During my disability awareness training I often talk about the concept of belonging being incredibly important to people with disabilities.
What do we mean by belonging? It is defined as having the feeling of security, comfort and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion and identity for a member of a certain group or place.
Why is that so important to people?
- We feel free and safe to be ourselves
- We can offer different points of view and opinions – our contributions matter
- We feel like insiders – part of the team, network or community
- We feel welcomed and understood and our differences are valued
- We feel connected and invested with the team
- The more a person feels they belong, the more likely they will behave inclusively themselves.
At times during my life I have felt that I belonged. However, there have been times when I have not. Instead I felt like an outsider, vulnerable and guarded. You develop a self-consciousness and ask – ‘Do I belong?’ ‘What do others think of me?’
You start masking to hide your differences in relation to the space you are in, hoping to feel safer or come closer to a sense of belonging. But in those times, you never feel that you belong. Once that persists, your mental health can fall. You feel excluded and not accepted.
Inclusive behaviour in the workplace
Having experienced both sides of the coin, I know how important that sense of belonging is for everyone.
The effect of belonging in an inclusive workplace for an individual is immense – in particular your mental health improves and your motivation to do well in your job increases.
To achieve that sense of belonging, the workplace needs to be diverse, supportive and inclusive – a psychological safe space where people are demonstrating inclusive behaviours every day.
So what are these critical inclusive behaviours? Behaviours that make it clear that everyone belongs and are respected for their differences. Behaviours that help others experience psychological safety and trust.
An inclusive workplace must have an inclusive leader, demonstrating inclusive behaviours to the team. A good leader is looked up to, and their behaviours copied. Without their example and commitment, it is hard to create an inclusive and psychological safe space where everyone belongs.
How can you become that inclusive leader?
- Recognize your own unconscious biases and challenge your assumptions
- Be open to other people’s perspectives and differences when decision making
- Be consistent. There is nothing worse than withdrawing your inclusive behaviour and support. Doing so can create that sense of fear. A change of leader can also have this effect so be mindful of this in any recruitment/replacement process and reinforce the importance of maintaining inclusivity during your handover.
- Reinforce the need for accountability when challenging non-inclusive behaviours in others.
- Be flexible on working styles. Understand that people with disabilities may need to work in a way that is not your usual preference, in order to perform their job well.
- Set expectations of your team to demonstrate inclusive behaviours.
In addition team members can also adopt the following practical inclusive behaviours to create that safe space:
- Check in on team members, in particular those who may have a disability
- Engage early in relationships. Show that you value and care about others
- Support someone different to you e.g. someone who may have a disability, removing your affinity bias. Be an active ally to them i.e. someone who has their back
- Be open to new approaches and ideas. Remove any unconscious bias in your way of thinking
- Look out for anyone who may feel left out or like an outsider. Give them an opportunity to lead on an engagement and to share their views in meetings
- Report any non-inclusive behaviours in others that may make people feel they are not valued or overlooked in meetings
- Provide consistent support to others to maintain that sense of belonging
- Share information. Remember, knowledge is power, so be inclusive in sharing that information
All of these behaviours play a part in creating that safe space where everyone can feel they belong and be their authentic selves. Sharing signals that we care and are open is key to people sharing information about themselves like their disabilities and therefore help them feel like they belong.
Consistency and change
It is worth remembering that people who are underrepresented e.g. people with disabilities, may wonder if their differences are valued and whether they belong. This means they use their energy to fit in with the dominant groups and suppress their differences. This additional stress can impact poorly on their mental health. This is something that has happened to me and my mental health.
Trust needs to be built up and demonstrated consistently to show they do belong and encourage people to be their authentic self. The word “consistently” is incredibly important – if the experience of belonging is not static, this can give rise to a lack of safe space and fear.
This particularly needs to be considered in times of change. Team or workplace changes are always a disruptive and uncertain time for employees. For those with disabilities, the impact can go even further. It can mean real fear of isolation, exclusion and non-acceptance.
A change in leadership in particular can carry a high risk for employees with disabilities if their needs and support methods are not shared and/or maintained by the new leader. Therefore it is incredibly important that with any change in leader, there is a full and proper handover to maintain that consistency within the workplace.
It is easy to assume that inclusive behaviour means to simply treat team members with disabilities exactly the same as everyone else. To not purposely exclude them.
Whilst this is well intended, it is not enough.
Team members who have disabilities will have specific and unique needs that must be met, and are more likely to have felt at some point in their lives that they don’t belong.
Proactive thought and action is therefore essential to create that sense of belonging that others perhaps are able to take for granted. By demonstrating inclusive behaviours as listed above, you can watch those team members thrive under your intentional inclusive leadership and gain that all important sense of belonging.