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ABCD Model for Leadership: Belonging

16 June, 2021 | 26 min 28 sec
Podcast Host Tania Salarvand | Podcast Guest Anita Sands
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Brief Summary

Dr. Anita Sands shares the ABCD framework to help leaders thrive in today’s ambiguous climate. The second part in the four-part framework explores belonging – the sense of belonging, the clarity of purpose, the shared frame of reference and how it drives people. This podcast helps authentic leaders to apply effective leadership principles in building a culture of belonging. Listen to next: Part 3: Curiosity


Episode Highlights

  • The New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, is generally seen as the most winning team across all sports. Many things make up their success, including the sense of belonging - this utmost clarity of purpose, and the shared frame of reference. They take belonging to an extreme level - knowing they are entrusted with a legacy. 
  • TIn moments of crisis when you're under pressure and everything is so uncertain, teams want to get as much benefit from diverse skill sets and experiences. 
  • Belonging is the singular biggest predictor as to whether or not competitive teams will be successful, and whether they will thrive in ambiguity. 
  • In the business world, this idea of inclusion is when there's no price for your ticket at the door. You don't have to check a part of your personality or your life when you come into work. And you feel completely liberated, psychologically safe and free enough to be yourself, to give your best because you know the acceptance and trust is there. 
  • The bond of belonging between your employees and their organizations has to be strong enough of a gravitational pull to offset the power and the pull of the distractions, the interferences and the priorities that the crisis has made evident in their lives. Belonging gets you through adversity. 
  • In this framework, first you practice awareness - to be aware of yourself, you are better able to determine where it is that you belong. Because you have alignment between your vision for self, and vision for the organization. You're going to have an alignment between your own intrinsic values and motivators and the values and the motivators of that team and that organization. 
  • To hear more about belonging and what it means to your digital transformation, check out the presentation from ParadigmShift, Why Your Digital Transformation is Destined to Fail.


ABCD Model for Leadership: Part 1: Awareness Part 3: Curiosity | Part 4: Drive

Podcast Transcript


Tania Salarvand:

Hi, welcome to Pragmatism in Practice, a Thoughtworks podcast. I'm Tania Salarvand and I am joined today by Dr. Anita Sands, who's a global technology and business leader, public speaker and advocate for the advancement of women. She currently serves on the board of three Silicon Valley public companies and as a board director at two private companies, including Thoughtworks. Today is Episode Two of our Thriving in Ambiguity series. In episode one, Anita spoke a little bit about resilience and why and how it's important to us today, specifically as we are in the mix of ambiguity. We reflected last time on the first part of the four parts, awareness. Anita welcome, thanks for joining us again.


Dr. Anita Sands:

Thank you, Tania. So honored to be here.


Tania Salarvand:

If you don't mind, I'd love for you to give our audience a quick recap of the components of awareness. And then today we'll focus a little bit on part two, belonging. Is that okay with you?


Dr. Anita Sands:

That sounds great, Tania. Yeah, the awareness piece is about it's, as you say, the first letter, the first component of a model that I've developed with some colleagues for how you reconstruct resilience. And we need to reconstruct resilience in order to be able to thrive in ambiguity because ambiguity is an entirely different beast. So the first element of that is, as you rightly said, awareness in many ways is the selection gate to thriving and ambiguity. If you don't have it, you don't pass it basically. So resilience starts with awareness and there's two kinds of awareness. There's self-awareness and situational awareness. So self-awareness is really about knowing who is it that's heading into this crisis? Who is it that's dealing with these tectonic shifts that are moving under our feet. And it's about knowing who you are, what you bring to the table. What do you have?


What do you need? What is your own bucket of authentic wealth that you can draw on in moments like this. But also knowing then what strengthens you? What weakens you? What depletes you? So that when and how you can best replenish yourself, right? Because if our tanks are empty, we know we can't run on an empty tank for long. So it's really important to know what is it that depletes us and what we need to do in those moments. So that self-awareness. It's also minding where your mind goes. So making sure that we're really conscious of where we focus our attention and how we control our thoughts. That then dovetails into situational awareness, which is okay, I'm showing up to deal with the situation, but what is the situation I'm dealing with and how is that changing minute by minute, day by day? And not being like a donkey on a bridge, there's no point in resisting the reality that we're confronting right now.


