APU Business Careers Careers & Learning Online Learning Podcast Politics in the Workplace

The Value of Fostering a Sense of Belonging

Podcast featuring Dr. Linda C. Ashar, J.D.Faculty Member, School of Business and 
Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs, Virginia Union University

Everybody wants to feel like they belong, so it’s imperative that organizations create a workplace culture that provides employees with a strong sense of belonging. In this episode, APU professor Linda Ashar talks to Provost and author, Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, about his research on belonging and how he’s applying his findings to drive employee and student success. Learn about the responsibility of leaders to foster a sense of belonging in the workplace, ways for leaders to show students and employees that they’re valued and they matter, and how such efforts can improve employee retention, satisfaction and productivity.

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Linda Ashar: Hello everyone. This is Linda Ashar, host for this podcast. We welcome today, Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, who is Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs at Virginia Union University, where he also serves as professor of Urban Education and Director of the Center for Study of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Dr. Strayhorn has published several books and over 200 articles, book chapters, and other scholarly publications with several works in progress, I hear. His research contributions to education include noteworthy development of the significance of the perception of belonging for student success. And that’s where we’re focusing our conversation today, belonging.

Dr. Strayhorn’s book entitled “College Students’ Sense of Belonging” is now in its second edition. And his insight is important not only for educational institutions, but for all organizations developing a culture of equity and inclusion. So this very much has a business application as well as an academic environment application.

Most recently, Dr. Strayhorn was keynote speaker in a national online panel discussion about diversity and inclusion hosted jointly by APU and Rio Salado College as part of our equity, diversity and inclusion taskforce work. So I am pleased we are continuing the discussion in today’s podcast. Dr. Strayhorn, welcome and thank you for being with us. I know how valuable your time is.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Thank you so much Linda, is my pleasure to be here. Looking forward to a great conversation and appreciate all of the mentioned of the work that I’ve been doing and excited to talk with you about belonging and this broad application to education, business, and other kinds of industries.

Linda Ashar: I’m looking forward to it too. In your research and writing, you’ve captured the concept of inclusion and, what I consider, and even more relatable, an all-encompassing concept in the term “sense of belonging.” And you have done some extensive research—I’ve enjoyed reading about it—about students’ experience and their feeling of belonging in the educational environment.

So to start our discussion, would you share with us some background about your research to give our listeners some context, and characterize for us what we’re talking about here in “sense of belonging?”

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Absolutely. So I’m an education researcher, education scholar, who entered the field after completing my doctoral degree with intellectual curiosity questions about the success of students, why students some thrive; some succeed; others struggle; face challenges; fail. And so, I entered with this focus on the success question that has all sorts of broad reaches to it.

So it’s not just about success determined by grades, although that’s important, but success in terms of retention and promotion and elevation. But then as I started learning more, and reading more, and really studying students who have been my informants over my career, I learned that success in learning spaces, primarily schools and colleges, is in part determined not just by what students do, but shaped by who they are, as well as how they think and experience the world.

And I often talk about the fact that experiences, interactions, exchanges, rarely issue meaning on their own. You sort of bump into a person and that doesn’t mean anything. You don’t know did you bump into them because you’re clumsy, or did you bump into them because they’re trying to get your attention. It’s only when we start to interpret that experience that meaning is made.

And so, as I talked to students and studied their experiences in schools and colleges, I learned that a lot of it has to do with their interpretive lens, how they make meaning of whether or not they’re called on in class, or how they interpret their grades. And part of that is conditioned by the environment.

So it’s how schools are structured, how colleges are formed, and the policies and procedures that shape that ethos, that influence how a student interprets, makes meaning of those experiences, that ultimately influence their success. So that became the equation for me that I started really exploring through my work.

In short, what I found is that some students succeed in schools and colleges. By the way, I appreciate your mention of the businesses because a lot of my work now protracts that work, it follows the students. Students graduate from school and some go to college. They graduate from college and some of them go into the workplace.

And so now I’m learning that belonging matters even in the workplace for anyone who will listen to this podcast or any of your podcasts, who’s wondering, look, why are people leaving my company? Why is my turnover so high? Why is my tenure of staff so low? It has to do with things that we already know about: some of it is about salary; some of it is about opportunities for advancement; some of it is about their interests change with time and therefore they pursue another opportunity.

But, some people leave companies and leave jobs that they love or schools where they’re doing well or colleges where they’re a student leader, because they do not feel a sense of belonging. And sense of belonging, then, becomes this key ingredient to the formula for success in learning spaces and working spaces, and that’s the essence of my work.

