Amplify Everyone’s Voice: Tactics to Build Team Belonging
Updated: Feb 25, 2020
Christa McAuliffe would have been the first teacher in space. Instead, the space shuttle she was on, named Challenger, broke apart 73 seconds after leaving Earth. Christa and the astronaut team never made it to space.
On the surface, it was a technical problem; the spacecraft wasn’t sealed properly for the intense cold at liftoff. But the root cause was very human: managers at NASA knew about this fatal flaw for nine years before the disaster. Engineers tried to speak up about the problem, but they were ignored. NASA wasn’t a safe place to voice concerns. The culture didn’t tolerate or learn from failures, and this hurt NASA’s performance, sacrificing seven lives in the process.
The Challenger disaster is a well-known example of groupthink. When a team goes along with a bad choice and no one speaks up against it, dangerous decisions get the green light. NASA in the 70s and 80s didn’t amplify everyone’s voice and follow through in the name of safety. If engineers and managers felt safe to speak up and their concerns were taken seriously, they could have avoided this disaster.
How can we build teams so that everyone’s voice is amplified?
Cultivate BAM Behaviours
We all have three basic psychological needs: belonging, autonomy, and mastery (what we call BAM needs). When team members’ BAM needs are met, everyone’s voice gets amplified.
When you have belonging, you can speak up to your team because you know they will listen.
When you have autonomy, you have the freedom to own your work and speak your mind.
When you have mastery, you are thriving in your role as a skilled contributor to your team.
By meeting members’ BAM needs, innovation increases because teams have the motivation and opportunity to perform well. In teams like these, members feel safe speaking up to avoid groupthink and disasters like the Challenger tragedy.
We all need to belong.
We feel belonging when we are welcomed by our chosen groups. At work, we need to belong to our team; the people we work with can make our workplaces fun and inspiring or miserable and demotivating. While we can feel belonging to our whole organization or our Employee Resource Group, our motivation, performance, and retention are in danger if we feel excluded by those around us in our day-to-day work.
Why? Because when we are excluded from our team, it hurts. The phrase “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me”, is simply not true. Our brain processes social exclusion like physical pain. When we feel excluded from our community, we are more likely to be depressed and hopeless. Exclusion, whether by a person or in a computer game, makes us feel less belonging, self-esteem, and meaning in the world. Everyone loses when we exclude.
Belonging has business benefits.
Fostering a path towards team belonging is a critical step towards innovation and business performance.
Can fostering team belonging avoid disasters like the Challenger space shuttle crash? Yes!
In healthcare teams, nurses who feel they belong care for patients better and are less likely to quit.
People who want to belong but don’t are less helpful and more harmful to their coworkers.
Airline crew members who feel they belong to their teams and with their leaders are more likely to speak up.
People who feel they belong at work are more motivated and committed. They perform better, help others out, and are more likely to stay. By focusing on belonging, we open up a treasure trove of evidence in behavioural science to build behaviour, culture, and performance.
So, how do you achieve it?
It’s not always easy. It requires courage, vulnerability and curiosity. Most of us worry about being left out and wonder where we stand, fixating inward to make sure we do the right thing. Yet, our focus needs to be outward, on others, continuously sending signals of belonging to ensure everyone’s voice is heard. If we focus our efforts outside, we can start a chain reaction of belongingness that pays dividends back to us.
Small actions make a big difference.
Think Small: Design for Team Belonging.
Six hundred people and I were listening to a presentation when the speaker told us to turn to our groups. He said, “I want one of you to bring up an idea. The other team members have to respond with ‘no, but…’. Take turns practicing this.” All 600 of us participated, but there was not much discussion. The “no, but…” response shut us down, so we didn’t talk much.
Then he said, “After one of you brings up an idea, I want the team to respond with ‘yes, and…’. Discuss, and then switch roles.” The room lit up as if there were twice as many people. You could hear the energy in our voices when people sent a simple belonging signal and lifted each other up.
This experience shows us that small behaviours, signaling “you belong”, have a big impact. It seems counterintuitive, but belonging is strengthened with every small moment, not in one grand gesture. We can design team experiences to build belonging; each meeting, each email, and each facial expression can bring teammates together or push them away. These moments are subtle. But once we’re looking for the small moments that matter, we can see a million opportunities to send belonging cues.
Is our team connected? Do we share a future? Do all team members feel safe? These three questions underpin actions that can instill team belonging. Here’s some small actions to try in your next team meeting:
1. Let Others Speak First
Often, we think the goal of team meetings is to get to the answer as quickly as possible. To get there, we might jump in with our opinion before the team shared all the information. Other people might see our first guess as the final answer – especially if we’re the most senior person – and hold back important information and diverse views. Even though we didn’t intend it, sharing our opinion out loud can shut down the conversation too early or create competition where we need cooperation. Here’s a habit to try: Ask “What do you think?” to everyone at your next team meeting before you give your opinion. Simple? Yes. Powerful? Absolutely.
2. Overcommunicate that You’re Listening
A great listener is harder to come by than we might think. Silence can be uncomfortable. Yet, if we can teach people to listen well, we’ll achieve more collaboration and team belonging. Hone your listening habits by practicing these behaviours:
Ask Expansive Questions: Stay curious using simple phrases like “Tell me more” and “Why?” – and avoid interrupting.
Build on Other’s Ideas: Try responding by saying “Yes, and…” (instead of “No, but…”).
Physically Connect: Gestures such as nodding, leaning in, and making eye contact when listening sends signals that you value the other person.
3. Get Close and Connect
Virtual teams are all the rage, but visual contact and close physical proximity is surprisingly important to communication, belonging and performance. Where team members work, makes a big difference. A different floor can feel like a different country. Try building team belonging by moving desks together. For virtual team members, overcommunicate using video, sending inside jokes, and even pulling up a chair with their photo to remind people they are on the phone.
4. Say “Thank You!”
Simply saying “thank you” can ignite cooperative behavior that spreads across a team. When people helped a student (Eric) write a cover letter, half of them got a thankful response from Eric and half got a neutral message. Then, Steve, a different student, asked the same people for help. Those who got a thank you message from Eric helped Steve more than 2x as often as people who got the neutral message. Even a small thank you can spark more generosity to others. Thank You’s aren't only expressions of gratitude, they're contagious belonging cues.
5. Give Inclusive Feedback
Feedback can be scary. We hate ambiguity, so when someone says “Can I give you some feedback?”, we might brace ourselves for impact. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Feeling anxious or uncertain about feedback doesn’t prepare us well for it. Fortunately, there’s one sentence we can use to transform feedback reactions and make sure everyone feels heard:
“I’m giving you these comments because we have very high expectations, and I know you can reach them.”
Inclusive feedback works because:
The person feels connected: Using “we” brings the person getting feedback into the group to build belonging
There’s a shared future: Sharing the group’s high standards sets a challenging goal for everyone to work toward, together
It feels safe: Hearing the team has confidence in you can help you see feedback as constructive
Small changes. Big difference.
We can drive team belonging by practicing small habits every day. One or two belonging signals is not enough – we require repeated signals to have our BAM needs met. Luckily, it requires only small actions that soon become habits. By making small changes to our meetings, communication, and feedback, we can build a culture that signals “it’s safe to speak up here”.
Let’s Make Inclusion Stick!
Sylvia Apostolidis, President, The Jasmar Group
Natasha Ouslis, Principal Behavioural Scientist, The Jasmar Group
The Jasmar Group is a behaviour change consultancy that helps organizations build team belonging, culture, and performance.
Interested in a new approach to building a diverse and inclusive workplace? Book HERE for a free consultation with Sylvia Apostolidis.