Why does belonging matter in the workplace?
Farra Trompeter, co-director, talks with DEI thought leader and author, Rhodes Perry, about the benefits of fostering belonging and inclusion in our workplaces–and the costs when we don’t. They discuss how to build power, understand exclusion, and steps you can take to actively make things better.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and member-owner of Big Duck. Today. I’m going to be talking with Rhodes Perry to ask the question, “Why does belonging matter in the workplace?” Before we get into that, let me tell you a little bit about Rhodes. Rhodes Perry is a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion thought leader. He has two decades of leadership experience having worked at the White House, the Department of Justice, and PFLAG National. As the founder of Rhodes Perry Consulting, a LGBTQ+ diverse supplier, his team is on a mission to help leaders, visionaries, and change-makers build psychological safety, trust, and enduring culture of belonging at work. Rhodes earned a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Gender Studies from the University of Notre Dame and a Master’s of Public Administration from the New York University. Rhodes, I don’t know if we’ve talked about that, but I’m actually an adjunct at NYU Wagner. We’ll come back to that, maybe, in a future conversation, but back to Rhodes. He currently serves on the National LGBTQ+ Chamber of Commerce’s Transgender Inclusion & Gender Expansive task force and on the Cascade AIDS Project‘s Board of Directors. Rhodes has written two amazing books, Belonging at Work: Everyday Actions You Can Take to Build an Inclusive Organization, which was published in 2018, and Imagine Belonging: Your Inclusive Leadership Guide to Building an Equitable Workplace that just came out in early 2022. Rhodes, welcome to the show.
Rhodes Perry: Yes, Farra, I’m so excited to be here. Thanks for having me.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and we were just reminiscing. I first got to meet Rhodes back in 2016, I believe it was. Rhodes is friends with our former creative director, Dan Gunderman. Rhodes did some consulting for Big Duck back in the day on our job descriptions to help us be more inclusive and continues to be a friend and a member of the Big Duck family. So Rhodes, I’m excited to talk to you. Now, before we get into today’s topic and this idea of belonging in the workplace, let’s just talk a little bit about you. I’m curious if you can share just briefly a little bit about what life or work experiences really shaped your desire to cultivate a #belongingmovement, cause I do believe you use that hashtag.
Rhodes Perry: I do.
Farra Trompeter: So let’s get people looking at that, too. You know, you have a really impressive background and bio, and I’m just curious, what led you to finally say, you know, I’ve worked in all these places, but what I really see is the need for people to talk about and focus on belonging.
Rhodes Perry: Yeah, absolutely. I think it really starts with my experiences in the workplace 20 years ago as a young professional being hired to do policy and budget work and whatever my job was. There was an extra job that I often had and that was really kind of creating some space to make organizations more gender inclusive because I’m a transgender and bisexual guy, and most of the organizations that I worked at were great, right? Like, very friendly, very welcoming, but I experienced some barriers in those organizations, and by who I am, I offered my ideas of how to make those systems and workplaces a little bit more inclusive, not just for myself, you know, but really thinking about, I’m not going to be the first trans person that works here, hopefully, you know, and I want to kind of drop the ladder down for other people to make that experience a little bit better.
Rhodes Perry: I continued to do that, you know, as I advanced in my career and when I started to work at PFLAG National, that’s when I started to work with different employers to do this work in a more systemic and intentional way. I wanted to have a bigger impact, and that’s where I started to get the idea, you know, maybe I could start my own business and really help more organizations that are ready, they know they want to do this work, and they’re not sure where to start, and that uncertainty kind of leads to analysis paralysis, you know? And so I wanted to give them that extra confidence, “You can do this. You’ve got a lot of wisdom in your organization. There’s a lot of good promising practices, best practices. Let’s talk about where your organization is at and what’s possible right now.” And I love what I do.
Farra Trompeter: That’s amazing. We should all love what we do. Now, I noticed that a lot of organizations often talk about their work on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and sometimes there’s an A for accessibility or Antiracism so I hear a lot of DEIA. Afew groups will call out belonging, and I hear a DEIB, but I feel like it’s less common. So I’m curious if you could talk about why focus on belonging and maybe particularly, I think, the difference between belonging and inclusion.