I know we’re going to get to this. So I’ll close by saying that, throughout the projects that constitute my research program, I’ve really been working and fine-tuning and revising the definition of belonging. But in short, belonging for me refers to a feeling. That’s the part that gets frustrating for scholars because it’s not a temperature that can be checked with a thermometer. It’s not a rating that you can just measure on a ruler. It is a feeling that you’ve got to decode and detect and assess.

And if it’s a feeling, then it also changes—and I talk about this in the book—it changes with context and time, with people as their circumstances change. But it is a feeling that people matter to one another and to a group. It’s a shared faith that as a member of the group my needs will be met and that it will be met not only through my own striving. That’s the part that people like to talk about, “Oh my God, Strayhorn’s work is about belonging. So the students got to find a sense of belonging.”

No, no, no, no, no, that is a wrong interpretation of my scholarship. It is not the student’s responsibility to find a sense of belonging, although they have an important role to play. It is also the responsibility of schools and colleges and universities and businesses to foster the conditions where people can find and feel that sense of belonging each and every day.

Linda Ashar: Excellent introduction. I think that what you’ve hit on and where my thoughts were going as you were speaking, especially what you just mentioned about fostering the environment. I think at least from the business standpoint, although there are inroads headed there, traditionally, not just in United States, but in most businesses world wide, I don’t think fostering a sense of belonging has been on the radar for successful business.

There are some recent trends lately, but, in general, that has not been what business has been about. How do we characterize the concept of fostering an environment to businesses who have not even had that kind of paradigm in their mindset, although they may be concerned about losing employees or not having happy employees?

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: That’s such a good point. And you’re right, business for far too long and, quite honestly, education for far too long has really focused on bottom line. And bottom line is for most businesses about productivity and output and revenue and competitiveness and rankings and ratings. And that’s important because businesses close and open every day for failing at these metrics.

So we can’t deny the importance that, look, I own a business and I employ people through my business. And so I depend on revenue coming into the company that allows me to convert that revenue into a salary that lets them live their best life.

By the same token, I will never get that revenue as the company owner if I don’t pay attention to the personnel, and it’s not even personnel, the people and their belonging, and their sense of connectedness to the mission, the vision, the scope of the business. Businesses have paid a lot attention to customer satisfaction, but not so much employee satisfaction.

And even in when we started thinking about employee satisfaction, I think we typically thought of it as it’s satisfaction with one’s salary, satisfaction with one’s office space, whether it has a window or not. Is it large enough? But we also have to appreciate now, and we’re seeing it time and time again, that it’s really about their sense of belonging.

And if you think about the definition I just gave, sense of belonging, this feeling that people matter. Employees want to know that I matter to my employer, that my work is valued, and that it’s meaningful, and that I’m contributing to the vision and the mission. And that is not just true for the vice presidents and the managers and the directors, it is true for the maintenance workers, for the front-desk workers, for the phone operators, for those who are administrative assistants.

And so, I was just saying to my own team at my university yesterday, “Look, we’ve got to make sure that everyone understands how their work contributes to the bottom line.” And it is not their job to see those connections. I think it’s my job to see those connections, to share those connections with my leadership team and then encourage them to pass that message forward, to make sure that every director, every assistant director, can communicate with the team that your work matters and it to the bottom line.

I tell the maintenance crew at my university, whenever I can encounter them as the provost, I can’t recruit students to our university if the lawn is not clean, if the lawn is not cared for. It’s difficult to fundraise when you bring donors onto a campus and they stop by the restroom and the restroom is unkept, or it’s not usable, or it’s not clean. So all of these things matter to helping us hit the bottom line.

So I think as businesses have started to understand that sense of belonging is not just good for education, but it’s actually good for business. And that it is part of creating the momentum and the agility and the commitment and the connectedness and the focus on quality assurance and those kinds of business terms that really help us deliver for our customer.

Then we start to find, wow, you see voice of employee groups popping up all over companies. There’s a lot of companies that are redesigning their equity and diversity initiatives. They’re paying attention to equity in the workplace. They’re creating learning communities or really professional work communities for their staff, where they can plug in and communicate and connect with one another even virtually, not just through COVID. I think we’re going to watch how companies navigate this post-COVID. All of those practices are ways to foster belonging in a workplace that will ultimately serve all of our targets and goals.

Linda Ashar: Well, you’ve hit on a lot of concepts there in my mind. I’m an old English major. So to me, especially, language matters. And I hear other words going with belonging, like pride, contribution, comfort. Do you agree?

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Totally. I mean, belonging has a lot of synonyms. I want to be clear that belonging is not all of these terms, belonging has relationship with these terms.

