The How of Belonging

Tamika S. Edwards Commentary

The How of Belonging

For the past few weeks, I’ve been listening to “Make It Stick,” a book about the science of successful learning. Remember, “learner” is my first strength with the CliftonStrengths Assessment, so I don’t always need a reason to learn something new. I just enjoy the process of learning.

But my learner senses kicked in because I began thinking more deeply about how learning is a significant part of achieving belonging in the workplace. It starts with our leaders. “But not all leaders are properly trained to lead,” you say, and I agree. Too often we find that leaders are promoted to leadership positions because of tenure or great performance in other roles even when they lack the necessary skills to lead people.

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So how do leaders remedy this leadership knowledge gap to ensure belonging within an organization? What does it take for leaders to create an environment where employees are “seen, connected, supported and proud?” If they haven’t learned by now, who’s responsible for their learning? If they refuse to learn, who holds them accountable? What is the remedy? Durable learning.

In “Make It Stick,” the authors argue that many of our study habits and routines created the “illusion of mastery” instead of “durable learning.” Durable learning is deep and lasting knowledge retention and enables the learner to “carry out complex cognitive tasks, such as applying knowledge to problems never before encountered and drawing inferences from facts already known.” Understanding this level of complexity is absolutely necessary when dealing with people. The authors note that, “Learning is stronger when it matters, when the abstract is made concrete and personal.” My journey to belonging is concrete and personal because I had to navigate spaces where I didn’t feel a sense of belonging. Navigating those spaces fueled a strong desire to help leaders understand and practice actions as well as behaviors that ensure a sense of belonging.

Unfortunately, when it comes to creating a culture of belonging, many leaders operate under the illusion of mastery instead of durable learning. The illusion of mastery is surface learning that comes in the form of mandated diversity, equity and inclusion training or organizational proclamations put in place to check a box. In order for leaders to make belonging an integral part of their organization, belonging must matter to them. There are several ways for belonging to matter. One way is to tie belonging benchmarks to merit pay. But the learning cannot start in a vacuum. Leaders can start the learning journey by examining the following behaviors or practices to know how to incorporate belonging within their organization.

Model leadership behaviors. Few things are more frustrating than a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do leader. Leaders who display behavior inconsistent with their external messaging teach others that it’s OK not to walk the talk. Moreover, this type of behavior eventually leads to an entire breakdown of the organization’s culture. Do you and leaders in your organization model behaviors that promote a sense of belonging? How do you know? Who are you asking?

Make belonging a core part of your organization. Reviewing the organization’s policies, procedures and practices is one of the best ways to learn if systemic bias exists. It’s in these spaces where you must be explicit about embedding the elements of belonging into the core parts of your organization. Do your policies, procedures and practices promote belonging? To know if they do look at your compensation models, promotion pathways, benefits, performance reviews and new employee onboarding. What’s missing? Who’s excluded?

Test accountability systems. Accountability is often seen in a negative light because it’s used as a mechanism to levy punishment. But that shouldn’t be its purpose. Accountability keeps an organization committed to its pronounced values and principles. It forces an organization to be what it says it is. Who ensures accountability for your organization? Is accountability evenly distributed? Is it clear?

The outlined behaviors and practices are not exhaustive, but they provide a great start. Leaders who invest in durable learning and avoid the traps set by an illusion of mastery will be well on their way to ensuring a culture of belonging that sticks.

Tamika S. Edwards is the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Southwest Power Pool of Little Rock. She has more than 20 years of experience in social justice, public policy, government and community outreach.

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