Companies are adopting a new language in response to the increasing view that the term diversity and inclusion tends to evoke a mandate for hiring percentages and directives.

Moving forward, we might see a shift towards belonging to a community with the goal of motivating those to not only join a company, but to contribute to its well-being and then stick around long enough to make sure that happened. The rhetoric seems right, but does it make business sense? This article quickly summarizes the views of a few thought leaders who believe this to be true and offers up smart questions to jumpstart your own thinking.

In January of 2019, Warton University held an event “Fostering Belonging at Work” where panelists from well-known firms discussed endeavors under this newish workplace mantra. According to Warton’s article summarizing the event, some organizational leaders believed that shaping a culture favoring community can lead to measurable business outcomes.

Case in point: Rebekah Bastian, Vice President of Culture and Community at Zillow Group, said “the superior business outcomes often associated with having diverse teams can’t be achieved without a sense of belonging. It’s not enough to simply include people at the table, but to amplify everyone’s voices, clear barriers … and appreciate each other for (their) unique backgrounds.” Sam Lalanne (Senior VP of Global Diversity and Talent Management at Citi) commented that a “sense of belonging means that people can bring their full selves to work, and not feel like they’re a different person there than at home.”

The idea of companies acting as communities isn’t entirely new, but it is just now taking on momentum. In 2009, Harvard posted the article Rebuilding Companies as Communities  in which author Henry Mintzberg wrote “Community means caring about our work, our colleagues, and our place in the world, geographic and otherwise, and in turn being inspired by this caring.”

Matt Cronin, writing for Entrepreneur in 2016, chimed in on the importance of community by stating “Entrepreneurs love to talk about how great their company cultures are, but the best businesses don’t push culture — they build communities.” Cronin went on to say that “creating culture means devising certain ideals for the workplace and expecting employees to conform to the rules (written and unwritten) that make up that culture. But putting rules before people is the quickest way to make the participants within the culture feel isolated. …

… Communities, on the other hand, can adapt and evolve because they’re guided by values rather than rules and have the flexibility to reflect the personalities and interests of their members in ways cultures cannot.

While the notion of incorporating community seems like something an All-Hands Meeting would be named (with requisite marketing buzz to get everyone there), a better question is “How can we create a sense of community where everyone believes they belong and know they are essential to making it thrive?”

To that end, here are five such queries to jump-start your workplace conversations about building a community in which members have a sense of belonging.

1.  Do our core values walk the hallways or hang on the hallway walls?

Without core values (the fundamental beliefs upon which your business and its behavior are based), there is little shared vision or reason for being. Values are more than inspirational words mounted in a pretty picture frame hanging on the corporate hallway. They are guiding principles that all abide by, from the most senior member to the most junior. These are not up for interpretation, nor do they waiver in times of crisis. Plainly put, in a business world of increasing adaptability, core values are set in concrete.

2.  Do we hire employees who align with our values and fit within our community?

It’s one thing to have values and another entirely to hire for them. When it comes to building your company community, you can up the ante starting with the interview. If you’re not already doing it, look for a fit with your company’s values and test the waters to identify how well a prospective employee can work with others to uphold these principles. Asking questions along the lines of the following can give you a window into a candidate’s motivations and, ultimately, what kind of fit they may be with the rest of the tribe.

  • What significant life challenge has shaped you? How has it impacted the way you work?
  • How do your principles align with our company values?
  • How have you viewed your past responsibilities as a part of achieving the bigger picture?
  • How have you shared your knowledge with co-workers? Why is this important?
  • What drives you to accomplish your work responsibilities?
  • Since we look at our company as a community, how do you think you would contribute as a member to its well-being?

3.  Do each of our employees know their purpose and how it ties to the vision of our organization?

In the Entrepreneur article cited earlier, Matt Cronin writes “Responsibility is based on ownership and objectives. When people own their goals, they think about achieving them differently — that is, with more passion — than they would mere tasks on their to-do lists.”

Drilling down, ask yourself “How well do members know their responsibilities and how they link to the overarching purpose of your organization?” Additionally, “Does each member actively think about continuous improvement? Do they see this, along with quality and customer service, to be a joint responsibility, regardless of their job function?” And, this question is particularly insightful “Can they vocalize constructive opinions without fear of criticism?”

Considering the responsibilities each employee plays in developing your company’s purpose can underscore that sense of belonging which can give legs to your community to stand on.

4.  Are we brave enough to share personal stories – me included?

Sam Lalanne, when speaking at the Warton event “Fostering Belonging at Work” commented on the power of anecdotes (something that happens) and stories (to make something memorable) by noting that when these are told “especially from high-level people — about the struggle to fit in, or to be their authentic selves at work, (it) can be a powerful tool to nurture a sense of belonging among an entire workforce.”

An example given was that of a respected manager who had worked with her company for many years. She shared with her team that she never finished college but had been too embarrassed to say so. This talented professional started on the bottom rung and worked her way up. Her college degree, while an assumption, was never a requirement. The impact to those hearing the story was incredibly positive as it paved the way for increased candor.

Rebekah Bastain (at the same event) echoed Sam’s sentiment “We do a lot of internal story sharing of different employees and what their experiences have been … and about different cultures, traditions and backgrounds.” Real stories from real people makes the storyline memorable for those eager to lean in (thanks Sheryl Sandburg).

Stories sway because they provide meaning, create context and evoke a sense of purpose. Most humans are more receptive to stories than a PowerPoint slide deck filled to the brim with bulleted stats and facts. Stories help us relate to one another, to be more empathetic (a fundamental cornerstone of Emotional Intelligence), and to remember what is shared.

We convey our organization’s tribal knowledge best through the telling of stories.  And, it’s not just stories about employees, but also of our customers. This is especially true in life sciences where many of the customers are patients and where their lives are literally transformed through the product and services offered.  Incorporating more of these stories into the daily fabric of the workplace can go a long way in motivating members to feel as though they belong to something noble… something lofty.

5.  Do we mentor?

Traditional mentoring is wonderful but is also a luxury many can’t afford in terms of time and access. However, what companies can do is onboard flash mentoring. This model bypasses onerous scheduling commitments by adopting a just-in-time Q&A approach. Tribal knowledge (as mentioned in the previous question) is the tacit stuff that resides in each employee’s head – the things that are important but never get written down; the secret ingredients of why we do what we do… the back story and context for decisions made and actions taken.

After conducting a nearly two-year long research project on the topic of Tribal Knowledge Transfer across several University of California campuses (UCSD, UCI and UC Santa Cruz in the Silicon Valley) in which 150 managers of notable science and technology companies were interviewed, my team and I unearthed a treasure trove of findings. Most intriguing of all was that people go to people, not databases. While digital systems can be sophisticated and AI (Artificial Intelligence) is helpful, humans are still the only ones who can interpret, synthesize and story-ize data, events and information in real-time all while tailoring it for the person in need.

When we create a way for people in the organization to reach out to anyone else in their work community to get a question answered when they need it, knowledge is transferred and the tribe benefits. It can be as simple as making the online employee directory a little smarter by adding profile fields that individuals update frequently to include projects currently being worked on and skills they have finessed. Likewise, posting an “Ask a Mentor” section to your company’s online member portal can go a long way in giving credence to the premise that your company is a community.

In the days ahead “Diversity and Inclusion” will probably remain the talent management hymn sung within today’s organization, but the concepts may be greater served when our thinking (and language) segues to that of communities in which tribal knowledge is shared and members feel as though they belong to something bigger than themselves.