Linda Ashar: Right. Exactly.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: So in my work, in public lectures about this, I often help people, because this is the thing, prior to the past couple of years, most people didn’t walk around using the term “belonging.”

Linda Ashar: No.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: I mean, students don’t walk up and say, “Man, I feel crummy today because I don’t feel a sense of belonging.” Every now and again, you’ll hear one of those. And so do employees; they don’t end their exit exam say, “I’m leaving because I lacked a sense of belonging.” But what they will say is things like, “I’m leaving because I don’t feel like I’m part of the team.”

My best example of this—this is how I hope so many of the CEOs and directors and people who lead teams will listen to this podcast. I was in Michigan at an unnamed institution and I was going to give a lecture there. The administrative assistant to a senior leader picked me up at the airport. And she was like, “What are you going to talk about?” So I told her, and then I gave my lecture.

She delivered me back to the airport. On the ride back she said, “Man, I thought your lecture was just great. It was so interesting.” She said, “And you know what, I’ve been working here for 12 years and it wasn’t until hearing you today that I realized what the problem is.” And she said, “I don’t feel like I belong.” I said, “Really? But you’ve been here for 12 years?” She said, “Yeah, but the truth of the matter is, I just been hanging on for 12 years. I haven’t thrived, I haven’t optimized my performance, I haven’t given them my all, you know why? Because I don’t feel like they’re giving me their all.”

And she had so many powerful examples, but here’s the one that stood out to me and I think that’s probably five, six years ago. She said they had a team lunch for some holiday, maybe Halloween, I don’t remember. And the senior leader that she assists, that she works with, at the end of their team luncheon said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, we need a team picture. Everybody get together, come on, everybody get together. Your costumes look so great.” And then he turns to her, let’s just say, her name is Sheila. He turns to Sheila and says, “Sheila, can you use this camera and go over there and take a picture of the team?”

Linda Ashar: Oh no.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: And she said, “And it was at that moment I realized I’m not part of the team. I’m not even thought of as part of the team.” So her name is Sheila. Let’s give the vice president that she worked with the name Mark. If we called Mark into this podcast and said, “Mark, do you think of Sheila as a member of your team?” I bet you Mark would say yes.

If I said, “Hey, Mark, did you know that by doing that, you just proved to Sheila that she’s not part of the team? You disrupted her sense of connectedness. You isolated her, you alienated her. You actually called her out separate from the group.” Mark would, I’m almost sure say “No, I didn’t intend to do that, that wasn’t my intention, I didn’t mean to do that. I’m so sorry for doing that.”

But usually as leaders, we don’t get the chance to know, as I said earlier. “Hey, Sheila, take this camera and take a picture of the team” doesn’t issue meaning on its own. It’s when Sheila interprets that moment and says, “Dang, I’m not part of the team or else he would have included me in the picture.” That violates her belonging; that separates from the team alienates her.

I hope Sheila, whose name is not Sheila, is listening to the podcast too. Because Sheila then tells me, “You know what I’m going to do, as a result of your keynote and thinking about this, it’s time for me to leave this place. When I get back, I’m going to tell him that I resign and I’m going to go find a place where I feel like my work matters, my contributions are valued, and I’m a part of the team.”

So this gets back to your point, Linda, you’re so right. There are synonyms to belonging. There are words that are antecedents or correlates of belonging like, people feel like they belong when they feel like they matter. They feel like they matter when they’re a part of the team. When they are included, when they are valued, when they are doing something that is important.

I told my own team yesterday. I said, “Look, if you’re doing all the important work as the Dean or the Assistant Dean, not only is that not good leadership, you know what you’re doing. You’re denying people on your team a route to belonging. Because belonging is important. You want to keep them on the team? Stop doing all the important stuff, stop leading all the important conversations, stop limiting who gets involved in the important meeting. Broaden it.”

So equity, diversity, inclusion ties into this. When we diversify who’s at the table for important discussions, who has input into the formulation of policies and procedures, not only is that good business practice or good school practice and good policy practice, it is also the work of belonging.

We are affirming for people, “Wow, my opinion matters, how I feel matters. How do I know? Because they invited me into the meeting.” And maybe it’s not a meeting, maybe you’re creating a feedback form or feedback loop, a way of reporting bias and other kinds of experiences. All of these practices affirm for people that I care about you. Sometimes that’s what you got to say. But sometimes you show it through your policies, your procedures, your practices that will ultimately help people feel connected, community, cared about, all synonyms connected to belonging. And ultimately help them find a sense of belonging that will lead to retention and optimization of performance and high revenue and high retention and high graduation and work-life satisfaction. That’s to me, the key to success.

