How to Build Authentic Relationships Across Differences, According to LaTonya Wilkens

As leaders, we all work with employees who are different from us. Until recently, many leaders ignored those differences, believing that they were not relevant in the workplace. Even today, some leaders don't believe it's their responsibility to make their employees feel comfortable or connected. These leaders may not see the value of creating a culture of belonging, so they delegate the responsibility for creating such a culture to the human resources department. Others believe they are doing the right thing by treating everyone in the company the same. As a result, these leaders often assume that every employee fits in and experiences a sense of connection and psychological safety within the organization.

But creating a culture of belonging requires conscious effort on the part of every leader.

The Relationship Protocol communication model helps leaders create a culture of belonging in their organizations. The two key elements of this model are "commitment" and "turning toward." These are mandatory ingredients for creating healthy connections and relationships in and out of the workplace. To build a healthy organization with a strong culture of belonging, you must demonstrate your commitment to both the organization and your team and turn toward each team member during every interaction. When we show up in this way, we make it clear to our team and each member that they are valued.

It is vital to demonstrate your commitment and turn toward team members, even when things are not going well, or when you are trying to make a meaningful change, such as consciously creating a culture of belonging.

This isn't easy to do, especially when not everyone on your team is similar to you. We are all subject to unconscious biases, underlying attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs, and even fears about other people or groups that impact our behavior. Affinity bias is the unconscious tendency we each have that pulls us toward people who are similar to us. It's easier to spend time with people who have similar interests, experiences, and backgrounds. As a result, our professional networks -- the people we turn to for advice, professional development, and new opportunities -- tend to be very homogeneous. It takes more effort to build relationships with people who are different from us. But that is the only way to build a culture of belonging and to create sustainable change.

To get a better sense of how to connect with people who are different from you to build a culture of belonging, I spoke with my friend LaTonya Wilkins, founder of The Changes Coach and author of the new book Leading Below the Surface: How to Build Real (and Psychologically Safe) Relationships With People Who Are Different From You. She developed an evidence-based approach to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging that combines research in organizational culture, social psychology, and neuroscience with her lived experience of constantly being an "only one" at work in her roles within higher education and Fortune 500 companies. She shared three ways to effectively connect with those who are different from you:

Step 1: Practice REAL leadership.

REAL leaders are relatable, equitable, aware, and loyal. Each of these elements is an essential and interconnected part of REAL leadership:

  • Relatable. To relate to those who are different from you, you must be curious and be a keen listener.
  • Equitable. As a leader, it is your responsibility to create equity on your team. You are responsible for ensuring that every team member has access to spaces where they can succeed and that equitable structures are in place, especially when it comes to pay, hiring, and relationship equity.
  • Aware. You must be self-aware. You must know where you are now and where you want to go. You also have to take stock of your relationships. Have you built genuine relationships with people who are different from you? Or do the people you rely on for feedback and advice all look like you?
  • Loyal. Are you committed to your team? When they make mistakes, do you stand by them and support their growth? When you are loyal through the hard times and the easy times, you build trust and psychological safety in your relationships.

Step 2: Be empathetic.

Practice empathy by actively listening. It's especially important to take a step back and observe the extent to which others fit into the team. Wilkins calls this "person-to-belonging" listening. It's particularly important to discern the extent to which each individual on your team connects, seems comfortable, and fits into the organization. Pay attention to their tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and level of participation.

Step 3: Build psychologically safe relationships.

As a leader, it is your responsibility to create a psychologically safe environment for your team. Encourage your team members to make mistakes and take risks, and let them know that there will be no repercussions. Allow your team to bring their entire selves to work while encouraging open and honest feedback. If you don't like the feedback you receive, you don't have to agree with it. Just listen, acknowledge, and reflect on it to see if some of the feedback might be valuable. Don't punish those who share their feedback with you. 

You have a responsibility to make sure every staff member feels a sense of belonging to your organization. It takes an active effort to create a culture of belonging. And when team members are different from you and from one another, it takes a bit of extra effort.

Creating an equitable workplace requires you to listen more than you talk, approach each conversation with curiosity, set aside your assumptions, and examine your unconscious biases. When you create a culture of belonging, every team member knows that they matter, and you will experience an engaged workforce with higher morale and productivity and a lower turnover rate. And everyone will enjoy coming to work just a little bit more!


©Copyright 2022 Debra Roberts, LCSW All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced without permission from the publisher.

A version of this article was initially published on as: How to Create a Culture of Belonging in Your Organization