Rhodes Perry: Sure. First I’m really inspired by Pat Wadors. She used to lead the DEI work at LinkedIn. She really was on a mission to talk about, you know, I understand Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. It’s absolutely important, and yet there’s not that human connection. It feels abstract to me, right, even though all of this work is about humans. And what she found is the word belonging really was something that we all know immediately. Like right now, I’m feeling a good sense of belonging with you. Maybe in another meeting later today, it’s like, “Oh, I don’t know.” I might be feeling a little bit of the sting of exclusion. Like, we just know that intuitively. So I think the promise of belonging is that it’s an emotional outcome. When we think about Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, those are all outcomes, too.
Rhodes Perry: Diversity is: we can look around and see if we have “people diversity”, period. That’s just a reality. That’s a given in our world as it becomes increasingly globalized, and we work across a lot of differences.Inclusion is also an outcome. These are behaviors. We’re talking about leaders, we’re talking about people and how we are actively welcoming each other and working across our differences. Inequity is also an outcome, too, and we’re thinking about systems. You know, how are we looking at different systems and policies? Making sure that there’s not kind of an aspect of exclusion that’s taking place.
Rhodes Perry: The belonging piece is the emotional outcome. It’s an indicator of success. And this work is really, from my perspective, it’s about change management. It’s about transformation management. And we know from the field that any kind of massive organizational change, it takes 10 to 20 years to really start seeing those indicators of success. And the great thing about belonging is that there’s a foundation for it. There is safety and trust, and because of great work from leaders like Amy Edmondson, who does a lot of work around psychological safety, we can actually measure this in the workplace. So it’s not as elusive as I think leaders sometimes feel of like, “Oh, it sounds nice on paper, but how do we actually do it?” And we can. So that’s the good news, and I’m really passionate and inspired by that.
Farra Trompeter: I feel your passion. I love it, and I’m very appreciative that you are feeling belonging from me. I definitely try to cultivate that in all of my personal and professional relationships, and I know that you do as well. So, I’m curious, you know, as you’re talking, I’m imagining there are these ideal workplace cultures that are inclusive and equitable, but that do center belonging in a way that people show up and they feel like they are celebrated for who they are and how they feel and how they act in the world and they can be their authentic selves. And I’m just curious if you have seen any examples of that, particularly in the nonprofit sector.
Rhodes Perry: Yeah, I mean, I think that one of the things that might be helpful for people to kind of wrap their arms around is what belonging is. And then maybe we can share a few examples, and I’d love to hear from you as well of, like, organizations that do this really well. But when we’re talking about belonging, there’s four ingredients to it. Like you said, that’s being seen, recognized, rewarded for who you are. So all of that genius you bring to your job plus all of that lived experience. There’s also that piece of feeling connected. So I feel connected to you, I feel like we have a good authentic relationship, and because of that, the third ingredient is, “I feel supported so I’m getting what I need so I can do my best work,” which is so key. Like, that’s interpersonal equity. And then this last piece is feeling pride. “I feel pride and purpose so my values align with my organization’s values, and I feel really, really good about that.” So I can totally say from my experiences, I’ve worked in a lot of different places, I really felt that for the first time when I worked at PFLAG National, and it was interesting, it wasn’t necessarily for coworkers, though they were amazing, and I felt that from them, but I felt it, really, from the members of our chapters or like 200,000 members. These are largely parents of LGBTQ+ people. It was the first time I felt like I could really be myself and bring everything about who I am, my gender history, being a trans guy, my sexual orientation being bisexual. That was a value add, that was a culture add, and that’s the ideal. That’s what we aspire to.
Rhodes Perry: On the flip of that is the sting of exclusion. So, what’s the cost if we don’t focus on building a culture of belonging? That leads to invisibility. So if you feel like you have to cover something that’s most precious to who you are, you have to, like, actually sever that from yourself every time you show up, the best waking hours of your day. What is lost? What is lost upon your mental health? What’s lost upon your productivity? That’s a big question. The other pieces are feeling discouraged, disconnected. And the last piece is if you’re feeling that as an employee, then this feeling of shame comes up. “What about me makes it feel like I don’t fit in here? What am I doing wrong?” A lot of leaders, when I talk about belonging, they’re like, “I love this. I love belonging.” And it’s like, of course you love belonging because you feel it every day.
