This article was originally posted on Forbes.com.
“I often worry that I don’t sound professional enough.”
“I’m afraid people are going to think I’m unprepared or incompetent.”
These are the conversations I have with women on a consistent basis. As a women’s leadership coach, I partner with incredibly talented, intelligent women who are perfectly capable of clearly conveying their ideas and asking smart questions.
These same women would never hesitate to speak up in other environments. So, why do they struggle so much to confidently engage in discussions with their colleagues?
I’ve given this a lot of thought and recently came to an important realization: We don’t experience these types of self-doubt when we feel as though we belong. When we’re surrounded by people who respect and appreciate us for who we are, when we feel psychologically safe enough to be creative, and when we trust that we can speak our ideas without being judged, we don’t hold ourselves back.
Unfortunately, many of the women I work with don’t experience that important sense of belonging. They worry that the manner in which they speak and the language they choose to use undermines their credibility and threatens their long-term success. They fear that their presence is scrutinized and judged. They never quite feel good enough to compete with those around them.
There is a lot of talk these days about inclusion, but what’s even more important is belonging. When people feel a sense of belonging, instead of worrying about whether they have precisely the right message, they speak up, challenge others, and share ideas. They share their gifts and collaborate more fully. And that’s good for individuals and business.
How do we create a greater sense of belonging?
While we wait for macro-level diversity and inclusion initiatives to take root, there are steps that we as individuals can take to strengthen belonging across our teams.
Get to know your colleagues personally.
Everyone has different comfort levels with workplace socializing, so the idea here is not to violate personal boundaries. But there is great value in getting to know our colleagues as people.
We may not always be comfortable authentically expressing ourselves, but we all do bring our full selves to work. We don’t leave behind our family concerns or interests when we pass through the office door. So let’s connect as humans.
Find out what’s important to your colleagues. What are their interests? Where are they from? What do they care about?
Regardless of level, functional role, or cultural background, there is more that makes us similar than makes us different. And the more we understand each other and experience that connection, the less intimidated we are to speak to and work with each other.
It’s human nature to judge what we don’t understand. But as we move toward more inclusive work environments, we need to get more comfortable with differences.
Instead of making assumptions when we don’t understand someone or their behavior, approach them with curiosity. Set aside judgments and say things such as, “I wouldn’t have thought to do it that way. What made you decide to take that approach?” or, “That’s an interesting perspective. Help me understand why you feel that way.”
Authentic dialogue creates connectedness and trust. We will not always agree, but when we understand that our colleagues are well-intentioned, motivated by similar goals, and reasoned in their approaches, we create space for greater diversity of thought and experience.
Being vulnerable in a space where you don’t feel you fully belong can be terrifying. But to be the change we want to see, we need to be willing to step outside our comfort zones and model new behaviors.
If you’re a leader who is guarded, your team members take their cues from you. They may feel that it’s not safe or acceptable to be vulnerable or transparent with the team. But it’s in that vulnerability that we build connection and trust.
If you’re not comfortable discussing personal relationships, talk about your outside interests, such as music or movie tastes, food preferences, or favorite books. Share your professional goals and the areas you’re actively developing. And discuss lessons you’ve learned throughout your career.
My hope is that, one day, women will no longer question themselves or doubt the value they bring to their organizations. They will instead trust themselves and their colleagues enough to confidently share their perspectives and ideas.
In the meantime, we can all do more to create a greater sense of belonging in our current work environments.