Linda Ashar: Those are so proudly said, I couldn’t even begin to add to that. Thank you for those comments. You mentioned something about survey, which triggered a point in my mind. A lot of companies use surveys to get feedback. By the way, I’m not slamming surveys. But I’m wondering if people have a sense of not belonging, if that is not an incentive to not bother to answer surveys. Because I know that there are low responses to many types of surveys, at least this is what I hear.

So doesn’t that predicate that we should have other ways to do “sense of belonging” than just surveys, because I think that’s what some companies do. “Well, I’ll let everybody get their input,” by, “I’ll send out a survey and then everybody will feel like they have a say in some belonging here because we’ve given them a survey to fill out.” But then they don’t get the survey results back. Well, that in itself is telling, I would think.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: That’s right. So let me speak to a couple of points that you’re making. And hopefully for those who will listen to the podcast or circulate it and share it with others, they will think about these practical applications of what we’re talking about. Because, as a leader, who’s held accountable for the success of schools, colleges, businesses, all of us, whatever our station and rank and file is in life, that we have to be held accountable for the success of these organizations.

And the success of organizations depends on the belonging of the people who constitute that organization. I always say, “Look, schools, colleges, businesses, they’re nothing more than buildings with rooms and chairs and sometimes fancy whiteboards or screens that won’t attract anyone at all to stop by the bank, to stop by the firm, to come to the law office, the school or the college. No one just stops by buildings, except those who are really interested in fancy buildings to just check them out.”

It’s the people inside, it’s the banker who knows how to make a person feel comfortable and trusting their resources and money to a bank. Or a person who can work with the student who has all sorts of anxieties about learning and the whole teaching-learning process, or counselor or recruiter who can connect with them, demystify the whole teaching and learning process, affirm them as knowers and encourage them to be successful.

It’s the college professor who takes a first-generation college student who’s no one in their family has been to college. I’ve met students who no one in their entire neighborhood has been to college; they’re the first. And how frightening is it when you’re going off to a place that no one in your immediate vicinity can tell you about.

But, yet, some recruiter, some sign, some advertisement on the television, spoke to you and said, “You could do this.” And now you’re there. And a college professor who can connect with that empathy, understanding that situation, even though they may not be first-generation, they can help a first-generation student understand, “You can do this, we will support you, we’re here to support you. We will provide the support that you need. You’re not a bother or a drain on the institution, whether you need counseling, writing, financial aid, whatever it is, we’re here to support you, and that you can be successful here.”

All of that is so important, especially as we have diversified our country and we need to do more there, of course, but we’ve opened the doors of access to education and to business. To higher education and to leadership for people of color, for women, for LGBTQIA folks, for Native Americans, for those who are first generation in this country.

And as we’ve done that, our organizations have not changed. The buildings haven’t changed, the rooms haven’t always changed. So it’s the leaders who have to really keep their pulse on the needs of the people. We’ve got new people, new leaders, new teams, new clientele, new customers. And how do you regularly assess those changing needs? Remember, belonging is about a shared faith that my needs will be met. So as we bring newcomers and we serve newcomers, how do we keep up with those changing needs so that we can make just-in-time changes or incremental progress to respond to those needs?

And one way to do it pretty quickly, as you’ve nailed. is through surveys; surveys are important. They can be well-designed, well-structured in a way that will yield valuable information. But you’re right, sometimes people who don’t feel like they matter are not motivated to complete a survey.

So to any leader or HR director or in the education space assessment and evaluation professional who’s listening, surveys on their own won’t do it, which is why an HR exit interviews that are applied evenly across the board. That is, to turn in your keys or to turn in your badge or to get your final paycheck, you must complete this exit exam or this exit interview. Where it’s not just a survey they will or will not complete, but it’s a sit-down conversation to hear about the person’s experience: the good, the bad, the celebrations and successes, as well as the challenges and the disappointments.

And we don’t just then put that into a report that sits on the shelf, but that becomes data, information that we mine and we analyze to identify, how do we keep getting better? This is where belonging connects with the work of psychologists like Carol Dweck about growth mindedness. We’re all works in progress. And this idea that, “Oh my goodness, if someone left because they had a difficult or painful situation, it means we’re a bad school, a bad college, or a bad business.” That thinking is bad for business. That thinking is bad for education.

It’s to understand that we’re all striving to become more. So I appreciate your, mentioned earlier, belonging book in education is in its second edition. The book I’m working on now is really protracting outside of education, more into the business spaces.

Linda Ashar: Excellent.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: And to also tie to this idea of belonging and becoming. That it’s not about, “Oh my gosh, here’s my organization, my school, my agency, as we are now, and you either belong or you don’t. You either fit in or you don’t. You either get with the program or you don’t.” No, no, no, no. That we are always, even at the organizational level, evolving, becoming, growing, changing.

