Leadership / 11.08.22
Is Belonging the Key to Your Team’s Success?
What does it mean to inspire belonging for staff at our organizations? Why is it important that we do?
Belonging was the theme of this year’s keynote address at the Tessitura Learning and Community Conference (TLCC) in Denver. The inspiring Stephanie Ybarra, Artistic Director of Baltimore Center Stage, delivered the presentation. The event marked the first in-person TLCC in three years, and much has changed since the last time we gathered. The arts and culture industry has experienced not only a global pandemic but also a profound reckoning in the face of renewed calls for racial and social justice in our communities and our workplaces.
Stephanie Ybarra, image by Josh Power Photography.
In response to those calls, many of our organizations drafted new diversity commitments and enacted strategic DEAI plans. But are these policies doing enough? Evidence suggests that without proactive measures to move beyond inclusion to belonging, these efforts are falling short.
The missions of most arts and culture organizations center around goals of bringing people together. So why do we struggle to create belonging in our own teams?
“Raise your hand if you believe our arts and culture organizations are mission-critical to building greater empathy and understanding for each other,” Ybarra said.
A sea of hands went up.
“Alright, now raise your hand if you have ever said or heard the phrase, ‘It’s not personal,’” Ybarra continued. “Keep your hands raised if you believed it.”
Hands dropped, and the room echoed with nervous laughter.
“I find that so curious that our work is designed to facilitate empathy, and yet we regularly justify words and actions with the phrase, ‘It’s not personal,’” Ybarra said.
Making It Personal
As Ybarra demonstrated, getting personal is exactly what our organizations will need to move forward successfully. Innovation occurs when everyone on our teams feels empowered to share their ideas. It occurs when people feel safe being creative and taking smart risks. Yet they can only feel comfortable doing those things when they also feel they belong.
Without belonging, people feel othered. And when that happens, they can’t bring their complete, authentic selves to work.
Studies prove this. According to Deloitte, belonging ranks as the top human capital issue organizations face today. That’s because 61% of employees report engaging in “covering” at their workplaces. That is, they proactively downplayed aspects of their identities to meet social expectations.
The result is not just devastating for the individuals involved. There are also real bottom-line implications to our organizations. Studies show high perceptions of belonging are linked to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk and a 75% decrease in sick days.
Showing Up as Yourself
Why do so many employees feel they don’t belong? As Ybarra highlighted, we constantly fight structures that tell us we must compartmentalize our lives.
“I learned very early, despite my own understanding of my inner strength and my inner confidence, that my empathetic tendencies didn’t match the dominant, outward perception of strength and confidence and logic,” Ybarra said. “So, I rehearsed.”
“I rehearsed the dominant perception of strength and confidence and logic so that others might see me the way I wanted to be seen, pretzeling myself into whatever inauthentic — but palatable — version of myself the world needed to see.”
When interviewing for her current position, she asked Kwame Kwei-Armah, Baltimore Center Stage’s outgoing artistic director, what she needed to know about the process. “You only need to know one thing,” he said. “You need to show up as yourself.”
The advice was eye-opening. “The fact of the matter is that we are surrounded and inundated with systems and practices and policies and a culture that want to dehumanize us,” Ybarra said. “It’s easier that way. Other us. Divide us. Reduce us to the most simplistic version or explanation of ourselves.”
Ybarra said arts and culture organizations aren’t immune to this practice. “Even in this room, we perpetuate dehumanization every day,” Ybarra said.
Ybarra asked audience members if these phrases sounded familiar: “The powers that be.” “The higher-ups.” “Marketing wants …” “Devo is insisting …”
What would happen, she asked, if we instead acknowledged our team members? “Why do we insist on removing the human element of our work?” she said. “Because it’s not personal? I don’t buy it.”
By nature, belonging is personal, and a sense of belonging helps everyone achieve more. “Innovation and evolution occur with exploration and experimentation and learning,” she said. “To do that, people have to feel free to imagine. They have to feel comfortable wondering. They need to be able to bring their experiences and their insights to the table. And this requires what I like to call creating the conditions for belonging. Belonging — not inclusion, belonging — such that each person who engages with our organizations feels connected, safe, seen.
“We don’t get to belonging without bringing our whole selves and without inviting others to bring their whole selves to the table,” she continued. “And that requires authenticity. And authenticity requires vulnerability.”
Ybarra described vulnerability as a journey, not a destination. She suggested small steps to start, using tools she’s found valuable in her ongoing practice of vulnerability.
- Get comfortable not having all the answers. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know,” “I’m struggling with,” “I’m challenged by” or “I’m curious about.”
- Acknowledge when your actions hurt someone. Be quick to say, “I apologize,” or “I’m sorry for the impact I had on you.”
- Don’t be afraid to share unfinished thoughts. You can add qualifiers: “I have an offering,” “I have a different perspective” or “I’m speaking in draft.”
- Examine your gathering rituals. Know they set a tone, conscious or not.
- Start meetings or conversations with human check-ins that have nothing to do with work.
- Invite others to share their access needs. Validate them when they do.
- Thank someone when they offer a different opinion, give feedback or share their feelings.
- Find opportunities to create shared meaning and understanding.
“Having agency to share who you are — in total — requires a ton of courage,” Ybarra said. “But I feel like it is also necessary to the work we do.”
You can watch Ybarra’s entire keynote on the Tessitura website.
This article was sponsored by Tessitura.
Tags: Leadership , Sponsored Content