Catalyzing compassion and curiosity to build belonging

To build a sense of belonging within teams and organizations, we must intentionally cultivate a culture that manifests an environment of psychological safety.

Since the beginning of time, people have desired to belong. After all, our brains are hardwired with a need to feel accepted, included, cared for and supported by others. Yet, we are also neurologically hardwired for self-preservation and defensiveness when we feel threatened within a relationship.

Most of us tend to think about safety on a purely physiological level. We have gone to great lengths to minimize the potential for physical harm and injuries from workplace accidents. But there is more to creating safe workplaces than construction hats and internal protocols and procedures; there is another aspect too often overlooked in workplaces. It is what researcher and Harvard professor, Amy Edmonson, calls psychological safety: “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

  • Curiosity can foster positive emotions, which enhances a team’s capacity to be resilient under pressure.
  • Both compassion and curiosity enable us to find more common ground with others, moving us from “me” to “we.”
  • When we demonstrate acts of compassion and curiosity, we invite others to bring their authentic selves to the relationship, which fosters a sense of belonging.
  • Compassion and curiosity promote diversity and inclusion by enabling us to explore, listen and be open to other people’s perspectives.

Curiosity and compassion both require taking purposeful action to be expressed, meaning they are skills that can be cultivated. Practicing compassion and curiosity can cultivate psychologically safe work environments that provide workers with a felt sense of belonging, which ultimately can help employees and businesses thrive. Here are five science-backed strategies to help you cultivate curiosity and compassion within your work team:

  • Value vulnerability. When leaders role-model vulnerability by admitting mistakes and failures, confessingconcerns, and being genuinely open, they create an environment of safety and trust. While many view it as a weakness, research shows vulnerability is an act of courage and compassion which opens others up to engaging in acts of vulnerability as well, creating the basis for belonging.
  • Banish blame and bias. When conflict arises, it is easy to blame others. However, doing so sends a message of psychological threat to the other person’s brain, often causing them to resort to either be defensive or disengage. The key to overcoming blame is to approach interpersonal challenges with curiosity and non-judgment. Try to see the problem through the lens of accuracy, understanding that our perceptions of situations and people are largely influenced by cognitive biases; shortcuts in our thinking can lead to mental errors and assumptions. Engage the other person in an examination of the facts and work together to generatively collaborate and create solutions, asking for the other person’s input.
  • Practice perspective taking. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that other people think differently than we do, and that their viewpoints are equally as valuable. When listening to someone else’ point of view, listen to understand – try to hear the emotional needs behind what they are saying. Try to relate to the other person and see the challenge from their point of view by considering the following questions:
    • What might be influencing their behavior in this situation?
    • How might they perceive or view this situation?
    • What can I do to show them compassion?
    • What might I need to ask them to better understand their perspective?
  • Invite inquiry. Nothing models curiosity better than asking questions, and powerful probing questions canopen teams up to accessing and benefitting from innovative inquiry through bringing diverse voices andideas to life. When discussing a solution to a problem or a new idea, invite healthy debate through posing questions such as:
    • What might go wrong with this idea?
    • What’s an alternative idea to the one that was just proposed?
    • What’s a solution we haven’t considered yet?
  • Leverage learning. Work together as a team to create a learning culture where team members feelinvited and safe to engage in the learning process where they can give feedback, solicit feedback, openly ask questions and experiment (and fail) without fear of embarrassment or criticism.

As our brains adapt to our environments, it is up to each of us to cultivate environments that welcome and reward vulnerability, creating a ripple effect in workplace and team cultures. Only by creating an environment that cultivates psychological safety and belonging can we achieve the type of workplace well-being that helps employees and organizations thrive.