How and why? Because we’re responding to the needs of our clientele, of our personnel, of our customers, of our students and families. It’s really trying to help us understand exactly what you’re talking about, how to use these feedback loops to become organizations where people can not only belong, but flourish and thrive.

I think interviews, I’ve sat with and interviewed business reps who talk about voice of employee interventions, where regularly they sit down with teams to hear about their experiences at work, the collegiality temperature, and barometer of the organization, ways in which workflows can be made more easy and more seamless. And that’s another way.

Another way is building in these opportunities. So I think borrowing from companies like Google and Yahoo, where if you identify a way that a work process can be enhanced or made more efficient, that you don’t have to wait until the team retreat to share that idea. There is an existing mechanism, sometimes this is electronically mediated, and you can do it even anonymously.

So I think to your point, sometimes people feel like, “Oh my goodness, I’m having a bad experience or I know that something that we’re supposed to be doing is not being followed exactly by all members of the team. But I don’t want to tell on people, I don’t want a fear of reprisal.”

And remember, belonging is about a feeling and it’s a shared faith that my needs will be met, that I will not be punished for challenging the existing system, that I will not be punished for calling out oppression and bias and discrimination based on any access of identity.

So when we do the work of anti-racist leadership, when we do the work of anti-biased training, when we do the work of creating reporting systems for our employees, that’s not just good business practice, although it is, it’s not just good DEIB nowadays, diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging practice although it is, it is also the work of belonging. It is the work of staff retention and staff development. So I just think that there are so many ways that you can move beyond the survey to interviews, to feedback loops, to technology, mediated reporting and bias systems.

And I’ll close with this one, and evaluations. Evaluations are not one-way conversations. They’re dynamic conversations. How often do we make sure that annual performance evaluations of our employees also give the employee an opportunity to give us feedback about the organization? And we don’t have to wait until we do a 360 of their leader, but we’re constantly getting information about not just did your computer work, although that’s important, but also do you feel like there are opportunities for advancement?

Listen, there are so many, especially with this incoming generation of workers, Generation Z, there’s so many different names that are attached to it. I think education in business, we’ll learn a lot from them. I already see it where some of my leaders will come and say, “Look, I got this person who I really want to recruit and get on the team. And I’m trying to compete with this other university that wants them, but they’re not responding. I’ve offered them $5,000 more dollars and they still won’t sign the contract.”

And it turns out that in exchange for $5,000, they’d rather have flexible work schedules, not just because of COVID, but even after COVID. They’d rather have some time off in the summer, or be able to have multiple employment gigs because this idea of one person doing one job for 100 years, that is over, that is not today’s worker. The average worker today has at least 12 different jobs by the time they turn 40. So how are we changing in education and changing in business to meet the needs of this worker? Meeting their needs is the formula for belonging that leads to success.

Linda Ashar: That’s a great example about recruitment. Another thing that I read earlier this year, speaking of diversity, that younger workers don’t want to work for a company that doesn’t have a diversity-inclusion program or doesn’t practice it. But they actually are looking at that aspect of a company before accepting a job.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: That’s right. It goes back to your question earlier about synonyms or correlates for belonging. So if belonging is a feeling that I matter and that I’m valued. Valued, listen to that word, valued. I am valued. And how do you assess whether or not you’re valued? Sometimes it’s about the kind of work that you are given. Sometimes it’s about the resources and benefits and salary that you’re given. But it’s also about alignment with my own values.

And so if any CEO, executive leader, HR recruiter is listening to this podcast, “Listen, if you want to recruit people to your workplace, one of the best things you can do is be very transparent about your values. Put it in your mission and your vision statement. Have a set of core values that are clearly communicated and have clear examples of how you demonstrate your commitment to those values because what today’s worker’s looking for is I’m trying to work for a place that cares about the things that I care about.”

Listen, we just move through it, we’re still living through it. There are people who are looking for jobs today, maybe to work at your place of employment, who are trying to figure out, “Do Black Lives Matter at your workplace?” Who are thinking, “Do women’s lives matter at your workplace?” Who are wondering, “Look, I’m LGBTQIA+, will I be safe?”

So in the work on belonging, I grounded in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Remember, belonging is a shared faith that my needs will be met. What are my needs? Well, Maslow told us a long time ago, (Abraham Maslow, a psychologist) that, as humans, we all have needs. It’s not a Black thing, a white thing, a rich thing, a poor thing, a tall thing, a straight thing. It is everyone as humans have basic needs, air, water, food, shelter, sleep, safety, security.

