Updated: Dec 12, 2021
In a recent survey by McKinsey & Co, it was found that 50% of the workers leaving their jobs amidst the Great Resignation were leaving due to this socio-emotional reason: not having a sense of belonging at work.
A million dollar question for leaders: how do we fix this?
Establishing sense of belonging within a team is like the constructing of a brick house: it is built one brick at a time. The opposite is also true: a brick house can be destroyed one brick at a time. Connected cultures are built (and torn down) in small moments. It is not grand gestures that make or break team trust, but rather the sum of consistent, small actions.
To get started in crafting a connected workplace, here are three subtle actions to stop doing and what you can replace them with:
Connection Killer #1: Invalidating other's feelings
The scenario: someone is in the thralls of a high stakes/high emotion moment.
What invalidating looks like:
"There is nothing to be upset about."
"Don't be so angry."
"There's no reason to cry."
"Just be positive!"
"Don't be so sensitive."
"You're just checked out."
“Everything happens for a reason.”
"It's god's plan."
Replace it with:
"Your feelings are valid."
"Thank you for sharing this with me."
"I'm sorry you have to experience this."
"Take your time, I'm listening."
"I'm sad to hear you're struggling."
"Can you say more about _____?"
"Tell me more."
"It's normal to feel ______ about that."
When you invalidate the feelings of someone at the height of a high stakes/high emotion moment, you are not truly being present with them. Building a sense of belonging requires creating space for employees or colleagues to be seen and heard in human moments. Set aside problem solving when emotions are raw and when the stakes are putting someone at their edge.
Their feelings in this moment aren't meant to be fixed or interpreted, just acknowledged and felt.
This doesn't mean all feelings are productive or feelings always reflect reality. But, human experiences that arise in stress are valid experiences and should be treated as such. It creates disconnection, and potential gaslighting situations, to tell another person how to feel or not feel. Feelings that arise from high stakes/high emotion moments are not good/bad or right/wrong. Just feelings, and just part of being human.
Emotions are like waves --they crest at a high point before naturally cascading back down to equilibrium. Once it seems like the emotion has reached equilibrium, then solutions can be pursued, if and only if, the person is ready. How do you know? Ask: "Do you feel ready to move forward with a solution or do you need more time to sit with this?"
When in doubt, empathetic silence is your best friend. Giving someone the gift of your presence doesn't always require speaking. Just be there.
Connection Killer #2: Deflecting praise
Scenario: someone has just given you a sincere compliment/recognition.
What deflecting looks like:
"Nah, I'm not that great."
"Oh, but so are you!"
Making a joke.
Negative facial expressions or body language/energy that moves away from the person giving the praise.
Replace it with:
"Thank you." (That's it, just the two words. Maybe a smile --if that's your style).
"Thank you for your kind affirmation!"
"Thank you for sharing that with me, it means a lot."
"Thank you, I've been working really hard on that."
True, authentic compliments are as vulnerable to offer as they are to receive. When you deflect praise, you miss an opportunity to catalyze a connection between you and the giver. You shut down the person's offering of kindness, leading to disconnection. Even if you struggle to believe the truth of the words spoken (imposter syndrome is a real treat, isn't it?), the words reflect the truth of the giver, which deserves respect and gratitude.
Praise is a form of generosity. Receive it as you would a physical gift.
Another way to look at this: imagine you've had the grand luck of greeting Beyoncé after a concert with a backstage pass. What would you do if you told Bey how amazing you thought she was and she replied with "Nah, I'm not that great..."? My guess is you'd probably feel embarrassed and not know what to say. She's Beyoncé, a total icon. False modesty can be an insult to others, especially when the compliment is remarkably (and obviously) true. A simple nod and sincere thank you will take you far in preventing a disconnect.
Connection Killer #3: Saying you're fine when you're not
Scenario: someone has just violated a personal boundary, failed to meet a job expectation or inquired (sincerely) about your current state of being.
What this looks like:
Body language/nonverbals/emotions that don't align with words spoken.
Not giving difficult or awkward feedback.
Saying "Yes, I'm okay" when you're not.
Replace it with:
"This didn't work for me."
"Moving forward, I would like to see it done this way."
"What's working for me is ______. What's not working for me is ______."
"I need to have a difficult conversation with you."
"I'm feeling a little ______. Thank you for checking in on me, I appreciate it."
The avoidance of difficult or awkward feedback and a resistance to engage in conflict are two of the more obvious causes of team disconnection and failure to build belonging in a workplace. But, so are the small "white lie" or emotional side-stepping moments where you omit actual feelings. Honesty, transparency and truth-telling are vulnerable, but magical, catalysts for connection when performed sincerely and mindfully. Engaging in some productive conflict, sharing an uncomfortable truth and being emotionally real with people are opportunities to catalyze connection.
Practical examples of silent suffering:
Your caring colleague catches you with your face down on your desk and asks if you're doing okay. You want to scream from the overwhelm gripping your chest, but instead of receiving the offer for support, you say "...it's nothing, I'm just fine!"
Your officemate is playing their music too loud. You can feel your blood pressure rising. They ask if it's okay. But, instead of asking them to turn it down, you quietly say: “…it's okay, I'm fine.”
Your employee submits the work you needed very late…again. You feel anger constricting your throat to be waiting on them. But, when they called to tell you it was finally done, you say through gritted teeth: “…it doesn't bother me, it's fine.”
You subtly kill connection with others when there is misalignment between inner truth and outer expression. Your body signals and emotions clearly communicate you have preferences or needs, but instead of speaking your truth, you choose to silently suffer. Others can sense this dissonance, whether consciously or subconsciously, casting doubt on their instincts and creating confusion with your communication.
Uncertainty and confusion are always breeding grounds for disconnection.
I'm not saying you have to divulge all the details of your bad day. Definitely don't dump emotions on your workplace (that's the fast lane to disconnection). But, I am saying that if you're feeling overwhelmed, trying to hide it when someone has clearly noticed is futile --your body language is already speaking for you. Sidestepping will create a disconnect. You are only human. Letting that show when a situation calls for it is a strength, not a weakness.
We tend to think of disconnection as sweeping acts of treachery, poor intentions and outright evil. That does exist and definitely avoid those at all costs. Yet, isolating workplaces, teams and relationships are usually things that develop over time through lack of mindfulness, lack of self-awareness and lack of commitment to relational success skills.
Leaders must infuse their workplace with the habits that help humans flourish: gratitude, presence, empathy, generosity, support, and safety.
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