“Finding commonalities and accepting differences is the key to belonging,” said ADP’s business anthropologist, Martha Bird.
When I started to consider belonging at work, I knew exactly who to call — ADP’s business anthropologist, Martha Bird [MB]. Here’s some of our conversation about why belonging matters and what organizations can do to create and sustain a culture of belonging.
HB: Having a sense of belonging seems so important to how we move through the world and how we relate to our work. What is belonging?
MB: Belonging almost strikes people as poetic. It seems like a feeling, so it can resist the critical lens we need to unpack it.
People think of belonging as a psychological state, but it is actually cultural. It’s the notion of being inside or outside and relates to enacted phenomena like what the cultural norms are around us and how we compare ourselves to those norms.
Everything cultural is nested in other things and is influenced by power, resources, how things have been done in the past, and what the expectations are for the people involved.
Kids can feel like they don’t belong because of their clothes. New employees can feel like they don’t belong because of the jargon used in the organization. I’m a social scientist surrounded by tech people and it’s not surprising that my sense of belonging is tested from time to time. Ultimately, I’m privileged to feel I’m part of something bigger than myself.
HB: What makes a culture of belonging? It seems like belonging is relational. It’s partly how I perceive the circumstances and culture, how people already in that culture see it, and what’s actually going on regardless of our individual perceptions and opinions.
MB: There are so many ways to feel like you don’t belong — socially, economically, intellectually, emotionally. It’s that sense of other. To make sense of it, we can look at othering, break it down, and pick it apart to see what’s happening. We identify the discreet instances where someone feels alienated and read the cultural cues about what is happening. This gives us information about the culture.
There is no universal recipe for what makes a healthy culture. There are many good and right ways to do things.
It partly has to do with a culture’s view of the individual and how the individual should relate to others. In the United States, belonging often evokes family, but we also have strong cultural values in individuality and being recognized and valued as an individual. In other cultures, a sense of harmony is highly valued and working toward common goals is more important than individual achievement.
A culture of belonging fundamentally has to do with common goals and values, respect for each other, and a sense of our shared humanity.
HB: How can we help people feel like they belong at work?
MB: We want workplaces where people feel like they can be themselves, but are also working with others to do the work. It’s less about fitting in and more about complementing. There has to be room for difference. It’s like an orchestra where the manager is the conductor and we have all these different instruments playing different parts in the same piece of music. We don’t want just the violins or the tubas. We need all the different sounds, rhythms and harmonies.
Belonging at work starts with leaders modeling the values and behavior for their teams. Is it comfortable to embody those values? Sometimes that means being vulnerable and asking for help.
I recently gave a big speech to a large group of people in a setting where I felt anxious. Walking up to the stage, I decided to tell the audience that and ask for help. So I explained how I was feeling and asked them to tell me, “It’s okay, Martha!” It was great, so I asked them to do it again. And they did! I felt so much better and they were all on my team at that point, because I was vulnerable and asked them to help me in a way they could.
In cultures of belonging, it’s okay to be honest about what’s going on, even if it’s that you don’t feel included.
HB: What are some specific things that managers or leaders can do to foster belonging at work?
MB: At the organizational level, it’s essential to ensure that the values of the organization exist at every level and in every manager without exception. It’s also important to consider how to structure teams and make sure they can communicate effectively, based on where and how people work.
At the team level, good manager training is key. Managers need skills in working with teams, allowing for different views, and figuring out how to handle disagreements and how decisions get made. When people can weigh in on something, there is a sense of being in it together.
It’s important to see each other as people, not work roles. Connecting in person and outside of work makes a difference. We need to tell and know each other’s stories and create opportunities for sharing. Have lunch, have informal video meetings where everyone gets to tell something about themselves. I was in a meeting recently where we all told the story of our names. I learned a lot and felt like the people who heard my story knew me a little better, too.
We need more awareness and cultural consciousness by design. People are fundamentally creative and want to learn. We all have different experiences and different lives.
Finding commonalities and accepting those differences is the key to belonging.
Mark Feffer: Welcome to PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology report. I’m Mark Feffer.