People want to work in places where they will feel safe, not only safe from workplace violence, but that’s critically important. Given the things that we’ve watched across society today, that is important. So when the leadership team, when the CEO, when the board has a retreat, takes the time to make sure that they are investing in security officers for buildings;  when they’re investing in surveillance cameras, not to monitor people, but to take care of people and to make sure that you can keep people safe; when you take the steps to put high-tech locks into the workplace, listen, that is not just good building practice, although it is.

You ought to be communicating with your employees: “Listen, you matter to us, we value you. We understand that you want to work in a workplace that is safe and that’s why we just redid all the locks. That’s why we just digitize the whole buildings so that we can keep people safe and secure.”

But it’s not just physical safety and security that matters; people want to work in places where they are free from harassment. So harassment policies are important, verbal, sexual, the only policies in place. But, listen, this is the part for all of us who are leaders: we’ve got to take these policies seriously because when employees know that we have a handbook that prohibits certain behaviors that they are subjected to, and that they report, but no one’s ever held accountable to it, we are not only not living up to our values, but we are violating their belonging.

We’re destroying our staff retention and recruitment initiative. And we are damaging the brand of our institution because people will leave our companies and go out there and say, “Look, they don’t actually believe what they say they value.” And people can talk mean to you and mistreat you or treat you unfairly and no one does anything about it.

So for senior-most leaders who will listen to this podcast, it’s our job, then, to hold people accountable. We don’t hold them accountable because we’re mean leaders; we hold them accountable because we believe firmly in the mission and the vision of our organizations. And we believe in the people, and the people want to work in places where they’re safe and secure: physically, psychologically, emotionally, financially. So if we’re doing the work on making sure that we’re paying people equitably and fair, that is good HR practice; that is good employment practice; but it’s also the work of belonging.

And today you will find many more prospective workers who will say to you, “Can you send me a copy of your mission statement, your vision statement, your value statement, your diversity statement?” before they ever ask about a strategic plan. And it’s not because those are just woke things, because they’re trying to see, “Does this company value the things that I value?” And what they’re also trying to assess is, “Do people like me, who value these things, belong, fit in? Can they be successful in a company or an organization like this?”

And so, when we say, look, “We value the community,” and you want to demonstrate it, then you ought to have some Staff Community Days. And if you want to really signal that it matters, they should be paid Staff Community Days where staff are paid; it counts towards your work to go out and find a community service project; or maybe the whole company does it.

Look, if you say, “One of our values is sustainability,” don’t tell me that, and then I look at your calendar of events and there’s never a “no-print day” or “an all lights off” day. And listen, when all staff are brought together to turn their lights off for a day because we’re demonstrating our commitment to environmental sustainability by not using energy, by not using the lights, by not using power,that’s not only good sustainable practice, although it is, it is also a team-building exercise.

Now we get to talk about the day, “Y’all remember the day we’ve had all the lights off, how cool that was?” Hey, listen, I’ve done this in my own staff, even as a provost in higher ed, there are “no print” days. And that is because we are an institution who’s committed to environmental sustainability and I’ve got to demonstrate that some way. But listen, it is so cool to watch my team, to watch faculty, to watch staff, try to figure out how to get through the “no-print day” together.

And they’re talking about, man, this was cool. I had to use my iPad or use my phone, or I’m going to walk over to your office. And then, of course, during COVID wearing masks, to tell you something that I might’ve printed off and mailed to you in the past. You’re building community. And it gets right back to what Linda said, belonging is a correlate of community and connectedness. And this is how environmental sustainability efforts, which is, one of our core values gets demonstrated through our calendar of events, but it also feeds our belonging efforts. It’s all connected.

Linda Ashar: Those are great examples. I would like to take your thoughts a step further as a final part of our discussion. And that is, fostering a sense of belonging in education in online remote environment, which also is applicable to business with a high increase of remote workers. How do we best achieve that for people who, by definition of location, may feel isolated?

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: So to answer that, I think we’ve talked about belonging. We’ve talked about its general definition. We’ve talked about its connection to other correlates like mattering and community connectedness. And we’ve talked about a lot of different practical applications across education and business.

The one thing that I think is almost troubling for folks, and in some ways confusing, is that while belonging, in my research, it’s a universal need. Everybody wants to belong. The cool thing about it is, you don’t have to say, “Oh my goodness, let me find out who wants to feel a sense of belonging and then I can work on their belonging.” All humans want to belong.

I used to say, we’re wired that way. But we’ve learned that most human behavior is not programmed. We’re not wired like gadgets, we’re social beings. So we are actually socialized to be connected and in the community.