There's no point in having wishful thinking or grieving all the stuff that we've lost or all the things that could, would, should have been this year. Instead, we have to be very much sort of aware of the current situation, aware of what it demands from us, and then in booking that self awareness to respond and not react appropriately. So that's kind of the self and situational awareness. And I think where I ended up at the end of the last episode was talking about when you have a diverse team and you have people with a great range of skills and perspectives, it's so important that you have everybody on that team invoking their self and their situational awareness to give you a read of what's going on. And to give you a really sort of a landscape view as it were of what is happening to the business.


Because as a leader, you're up there on your perch and you have your own perspective, but that might be very different to what say an employee who's on the frontline with customers is actually seeing and observing right now. So when you can get a team of people to use and leverage their diverse perspectives and their self and situational awareness, you can actually turn that into a strategic awareness and a strategic advantage. And in studying the teams that I've been studying over the last seven months, these are elite teams that are trained to thrive in conditions of ambiguity, pressure, uncertainty, change. They say, I'm including looking at teams like say military special forces, or we've also had the privilege of studying the New Zealand All Blacks, which are their rugby team.


But they will say, "Look, if you're in a crisis situation far out on the battlefield, it doesn't help to have every team member looking through the same set of binoculars at the problem." You want those diverse perspectives. But in that Tania, I've said two things that are kind of a tee up for belonging. The first thing I've referenced is the importance of diversity in order to get you through adversity and what an advantage that actually is. And then the second thing is that in order for people who have this self-awareness and situation, and who have something to contribute in order for them to be willing to do that, you have to have this really powerful concept as core to your culture. And that is the power and concept of belonging.


Tania Salarvand:

And when you say belonging, I think many people automatically start thinking about maybe some warm and fuzzy concepts, or what does it actually mean to belong. And they really start to question what that means. Can you tell us a little bit more what you mean when you say belonging in this context?


Dr. Anita Sands:

Yeah, I mean, Tania, I thought, as you said in the introduction, I've been a huge proponent of diversity and inclusion for many years. And I thought I understood this. And then I started studying these elite teams who thrive in ambiguity and they realized that that belonging to them is at a whole other level to how we would ever consider or think about it in a corporate context. So we tend to talk about belonging along this continuum of sort of diversity inclusion, belonging in this sort of warm and fuzzy HR thing. When you look at these teams, belonging is about as far away from a warm and fuzzy HR concept, as you can possibly get. Belonging, they say is the singular biggest predictor as to whether or not they will be successful. And whether they will thrive in ambiguity.


Dr. Anita Sands:

The special forces teams, for example, described belonging as it's like a well in a drought. It's completely necessary to assure their survival and it's sufficient to sustain it. So what I've now learned about belonging from these teams is that there's different components of belonging, which I'll talk about sort of cultural belonging, functional belonging, enabling belonging. And then I've also learned just how different belonging is in a crisis. And at times like this, when we're actually separated from our team members, belonging takes on a whole other flavor, a whole other set of nuances. But it is the singular biggest determinant of performance and success when you're in a crisis and when you're under duress.


Tania Salarvand:

It's interesting you say it that way because I automatically am questioning why, why does belonging become the singular most important piece of it? And of course, I'd love to dig into that a little bit more. But when you say high-performance and you talk about teams looking at belonging as almost a North star, if we feel that, then we're really performing at our best. Can you tell us what's underlying there? What are the key elements? What's the criteria? What are the things that really come to the surface when we dig into belonging?


Dr. Anita Sands:

Right. So this sort of covers the first component of it. There's like three legs of the belonging stool. The first one being cultural belonging. And cultural belonging has two key criteria. There are like almost prerequisites for belonging, acceptance, and trust. So let's go back to the example I was just using at the outset, Tania of say a special forces team. They're in a conflict situation, it's unfolding, it's chaotic, it's dynamic, it's crazy. And I said, "Look, you want to have everybody using their self and their situational awareness and giving you a read of what's going on." Because when you put that together that gives the team the most intricate read of the actual circumstances and situations. Now, two things there, first of all, these teams designed for diversity, they want the most diverse sets of skills and experiences on the team possible. Because as you can imagine in moments of crisis and when you're under pressure and when everything is so uncertain, you want to leverage all of those skills and all of that diversity.