Rhodes Perry: So, I ask leaders and you know, and for your listeners, if they’re like, “oh yeah, I like this topic,” get really curious about who you might be intentionally including and who you might be unintentionally excluding. And what do you do about the second piece, because you don’t know, right? This is when we get into that unconscious bias, the implicit kind of culture that works for you, but it might be causing a tremendous amount of harm to the employees that you’re hiring. And in this moment of the great resignation, the great recruitment, the great retirement, whatever you want to call it, focusing on this is imperative. And for younger generations coming into the workplace, they don’t want lip service. They’re looking for results, they’re looking for a track record, and if you don’t have that yet, it’s not that it’s a deficit, it’s just that you have to get going because you will be at a competitive disadvantage, the more that we get younger Gen Zers into the workplace and the generation after Gen Z. I’m not sure what we’re going to call them yet, but high expectations.
Farra Trompeter: Maybe they’ll go back to A.
Rhodes Perry: Go back to A, right? Yeah.
Farra Trompeter: Or the COVID generation, I suspect they’ll probably be called, or something like that, unfortunately.
Farra Trompeter: No, I appreciate what you’re saying, and one of the things we talk about on some other podcasts we’ve done and we’ve been talking a lot about at Big Duck is this idea of power. And particularly what you’re talking about reminds me of positional power. That as a leader, I have the authority to shape the culture and dictate the culture in a different way than maybe other people, though I would hope, and the kind of culture we’re hoping to build, especially when we became a worker-owned co-op, is really one where power is shared. Again, there still is hierarchy, and those are things that we are really trying to explore and move toward, though, as you said, change can take some time. But when you don’t have that positional power, you may not feel like you belong or that you can change that. So I want to go to thinking about what can people do if they don’t have that positional power? What role can people play in shaping a workplace culture even if they’re not a “leader”? Or how do we instill this idea of being a leader to create culture that is a space of belonging for everyone?
Rhodes Perry: Absolutely. And just on that piece of power, and this is something that I write about in Imagine Belonging, it’s in chapter three, it’s looking at the sources of social power. So yeah, positional power, you have the power to reward your employees, you have the power to basically direct what your priorities are. And, hopefully, leaders that are listening to this, do that in a democratic way where you’re listening to your employees and being responsive to that.
Rhodes Perry: We also have, no matter what our roles are, the ability to build other social power. So we have the ability to develop our expert power. And I think, on this question of what can we do, self education is huge. So if this is a topic that’s interesting to you, and I don’t know, say you do IT, say you do budgeting. You’re not necessarily in HR, you’re not necessarily working with people or developing leaders. You can learn about this. You can learn about unconscious biases. You know, we all have them. That’s a good place to start, it’s pretty basic, right? But where do you hold them? And I would say, if this is interesting to you, Harvard offers the Implicit Association Test. It’s basic. It’s really basic. Some people have some critiques of it, but it is a good litmus test of understanding where you might hold biases about other people or groups of people that you may not be members of. That’s really good information. That’s insights for you. You’re not sharing that with anyone else, no one’s tracking the results of that, and from those results, if you learn, “Hey, you know what? I just learned that I’m ageist. I have biases to older generations, younger generations, right? What do I do about that?” And there’s so much information that’s online right now that you can become more aware. And the important thing about that is when you’re aware of yourself, and this is a trait of inclusive leadership, is just that awareness, the curiosity is what to do with that, “how do I mitigate these biases?”
Rhodes Perry: And I think the second piece is just kind of understanding this idea of microaggressions, and I think there’s a lot of misconceptions of what that is. There’s a really great book by Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran. It’s called Subtle Acts of Exclusion, and that’s exactly what microaggressions are. So when I was talking about that sting of exclusion, you know, feeling invisible, feeling shame, feeling disconnected and discouraged, microaggressions contribute to that, and these are very, very subtle things, right? So an example, we’re both within the LGBTQ community, so people making assumptions about the gender of your partner, right? That’s a classic example. If you experience that, it’s like, “Ugh.” And this is where psychological safety comes in. “I don’t know if I can share or correct this person because maybe they hold more power because that might limit me for my promotion that I really want, or a stretch assignment,” etcetera, etcetera. So learning as self education is really key.
Rhodes Perry: Then, like, the second thing that I would say for anyone to make a difference in the workplace. You can be at the top of your organization, you could be a younger employee just starting your career, right? When you bear witness to harm and you find yourself holding some kind of power in the room, it might be because you hold some social power. So we just used an example of LGBTQ people. So maybe you’re not LGBTQ, and you bear witness to a microaggression like the one that I just shared. Silence is the worst possible thing you could do. It’s the worst. So if you feel like it’s too risky to say something in public in front of people, pulling me aside, you know, if that happened to me, and to say, “Hey, Rhodes, you know, I saw that happen. You know, I wasn’t really sure what to do. I just wanted to check in to see if you’re okay.” That would make a world of difference, and it feels, I want to kind of just admit, it feels scary, you know, if you’re in that situation. You bear witness, we kind of suffer from the bystander effect, and I know, Farra, you’re in New York, right? So just think of the subway, when you see something ridiculous happen on the subway, you’re like, “Well, there’s 50 other people here, surely someone else is going to just, like, say that’s unacceptable.” And what happens is because we’re all doing that, nobody disrupts it. So we’re not talking about subways, we’re talking about workplaces where we have longer term relationships with people. So what can you do in that moment? What right risk can you take? So these are some of those everyday actions. There’s tons of them.
