic: Retention and Sense of Belonging

Dear Colleagues,

Recently, there has been a sense of urgency to implement changes within many of our departments, in part to address morale after challenges from the pandemic impacted employee satisfaction. Many factors have contributed to organizational fragmentation and employees lacking a sense of belonging. Examples include perceptions by some staff of: a desire to protect the status quo, operational inefficiency in departments with high volume workloads, increased employee turnover due to low morale, a lack of time to participate in professional development opportunities, limited opportunities for upward mobility, lack of employee recognition, and perceived dysfunctional employer-to-employee relationships. In this month’s MMT, we’ll give you key points to establish a culture of belonging and appreciation within your organization.

U Matter

Everyone wants to be a part of something. From families, to organizations, to sports teams, everyone wants to have that sense of belonging and to feel like they matter. The desire to belong has been hardwired into the very fiber of our being, but it seems to be one our greatest workplace struggles. Even with most senior leadership and every Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) expert speaking about this specific issue, too often, we still miss the mark.

Isolation hurts. With the integration of online meetings, virtual potlucks, and drive-by parties, the emotional toll can be as bad as physical pain. This feeling can leave a person wanting to leave the organization permanently, no matter how much they are compensated. When employees feel they belong, the overall health of the organization improves. Productivity increases and the utilization of “sick days” decreases. Remember, everyone deserves to be heard, to have a voice, and be respected. As managers, we should look to our employees first and truly utilize them as resources to make the organization great. They often know what is going on day-to-day, and acknowledging their input may lead to their sense of belonging and result in greater organizational effectiveness.

As leaders you must think outside of the box when you feel the old way of doing things is not enough. Every day, we have a chance to change things for the better. We can be more intentional about creating a culture of belonging, as a counterculture to isolation.

Everyone is Important

"I think you have to be what you are. Don't try to be somebody else. You have to be yourself at all times." - John Wooden

John Wooden’s quote speaks volumes. We are all different but necessary. Considering race, religion, gender, country of origin, etc., many companies don’t truly reflect the diversity of the overall workforce or the communities they serve. However, even when there is diversity, everyone has different skill sets, roles, areas of expertise, and influence within the organization. What are we doing to celebrate that diversity? Are we giving them the tools to grow? Are we cultivating meaningful relationships? Are we creating opportunities for them to lead?

Some employees feel like their employers have given up on them due to age and perceived lack of ability. Others may feel as though they are never given the chance to grow because of favoritism, lack of seniority, or forms of discrimination. Most employees want the chance to prove their worth, to learn, and grow within the organization.

As leaders, a significant part of our job is meeting the needs of the organization, and the organization is made up of people. Equity is giving people what they need in order to be successful. People develop into great leaders when there is shared power, mutual respect, and opportunity. As leaders, we must embrace the differences around us, lead with humility, and give employees the space to be great. This is how successful organizations are created.

Doing all this takes an investment by the organization and its managers and leaders. Education and training are key components in preparing employees for their roles and responsibilities. Some employees rise to the occasion when they see you are investing in them, when they feel like they belong.

Creating an Environment of Belonging

How do we improve our efforts to build this environment of belonging, and where do we begin?

Talk to someone: Move out of your comfort zone and have a conversation with someone you know is struggling. Get to know them. Ask them what they need. Learn their story and share your story over a cup of coffee.

Relationship building: Be intentional in building genuine relationships, not superficial ones. Yes, managers have to walk a fine line, but you can still be an ally, using your authority and influence to help employees have a sense of belonging.

Celebrate diversity: Recruit, hire, and promote people with diverse backgrounds. People are more inclined to join, remain in, and recruit for an organization when the organization looks like their community and leadership is representative. When people are allowed to truly be themselves, when they are celebrated and not ignored or dismissed, unity can thrive.

Tips to Celebrate Diversity and Create a Sense of Belonging

Employee being congratulated by coworkers

Good behavior and successes should be celebrated, and failures should be learning opportunities. Those who have put forth the effort and achieved a milestone should be recognized.

Schedule training and education opportunities for employees who desire to promote. Invest in your employees no matter what! Make them feel valued and appreciated. Make the training relevant to the professional goals of the employee and overall goals of the organization.

Recognize employees through monthly or quarterly awards and also in your daily interactions. Honor their hard work with plaques, gift cards, and features in our campus newspaper, while also making expressions of your gratitude and appreciation a department norm. Review November’s MMT for more tips.

Recognize a division within your department. Host a “Division Party” where employees can invite their families to share in their success.

Highlight the diversity within the department with events to celebrate those of different backgrounds. Cultural celebrations can make people feel part of a team, because the entire team is taking the time to learn about one another.

Leadership is Key

Fear is the greatest enemy of the leader (Maxwell, 2013). Fear of righting the wrong because those in leadership don't want to look like they were going against an already established culture. The plan is to continue pushing people to experience a new way of thinking, a paradigm shift, a new level of trust.

Progress for organizational change will ultimately be won or lost in the “trenches”. The “trenches” are those leader-to-manager and manager-to-employee, water-cooler conversations or meetings. When department leaders or management undermine the credibility of those trying to create a more inclusive culture, the organization suffers greatly.

The organization also suffers when employees disrupt the vision because of personal feelings, anxiety, animosity, or fear. To avoid these pitfalls, leadership must support and model inclusive practices to set the tone of respect and to help build the level of trust and accountability between the employer and employee. Clearly communicating the vision early and often can help lead to collective efficacy.

This behavioral shift can lead to positive changes and increase employee morale. In order for the department to sustain momentum after implementation of these cultural shifts, it’s important to make sure the new behavior becomes a part of the fabric of the department. Employees who once played a role as bystanders need to see how the change is working better than the old way, and new hires need to be on-boarded appropriately so the expectations of a supportive and welcoming culture continue no matter who is leading. The mark of a good leader is not making followers, but creating an environment that produces good leaders.

Maxwell, J. C. (2013). How successful people lead: taking your influence to the next level. New York: Center Street

Helpful Tools to Learn More About This Topic:

  1. Reach out to your department’s Equity Advisor at
  2. Read the following recommended books:
    • Bias by Jennifer L. Eberhardt
    • My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem
    • John Wooden on Leadership by John Wooden
  3. Seek additional training: USF Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace Certificate

Scenario for Discussion:

One of your top performing team members is showing signs of disconnect: disinterest in long-term projects and organizational issues, reduced participation and team interaction, and they are requesting more time off than usual. You’re concerned this team member is considering leaving the organization. How do you raise your concerns to this team member? What can you do to re-engage them?

*Recommendations for how to best address this scenario will be provided in next month’s newsletter!

Interested in reviewing prior months’ topics? Visit our Monthly Management Tips website.

Stay Safe!

Leadership 2029

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