Today, I talk with Martha Bird, business anthropologist at ADP Innovation Lab. Her job is to make sure that the human element is accounted for when new digital products are designed, so that, for example, software intended to tackle a specific HR problem can be put to use by HR staff in the real world as they go about their actual work. I began by asking Martha how she thought the COVID-19 pandemic would impact the way people work.
Podcast: #HRTech after #COVID-19: “Things that would normally take months or maybe even years to implement are now talking weeks to turn around.” @ADP #HR #HRTribeCLICK TO TWEET
Martha Bird: Well, I think this is such a huge topic. One of the things I think about is imagine that we’ve been working largely in the U.S. with a very, very low unemployment rate. Now all of a sudden there’s this massive degree of unemployment. Now, in the past when there’s been a tight labor market, certain policies are put into place in order to attract the talent that you want. Now, when you have a flood of unemployed people, what is that going to look like in terms of those mechanisms? I don’t know. But to me that’s a consideration, right? It’s that we’ve gone from very robust, healthy unemployment to a very, very high degree of unemployment from healthy employment. So I think that’s going to be an interesting thing to monitor that’s around talent and talent acquisition.
I think also it’s going to be about the discussion around urban and rural, right? So if people are working more remotely, what does that look like for the person who lives in a rural space who has not had access to perhaps the same economics of job that one would have in a larger metropolitan area. And so if it’s indeed the case that people will begin to work more remotely, that can open up a whole, I think potentially positive economics for rural areas and rural workers. So that’s going to be, I think, very interesting.
And then I think there’s also going to be, for employers, much greater awareness now of really what health actually means in terms of the economy. So, a healthy society, and I mean healthy as in well-being, I think is directly corollary to the economy being robust.
So I think there’s a lot of things going to be continued from where we are now. I certainly hope that’s the case. I hear such wonderful stories about people reaching out with altruistic intent and I think that’s just the way we need to go. But you also hear the stories of individuals vying for advantage. And so my hope is that those will not be the ones who will continue to influence our consciousness as humanity.
Mark Feffer: You work for ADP, obviously, your customers are employers and they make certain demands on you. What new demands do you think you’re going to start to hear? Are the priorities going to shift among what employers expect out of their technology solutions?
Martha Bird: Well, I think this whole… To carry on, on the mobile trajectory is going to be key, right? Because that’s all part of the story, about remote. I think too that there’s going to be… I think there’s going to be, at least for ADP and for those in our industry, there is an expectation that we stay completely agile when it comes to major legislative activities related to the COVID-19. And one of the things that I’m aware of is that indeed we are actually keeping up with these things. And that’s no small matter when you think of all the municipalities, jurisdictions, state and federal level legislation to be able to do that and to be able to provide our clients with security of knowing that we are the most up to date on those matters.
So, that’s about speed, right? And it’s about being able to do things pretty quickly. Things that would normally take months or maybe even years to implement, you’re talking weeks now to turn that around. So I think probably this expectation around speed will continue across a lot of industries.
The other thing too, Mark, that I think is really interesting is this collaboration that’s going on between corporations in order to get things done. So, I think about the ventilator situation where there’s just a dire need for those and the largest producer of ventilators is partnering with GM or with Ford in order to switch the production lines in order to make ventilator and doing open source sharing of designs. I’m hoping, personally, that that will become not simply a response to an extremis, but something that maybe could be continued once this settles down a little bit.
Mark Feffer: My last question is, what is the biggest single dramatic change you expect to see in the workplace after the dust has settled?
Martha Bird: There’s so many things. I guess for me, because I’m an anthropologist, I’m thinking really about the way that we interact with our fellows. I hope that if nothing else this allows us to reset ourselves and to understand that it’s incredibly important to exercise respect, honesty, a decency and kindness, that we are all actually part of the family of humans here, and that everything is connected. And I think that wouldn’t be a bad takeaway, in my view, if people could come to terms with embracing that. And unfortunately it takes something as dire as this situation, but to me that would be a positive outcome.
Mark Feffer: Martha, thank you.
Martha Bird: Thanks, Mark.
Mark Feffer: Martha Bird is a business anthropologist at ADP’s innovation lab. And this has been PeopleTech from the HCM echnology report. To keep up with HR technology, visit the HCM Technology report every day. We’re the most trusted source of news in the HR tech industry. Find us at www.hcmtechnologyreport.com. I’m Mark Feffer.