We, as a society, typically organize ourselves into families, in neighborhoods and congregations and cultures. So we cluster ourselves into groups around connectedness. Belonging is also important. It’s connected to; like I said earlier, it doesn’t just influence what we do. People who feel a sense of belonging at work, they are more productive. They like their jobs more. Guess what? They come to work; they stopped calling out.

A lot of people who call out sick and always have excuses for not coming to work is because they don’t feel like they belong there. Same is true in education. Students who feel a sense of belonging come to class. They show up ready, prepared; they’re engaged in their own learning.

So belonging doesn’t just drive what we do, but it is also shaped by who we are. And, interestingly enough though, in all of my work, I have never found that belonging is determined by place.

It is not place-bound. It actually shifts and changes depending on where a person is, where they are in terms of the conditions and circumstances that shape around them. But, whether you are working in a building or working remotely, you still want to feel a part of the team. And that sense of connectedness and community-ness and being valued does influence your outcomes. It does influence your performance and productivity and your ability to focus. The same is true in education.

So to anyone who thinks, “Well, I think this is so hard to do.” It does require a different set of strategies, but it’s not impossible. So I’ll give you a couple of examples then I’ll stop.

One in education, is about identity. So people want to know that they matter and people want to know that they are valued and that they are seen and heard. So in a person-to-person interaction, we typically signal to one another. Whenever I give public lectures, I have these slides where there’s a little avatar on the slide on this point, and the avatar is holding this big, huge magnifying glass and they’re sort of looking around. And my point is that belonging is so important that we spend a lot of time searching for it and looking for cues that I belong.

Sometimes as we’re looking for that big magnifying glass, we see it because we’re like Kent State University. Kent State University through some work I’ve done with them, they have a huge sign on one of their buildings that says, “You belong here.”

Same is true for Deloitte. Deloitte has signs on their website that says, “You belong here.” I was in the mall the other week shopping for my granddaughter, and I pass by this sign that was lying on the table for a company, and right on the company it said “You belong here.” And right beside it was a job application. And they were recruiting people to fill out job applications by using one of the most powerful messages known to all mankind, and that is, “You belong here.”

How compelling is that? I was walking, looking for my three-year-old granddaughter something, and that still caught my eye. So belonging compels us. It draws us in. And so when we are in person-to-person interaction, we typically signal to each other that we know each other by using each other’s names. “Hey Linda, hey Terrell.”

We also do it by communication, through our conversation. We talked about the fact that your podcast is shaped; it’s designed to be a conversation with a person. And how do we know this conversation? Because we’re talking; we have coffee; it’s very comfortable. We’re talking about matters of mutual interest. That works in person to person, but the same is true, we can manufacture that online. So whether working remotely or learning remotely, students’ and employees’ names matter; knowing their names, knowing something about them.

So when instructors encourage students to create online presences in learning management systems, or to fill out the profile, upload their favorite picture, list their hobbies, or when employers do the same. That is, that they have team retreats that includes those working in person, as well as those working remotely, that they have anticipated that they’re going to need to have a way for remote workers to pipe into the meeting, to ask questions; that they’re attentive to the online chat as well as the in-room chat.

That they are providing discussion board or chat boxes where people can drop their thoughts, but it’s not just dropping their thoughts and no one’s going to communicate. But you’re constantly weaving between your remote workers and your in-person workers. You’re doing the work of belonging and you’re starting to help people feel that sense of connectedness; though I am physically apart, that I am personally connected to my place of employment.

Managers can do this very easily and you don’t have to wait until, I don’t know, the book drops to do this, you can do this right now in the middle of this podcast. If you have not written to your remote workers to tell them that you’re thinking about them, that you’re proud to have them as a part of the team.

We often think about this. I was talking to a buddy of mine who works for an unnamed company. He was saying that they had this wonderful sort of reunion because during COVID they were working remotely. And then some people came back to the workplace. And by coming back, they gave them water bottles and key chains and all sorts of swag and gifts.

And my question when he was done was, what about the remote workers? Did you mail them the same gifts? If that’s not on your mind to make sure that the same benefits, rewards, awards, gifts, comments, affirmations that we give to people who are physically present with us, are also available to those who are learning or working remotely, you got to do that. You have to tackle that now.

I know that even post-COVID, I’m going to have team members who will work on campus and team members who will never come to campus. And so, already I’m thinking about how will I restructure my team meetings so there’s always a way to connect with my remote workers. That there’s always a way for me to pay attention to what they need and what they’re putting in the chat and that they have input into the agenda and help set the agenda. And that we can hear them.

