Sense of belonging

A college just shared a very interesting paper by Twitter focusing on sense of belonging in research groups. I think there is a lot for group leaders to learn from that paper, which is why I have extracted the central points here:

Sense of belonging is the experience of positive personal relationships with others in a given environment. It is an important predictor of well-being and retention. There are benefits associated with developing a strong sense of belonging including improvements in academic performance, mental health, self-esteem, sense of purpose, and connectedness. On the other hand, there are consequences of having a low sense of belonging such as increased risk of stress, anxiety, depression, health problems, feelings of loneliness, rejection, and low self-esteem. When we feel like we belong, we become positioned to do our best work. Creating and maintaining a strong sense of belonging thus benefits individuals and teams and improves the quality of science that your team produces. In the article, the authors draw from research on sense of belonging and educational psychology to inform best practices for fostering a sense of belonging in the lab suggesting ten rules:

Rule 1: Reflect on belonging (and repeat)
Self-reflection is an important first step in identifying what kind of culture and environment the group leader want to foster in your research group. She/he can begin the reflection process by thinking about a time during early career when she/he felt like you belonged.

Rule 2: Be mindful of names, pronouns, and diverse identities
Do not underestimate the importance of knowing names and how to pronounce them correctly. It is likely that are people in every group from identity groups (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality) that are different from the group leaders.

Rule 3: Proactively engage with lab members
Many group leaders are busy; but when this happens, members are likely to feel unimportant to the leader. Active involvement allows the leader to witness practices and behaviors that can be proactively addressed to prevent major conflict.

Rule 4: Discuss, document, and embody research data
Discussing data will demonstrate to the lab that the group leader are interested in what group members value and how they want to shape the space. By documenting these, group leaders and other senior lab members can model them leading to active participation and shaping of the space more inviting and accessible for all group members.

Rule 5: Be transparent about expectations
When expectations lack transparency, students without knowledge of how the environment operates will feel left behind or left out. Be clear about rules and procedures. It is important to be clear about what is expected from each member. Transparent norms ensure everyone is on the same page.

Rule 6: Provide opportunities to learn about each other
Every group member is unique with their own cultural blend of traditions, values, and practices. Learning about each other provides opportunities to find connection among each other and to build a sense of belonging among all members. Examples are a website that has information about each member, storytelling, and take turns bringing food to meetings.

Rule 7: Foster connection outside of the environment
Fostering connection outside of the group provides members a chance to learn more about each other and strengthen social ties within the community. It is important to plan the events in an inclusive way.

Rule 8: Build in time for kudos
People feel valued when their work is recognized. Recognizing individuals for their contributions and accomplishments is a great way to grow a sense of belonging among group members.

Rule 9: Conduct equity checks
It is important to build in check-ins to gauge and sustain good performance. Equity checks provide an opportunity to embody values and establish an actionable expectation. Psychological safety is key when conducting meaningful equity checks.

Rule 10: Ask for feedback regularly
Asking for feedback is a common management and leadership practice and can make more effective leaders. It signals to group members that their experiences are valued and the leaders are interested in understanding them. Feeling valued by leadership is one way to increase the sense of belonging of members in the environment. Feedback can be gathered about different aspects of the research group through varied methods such as equity checks, surveys and informal check-ins.

Happy New Year!

Pål Rasmus Njølstad

Sense of belonging? Picture from a freezer in the lab of Professor Graeme I. Bell at the University of Chicago where I had a post doc 1998-99.

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