How to empower your people managers to build belonging
A sense of belonging plays a vital part in employee retention and performance, especially during a crisis. It can enhance an employee’s sense of connection to an organisation and help them to feel included for who they are, and the unique contribution they make.

Managers play a crucial role in helping employees feel they belong and are often their strongest link to the broader organisational leadership.

Research conducted for SEEK shows 63% of Australian candidates believe their sense of belonging is enhanced by transparency and honesty from leadership, but 38% don’t feel that their opinion and contribution is valued by their manager.

So how can you empower your managers to foster a greater sense of belonging for every individual in their team?

Throughout this article, 'Leaders' are considered senior managers at an executive level while 'managers' refer to people managers at all levels.

Setting the tone at the top

Kit Vati, Director of Talent and Leadership at SEEK, says at SEEK, purpose is used as an anchor for actions and initiatives.

“That makes our purpose and values an important focus area for managers to use and create a sense of belonging and connection, and therefore meaning,” she says.

Because values and purpose are set at the top of the organisation, they can be brought to life and instilled throughout the organisation by managers.

Creating a consistent experience around communication for all employees can also boost a sense of belonging.

At the height of the pandemic last year, all SEEK internal communications were sent with a unified message throughout its entire Asia Pacific operations and access to support packages was equal for all.

Vati says this helped to set the tone that “we were all in it together”.

“It created a sense of ‘I belong to something bigger than my own local region”. Vati says people feel they are “part of an organisation that takes an equal approach to how it looks after employees and creates an experience to support people through this pandemic’.

“When this kind of message is set from the top, managers can then be encouraged to reinforce it in a way that works best for their team.”

Education is key

Managers need to do more than monitor workflow and performance. In many cases, their role now extends to coach, mentor and motivator.

Kristina Williams, Manager of Health, Safety and Wellbeing at ESTA (Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority), says this kind of multifaceted role requires education and training.

“ESTA relies heavily on our leaders to reach all of our people,” she says. “Consequently, a manager needs a range of capabilities. It’s not just about understanding the programs we have ­– they also need to coach, mentor, monitor and assess behaviour.”

Williams says ESTA provides a range of courses to help build leadership acumen.

Williams adds that ESTA also recently partnered with Melbourne Business School to develop more tailored programs so their managers can grow personally.

Targeted support

Asking an employee if they’re ok can seem like a simple question, but it represents uncomfortable territory for many managers.

At SEEK, managers are equipped with the resources they need to support employee wellbeing – which is a key contributor in cultivating a sense of belonging, as outlined in SEEK’s Belonging at Work paper.

Vati says managers are equipped with conversation guides and toolkits to help build their confidence to check in on employee wellbeing. Last year, during the height of the pandemic and lockdown in Melbourne, managers were supported with additional resources.

“We worked with our psychologist partners last year specifically in response to COVID to run sessions with our leaders and managers about how to have these conversations virtually – how to ask if people are ok, how to support them when you can’t go and see them in person,” says Vati. “We wanted to optimise connection and opportunities to contribute. We also looked at scenarios such as what to do if someone doesn’t want to turn on their camera in a Zoom meeting, which can impact the sense of belonging and inclusion for that individual and their team.

“These were some of the very practical questions we were getting from managers, and we were able to provide guidance for them through targeted sessions with support from our HR team and external psychologists.”

Mental health training

Mental health training can also enhance the overall employee experience by equipping managers with the tools they need to identify and support employees who are struggling.

ESTA has established a peer support program that Williams says is instrumental to the organisation’s approach to employee wellbeing.

“This program provides an additional layer of support to our people through a group of passionate volunteers with mental health training who have lived experience in the triple-zero environment,” she says.

“Critical in all of this are our education programs, including leader training and our mental wellbeing and self-care program, which we are in the process of rolling out, to build resilience, knowledge around the effects of trauma and the importance of self-care. “

It’s also important to remember that managers are employees, too. Ensuring that your organisation’s mental health and wellbeing approach adequately supports managers is a crucial component of manager empowerment.

Considering how influential managers are when it comes to the employee experience, it’s important for leaders to ensure that managers have the right tools and support to build belonging. Education, training and targeted support can empower managers, and ensure they’re equipped to foster a genuine sense of belonging that benefits the organisation as a whole.

To learn more about the drivers of belonging and the current belonging landscape in Australia, download SEEK’s white paper ‘Belonging at Work’.

Source: Independent research conducted by Nature on behalf of SEEK, interviewing 4800 Australians annually. Published June 2021.