Dr. Anita Sands:

So they purposefully solve for diversity and you are accepted into these teams, warts and all. So it's not only that you're accepted sort of in spite of your warts and all, and all of your characteristics and quirks, you're accepted deliberately because of your warts and all. So they really deliberately know how to leverage diversity. They stirred the diversity pot in order to get as much benefit from all of their diverse skillsets and experiences. So going back to then you're in a conflict situation and things are unfolding, you want to leverage that diversity, but it's only going to happen if people feel this incredible level of acceptance. And it's acceptance at a point that's way beyond inclusion. It's an acceptance that says to them, "I know that I'm accepted here. I know that I'm valued here. I know that my perspective, whatever it is, is going to be taken on board. I'm all in for this team."


And in order for them to feel that acceptance and to be willing to share their experiences, you have to have trust. So they all know, they have a mantra of trust and be trusted. They know that this is a set of people in an environment where I am really trusted, right. And they value me and they value my opinion. But it's also a set of people in an environment that I can place my trust in. And therefore I can be vulnerable. I can disclose what I'm seeing. I can disclose what I'm thinking. So it's so vital, Tania, that we have this acceptance and trust, because that is what, and this cultural belonging is what I describe acceptance and trust as because that is what unleashes their capabilities. Is futile in their world to have any elite operator, but in any world, Tania, in the world where we recruit top talent, we don't want them then to waste any amount of time or cognitive energy, trying to fold themselves like a pretzel to fit in with the dominant culture.


So this is where it becomes distinctly different from inclusion. We're not saying to people, "Oh yeah, you're Tania, you're welcome. You're very included. And I really hope you feel like you fit in." When I say something like that, I'm basically saying, "Here's the thing that you're being included in Tania, but it's up to you to fit into it." And it's up to you to do whatever you need to do in order to conform. Conformity is futile in sort of these elite teams. That's not what they're solving for. And in our world, in business, to me acceptance and this idea of it being so much more than inclusion is when there's no price for your ticket at the door. You don't have to check a part of your personality or your life or your story when you come into work on a Monday morning.


You can be the same person on a Monday at two o'clock, in the afternoon, as you were on Sunday at two o'clock when you were at home with your family. And you feel completely liberated, psychologically safe and psychologically free enough to be yourself, to do your best, to give your best because you you know this acceptance is there and you know that this trust is there. So if I could Tania maybe describe it in another example of the, difference between inclusion and acceptance or inclusion and belonging. It's like, "I'm going to have a party Tania, and you're invited to my party." And of course, you're very welcome and you are most certainly included. But here's the stick. It's my party. It's my guest list. It's my food. It's my music. And you're very welcome. You're definitely included.


But whenever my party's over, I can ask you to leave. That's inclusion. And that's really different than you feeling a knowing that you have the opportunity to co-create the entity, to which it is that you belong. And that's the difference with these teams. They know that they can co-create and they can contribute to their team. And they have this expression of belong and make better that I am here to do my best and be my best. But I'm here to do that on behalf of others. And they're very clear about that because they then have this next leg of the stool, which is functional belonging. And that's where this really gets operationalized and comes to life.


Tania Salarvand:

You mentioned quite a bit in the past, in other areas around high-performing teams. And obviously this is a big part of it. So how does this concept of co-creation or belonging truly lead to a high performing team? Is it the fact that they are all in it together? Is it the fact that they have a common goal? Is it all of the above?


Dr. Anita Sands:

You nailed it. Oh my gosh, Tania, you nailed it. That's exactly right. So this sort of where this belonging idea gets operationalized is under this tenant that I describe as functional belonging. So functional belonging is where you see belonging come to life at the team level. And it has two elements. Tania, you've sort of nailed both of them. The first is utmost clarity of purpose. So in other words, we know why it is that we belong together. And the second is a shared frame of reference, a spine of beliefs. We know how it is that we are going to go about doing this why thing. And that is really what separates these teams from the rest. So let's think about it where we would see it in real life. You see this functional belonging, utmost clarity of purpose, shared frame of reference, spinal beliefs come to life in Formula One pit crews, right?