Rhodes Perry: In my first book, Belonging at Work, in chapter eight, there’s lots of different examples of where you can begin with self education. But if you want to take it further, you know, if you’re in an organization where you have affinity groups or employee resource groups or business resource groups, oftentimes those groups are open to folks that aren’t members of them. So, say you want to learn more about BIPOC experiences in the workplace and you happen to be a white employee, most groups are open to allyship. There’s some general guidance around what allies do and what they are encouraged not to do to really be respectful in spaces that are not spaces that they are members of, but that’s kind of the next level, right? If you want to learn more and you really want to understand experiences of employees who aren’t exactly like you, that’s going to help you lead across differences, even if you aren’t in a “capital L” leadership position.
Rhodes Perry: So, just a couple of ideas, but I really encourage you, do something. Do something. Start with reading a book if that feels available to you or listening to podcasts like these. Surely, if you’re curious, it’s just going to lead you. It’s kind of like an onion, you’re going to keep peeling layers thinking that you understand things, and then you’re going to learn something new. And I’ve been doing this work in different ways for the past 20 years, and I will tell you, I feel like I learn something new every hour and it’s very humbling. I love it. So if you’re a lifelong learner, it’s great.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and we should all be lifelong learners and have that growth mindset, but as you were talking, I was thinking about Big Duck. Recently, we had our team participate in a training by Hollaback!, Going from being a bystander to an upstander, and, you know, they offer the five Ds that I’ll just share. If people are not familiar with it, I really encourage you to check out Hollaback! We’ll link to them in these show notes as well as a lot of the other resources Rhodes mentioned, but the idea of distract, delegate, document, delay, and direct. And you spoke about some of that in the example you gave, but really encourage people to think about what you can do. And sometimes it’s something you’re doing, really, frontally and it feels really big. Other times it’s really just something you’re taking note of, and that can still be very powerful. And I appreciate what you said about silence, and that’s something I have been really working to question and challenge myself on as I am working to be a better ally and someone who’s more accountable to what I’m putting out in the world.
Farra Trompeter: But before we let you go, I just want to ask you one more question. You mentioned books, and you have some great books that people can read, and I encourage you to do that. I’m curious, just going back to the leader role, let’s say I am a leader and I do have power, is there any other one or two actions you recommend a leader might take?
Rhodes Perry: Yeah, I think for a leader, if this is an area that you know you can grow, seek out some inclusive leadership development programming. If you can bring that into your organization. If that feels too big right now, look for coaches that can help you around this work because you need a guide. Remember that question, “Who are we intentionally including?” As leaders listening to this program, I’m sure you’re doing a lot. But to answer that second question, “Who are we unintentionally excluding?” we’re going to need guidance around that. So, whether it’s a training, I mean, you have to do that kind of ongoing learning. We may have assumptions where we might hold those implicit or unconscious biases, and then the mirror will be up to our face. And when we learn that maybe some of those assumptions were wrong, what do we do with that information? And I would say, when you get that kind of information or you get a coach who’s really good to guide you along, is to remain curious and when you do get feedback, see that as a gift because that’s going to allow you to show up as the best possible version of yourself as a leader and the leader that you’re becoming.
Farra Trompeter: I love that. Thank you. Well, if you’d like to learn more about Rhodes’ book, Imagine Belonging, and access bonus content, go to imaginebelonging.com. If you’d like to learn more about Rhodes’ Consulting Services, listen to his podcast, access other great resources and more, go to rhodesperry.com. R-H-O-D-E-S-P-E-R-R-Y.com. Again, we’ll link to all of this on the transcript at bigduck.com. You can also connect with Rhodes on LinkedIn. Rhodes, thank you so much for being here and inspiring me and, I’m sure, thousands of people who will listen to this conversation.
Rhodes Perry: Yes. Thank you for having me, this was a lot of fun.