Listen, belonging is about feeling like you matter and that you are seen and heard. So we’ve got to do the work to make sure that they’re projected on the screen. Do the work. Work with IT to make sure that there’s a two-way conversation. I don’t know if you all know this, but I mean, Linda and Bob, thank you for your work today. We had to make sure before this podcast happened, that they could hear me, that I could hear them clearly.

That’s not just good podcast mechanics, although it is, it’s also, man, it makes me feel really special that they’re going to care to make sure that I sound good on my podcast episode. And that they believe that what I’m going to share is important enough that they want to make sure that I got good sound, good equipment, so that the audience can hear what I have to share.

But it doesn’t stop there. They care so much about you and the listening audience that they did all that prep work, leading up to, I mean, weeks and months in advance before this episode. Listen, that transports directly to the workplace and to the learning space.

That community of care is not just about hugs and high-fives and kind notes, although that’s important. It’s also taking the next step to anticipate their needs, to respond to their needs, to hold people accountable to meeting their needs, and then certainly celebrating their performance and their accomplishments and their belonging and success.

Linda Ashar: Dr. Strayhorn, you are a very eloquent person and I appreciate everything that you’ve shared with us today. Thank you for your comments on the podcast. This is an important podcast, and our guests are very important to us. Do you have anything that you would add, as we wrap up?

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: I look forward to hopefully folks who want to connect with the work of belonging and I continue to do this now, I said that the work I’m doing now really protracts the work on belonging in education to the workplace.

I’m continuing the work on belonging, but now moving beyond just the theory and the practice of belonging too. The question I get from people all the time is “Okay, I got it.” I talked about Kent State. Kent State has got it on a sign. Amherst College has on their website. University of Michigan has it on their website, Tennessee has it on a T-shirt. I just went to speak at Daytona State College; they’ve got a big sign on the side of their student center.

But listen, that is important, because as I said, belonging is important. People search for it. They hold that magnifying up, looking forward, “Do people care about me?” And sometimes having it on a flyer, having it on a sign, on a website as a tagline, is part of the work, but it’s not the end of the work. Because no one cares about the sign if I then get into the team and I never feel it; if I get assigned to a team and there’s no connectedness. I get hired, but I’m never doing work that matters or that’s important.

And even though I’m doing hard work and I’m working myself every single day, it never gets recognized; it never gets celebrated; it never gets acknowledged. So we’ve got to move from signs to also systemic practices, policies, procedures. That’s critically important.

But if we’ve done anything, I think we’ve underestimated the important role that belonging plays in the lives of people and certainly in education and workplaces. So I encourage you to listen to the podcast; please check out the work.

If you want to find more, I have a website, terrellestrayhorn.com. I’m on all things social media as TL Strayhorn. And you can find me on Instagram, on Twitter, I’m Terrell Strayhorn on Facebook and on LinkedIn. And I often post there new publications.

I love taking research and translating it to practice. So I write blogs as a way to move belonging into real-life practice. Because my loving grandmother, when she was alive, she would always say, “Honey, you can write all the books you want to, but if it doesn’t change anybody’s life, it is not worth it.”

And so my grandmother, who’s now deceased, I carry so many precious memories of her, but every single day, I’m thinking about how can I help use my research to improve people’s lives? I think that belonging can turn a disengaged student into a valedictorian.

I know that belonging can transform a disengaged worker into a productive leader. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve studied it happen. And now really grateful to Linda and her team for having the opportunity to connect with you to give you examples about how you can make it happen, but I can talk about it all day. For those of you who are listening, it takes you taking this information to your teams and understanding that happy employees make good products; happy students make wonderful alum.

Listen, happy teachers and faculty make wonderful staff members. And the ideas that I’ve offered are just the tip of the iceberg. The real genius, the real magic happens when you make this conversation the next team retreat, when you make this conversation the next agenda item.

I tell people all the time, it’s a good staff meeting when you start with, “Listen, I listened to this podcast by Linda Ashar about belonging. I just want to talk to you all about belonging. What can we do to foster a sense of belonging for this team?” And you sit back and you listen. But you don’t just listen or record and take notes. You then take action. That’s so important.

Linda Ashar: Absolutely. Thank you, Dr. Strayhorn.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Thank you.

Linda Ashar: Thank you everyone for listening. We’ve been speaking today with Dr. Terrell Strayhorn about the sense of belonging. This is Linda Ashar, your podcast host, inviting you to return to our other podcasts. Have a great day.

Dr. Linda C. Ashar is a full-time Associate Professor in the Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in business, law, and ethics. She obtained her Juris Doctor from the University of Akron School of Law. Her law practice spans more than 30 years and includes business, employment law, and litigation on behalf of employers and employees.

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