They have less than three seconds. When that driver pulls in, everybody does their thing, does their job. It's completely synchronized. It's almost a beautiful thing to watch. And the drivers back out in three seconds. You see it in an operating theater. When a patient is coding, you don't see the medical team there standing around panicking, looking at each other, wondering who's going to do what. They fall into the seamless cadence and there's orchestration because they know exactly what their purpose and their mission is in that moment, which is to save this patient's life. But they have very much a shared frame of reference that they've all contributed to creating, which is I know what I've got to do, and I know what you're going to do. And I know what it feels like in this moment for somebody to have my back, right.


And you have no doubt about that. You have no hesitation for a second. I mentioned Tania as well, that we're studying the All Blacks, the New Zealand rugby team. And although I'm an Irish rugby fan, I will give these guys their due. They are generally seen as the most winning, most champion kind of team across all sports, really in the world for over 150 years. And there's many things that make up their incredible success. But this sense of belonging, this utmost clarity of purpose, the shared frame of reference is at the heart of it. And they even take it to the most extreme level, which is not only am I here to do my best in these games with this team, for this team, but I'm here because I've been entrusted with a legacy and they have this expression of leave the Jersey better than you found it.


And they actually have a ritual where they have an empty Jersey. And just to show you that you only get to occupy this Jersey for a short period of time, and then you're going to move on. The Jersey will be empty again. So they feel this actual sense of legacy that they've been entrusted with. And therefore they're more than willing to go over and beyond in order to maintain that legacy, that they feel really honored to have been entrusted with. So this is belonging like on steroids, right? This is when you literally couldn't imagine being anywhere else. This is where you're going to do your best work. And you're entirely enabled by the environment to do that. So why is this important or why is this relevant to teams like us, us mere mortals at times like this?


Well, this comes to life because belonging or crises better put is a litmus test for belonging. Belonging is really tested at times like this, when we're under pressure for a sustainable period of time. And when we're separated from one another. So I've had so many leaders and people come up to me, Tania and say, "Anita, I'm really worried about my culture. And I'm really worried about losing our sense of belonging, because we're not in the office together. We don't have our happy hours. We don't have our water cooler chats. We don't get to go for cups of coffee with each other." And my response to them then is that if you think going for a cup of coffee or a chatter in the water cooler was what gave your culture a sense of belonging, you never had belonging to begin with.


What you had was a habit of being together around the water cooler at some point in time in the day. What you had was a set of behaviors where you collectively showed up at the same place at the same time and did kind of the same things. That's not belonging. Belonging, Tania, because you have this utmost clarity of purpose and you are all in on the mission and your values are aligned with the values of those around you. And you are enabled by this whole thing to be your best. It doesn't matter if you're separated from your team members, special forces are often deployed away from base, away from home. As they say, you can never promise to be home for Christmas because they don't know how long they'll be gone for. And in those moments, when they're sitting in a dark, lonely hut, away from home for God knows how long, they don't question what it is that they're doing or what it is that they belong to, or why they're there to do it, or how they're going to do it.


That's what belonging is. So in a crisis, initially, every one of your employees said, "Okay, I'm just going to bunker down, hold tight, sit still. Hopefully this will pass." But even after a period of time, even your most loyal employees will start to question if it's worth it. It's like Tania, we were all running a race And some people will pick their head up and just keep running. And others are picking their head up and looking around and going, "Why was I running in this race in the first place? I'm not even too sure I liked what I was doing. Oh, the fact that I now don't have this three-hour commute every day, something that's revealed major quality of life issue that I was missing there."


Dr. Anita Sands:

Again, you're starting to see this in the stats about women, right? The most recent Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey and Lean In, one in four women, one in three mothers are thinking of scaling back or quitting because the crisis has surfaced things that are more important in their life. Real things like taking care of my kids, taking care of my parents, looking after my household. And that's when belonging is tested. So the belonging that your company offers its employees has to be strong enough to answer that existential question that's running through everyone's mind right now, what is holding me here? So these elite high performing teams describe belonging being to an employee or to a team member, what gravity is to an astronaut.


If you don't have it, you will break off and float away. So that bond of belonging right now between your employees and their organizations has to be strong enough. It has to be a strong enough of a gravitational pull to offset the power and the pull of the distractions and the interferences and the priorities that the crisis has made evident in their lives. And that is why belonging is so essential at times like this. That is why belonging gets you through adversity. And that is how belonging gives you these incredible elite high-performing teams.


