All Articles Leadership DEI How to build self-esteem and belonging at work

How to build self-esteem and belonging at work

Leaders can foster a sense of belonging at work by being mindful of speech or body language that may be offensive, writes Jackson Nickerson.

4 min read


belonging at work

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The quest for delivering the promises of diversity, equity and inclusion in business is now a well-documented struggle. Many companies worldwide have invested time in creating DEI training programs to celebrate and nurture organizational differences. But are these initiatives working? Is DEI training effective and making workplaces healthier, happier and more productive?

According to recent research, 84% of company leaders have been increasing their investment in DEI initiatives. DEI has become part of the organization at work, with 77% of surveyed companies establishing a DEI-focused employee resource group. And yet, only 25% of employees agree that diversity issues (including race and gender equality) are discussed openly at work. The research reported by Harvard Business Review indicates that DEI training has delivered few tangible benefits to organizations.

Focus on organization-based self-esteem

“Traditional” DEI training doesn’t seem to have the desired impact on how people feel at work. Instead, company leaders could consider a new model that prioritizes self-worth and organization-based self-esteem.

This new model treats individuals with dignity and fosters a sense of belonging. By focusing on these aspects, organizations can achieve more substantial, tangible progress in pursuing diversity, equity and inclusion for everyone.

Fostering dignity and belonging provides a different approach to training and leadership that can help everyone succeed and motivate this behavior in a more personal, deep-seated way. Violations of dignity harm an individual’s self-worth yet can be found in almost every meeting. Preventing these violations and facilitating meetings to create a common identity produces a feeling of belonging by building organization-based self-esteem, which results in team members becoming more empathetic and interested in each other.

3 steps to create a sense of belonging in the workplace

So, if traditional DEI training initiatives aren’t working, what can leaders and managers implement to create a workplace environment that fosters belonging and avoids potential dignity violations? There are three principal areas to focus on:

Step 1: Make belonging a strategic imperative

There’s a gap here between workplaces’ overt programming and the experience that employees are having. This gap might arise because people in many DEI initiatives have experienced promotion-based training (activities designed to inspire positive action). In contrast, training that provides a “prevention framing” might significantly impact changing behavior. Such initiatives would reiterate the importance of preventing dignity violations and fostering an environment of organization-based self-esteem in the workplace.

Fostering belonging, which builds organization-based self-esteem, has been shown to drive organizational performance. According to Deloitte, organizations that give employees a sense of belonging see a boost in job performance, net promoter scores and even a 75% reduction in sick days.

Step 2: Lead meetings that protect dignity and foster belonging

The rubber of dignity and belonging hits the road in meetings. Meetings are the moments when people interact, communicate and problem-solve. These moments are where employees experience the truth of dignity in the workplace. How can leaders make better meetings? They need a set of facilitation processes and organization-specific language to guide meetings and model helpful behavior.

Dignity violations and alienation typically become the norm without these processes and language. People use blaming language (as in a question like, “Why would you do that?”), language that attacks one’s identity as a good and capable person, commanding language that tells their interlocutor how something “should be done” or fails to appreciate someone’s specific contribution. Language that blames, attacks identity, is excessively directive or lacks appreciation leads to dignity violations and alienation instead of belonging.

Step 3: Measure your progress

Monitor progress in fostering dignity and belonging in the short and long run. Before entering a meeting you plan to lead, ask a collaborator to take notes on what you did well and what you could have done better concerning violating dignity and sparking alienation. Body language, which can be difficult for a speaker but easier for a collaborator to observe, often transparently tells the story of when a dignity violation or feelings of alienation occur. 

Review the meeting with your collaborator immediately afterward when both memories are fresh. Start with what went well and then spend equal time on how everyone could have improved, supporting dignity and belonging. Write down words and phrases that sparked adverse body language reactions. Then, think of substitute expressions and write them down. Practice substituting the revised expressions for the old ones before your next meeting.

In the long run, watch net promoter scores, the number of sick days and productivity measures. If these metrics fail to improve, seek more formal training for meeting facilitation skills. With these skills, you can help people feel dignity and strengthen their sense of belonging within the organization. 


Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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