Tania Salarvand:

That brings up a really good point, Anita, because you mentioned a point of crisis and especially the one we're in. If we haven't built that culture of belonging before this, is it too late? And what happens if we fail to really cultivate belonging in our organization right now and what it means for organizations moving forward?


Dr. Anita Sands:

It's a great question, Tania. I don't know that it's ever too late to start building on culture because the crazy thing about culture is you're going to end up with one anyway. The question is whether or not you actively shape it as a leader or as a manager. So maybe you didn't have a sense of belonging, but now is a question to address why. And the reason it's essential right now is because when you are in a crisis and your employees are been pulled away by other things, that strength of belonging has to capture individuals at a depth and with a level of intensity that they don't have during peace times, right? This stuff just doesn't integrate as easily when people are under pressure and apart from one another. So I don't think it's ever too late to start building it.


Dr. Anita Sands:

I think you then have to ask, what is it that I need in order to feel that I belong and how might I help others feel that they belong in this environment as well? I think it's critical to start building it. The reason it's also critical right now is because we are finding new cadences and new routines in how we work together. And a lot of the companies I'm working with Tania are considering switching to remote, working permanently or going remote first. And what that implies is that our culture, isn't just a nice set of values on a wall. Our culture is the set of embedded and intrinsic behaviors that we all engage in that give us an outcome that leads to a result. So when we are going to go now, remote first, the way in which we are going to get those results and deliver those outcomes is different because our patterns of behavior are different.


So at a time like this, I think it's almost a great opportunity to start thinking about belonging, because we are changing up our culture in some respects. Because we are changing up our behaviors by virtue of the exogenous circumstances we're now all working in. So what you want right now is to create an environment where people feel accepted, people feel trusted. People feel trust Tania, when you give them autonomy and accountability. You want to reconnect people back to the purpose of the organization. You want to help them understand how and what and why they're essential to this team. You want to offer them the support that they need right now in order to replenish them. So belonging, when you get to this level that I've been talking about is really how you enable people to be their best. And, and right now is a window of opportunity to retake a look at that because how we are doing things is just by definition, changing as we switched to remote first. So I think it's an opportunity, actually. It's never too late.


Tania Salarvand:

That's great to hear because I'm sure many out there are still questioning or figuring out what it means to build a culture, especially as we hire new employees or bring on new team members. How do you really enlist that sense of belonging in that culture with folks coming in brand new and trying to discover from home, what it means to work for your organization. In our previous episode, you spoke about self-awareness. And of course, in this one around belonging. Next, we talk to curiosity and I'm really keen to hear how this all builds on top of each other. But before we go, what is the connection between self-awareness, belonging and then the lead in to curiosity.



Dr. Anita Sands:

Right. Great, great, great, great question. So, like I said, we started with self-awareness, awareness of self, awareness of situation. And then when you are aware of yourself, you are better able to determine where it is that you might belong, right? Because you know where you would fit the best, right? Because you're going to have an alignment between your vision for self, and perhaps the vision for the organization. You're going to have an alignment between your own intrinsic values and motivators and the values and the motivators of that team and that organization. So when you have, it's only with awareness that you can understand better where it is that you might belong and what kind of belonging, what kind of culture would best enable you to be your best self.


Dr. Anita Sands:

But once you are there, curiosity is, I don't know how best to put a Tania, other than to say it is the super power that actually unleashes all of those capabilities that you came with and you're respected for. And it is what unleashes that power of belonging, because it's what says, "I know how I can be my best, and I know how I can be better and improve as part of this team. And with these people and together, it's our curiosity that's going to enable us to achieve outcomes that we never thought possible." So it is the secret sauce in many respects and a real superpower.


Tania Salarvand:

That is a great lead in for our next episode. Thank you so much for bringing belonging to us. Anita, I'm really excited to hear about that. And also what's coming next. Before we go, I do want to let everyone know that you did speak to this belonging topic at our annual global event called Paradigm Shift. So if you would like to hear more about belonging and what it means to your digital transformation, please do checkout thoughtworks.com/paradigmshift. And the title of your presentation at the time was, Why Your Digital Transformation is Destined to Fail. But really at the heart of it, it was about belonging.


Dr. Anita Sands

That's right, Tania. That's right.


Tania Salarvand

Thank you so much for your time today. And we will see you on the next one.


Dr. Anita Sands

My pleasure. Talk to you then.


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