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Improving Workplace Culture in Schools Part 2: Belonging

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 5th November 2022

In a recent article Why Schools Should Do More to Improve Workplace Culture I discussed the importance of a positive workplace culture to staff wellbeing, student outcomes and school effectiveness. I also briefly outlined the steps that schools should take to improve their workplace culture. I now begin taking a deeper dive. In Part 2, I look at belonging, why it is important and how schools can foster a greater sense of belonging among their staff by creating a shared purpose. 

What is Belonging?

Belonging is about connection to others, feeling included and being accepted for who we are. It is a fundamental human need that is hardwired into our DNA. Rejection or social exclusion has a huge impact on our physical and mental health as well as on our ability to perform.  Brain imaging shows that we experience social exclusion in the same region of the brain as we experience physical pain. Studies show how exclusion in the workplace is more damaging than bullying or discrimination. It also impacts our motivation, engagement and work performance, affects our commitment to the organisation and increases job turnover. 

Benefits of Belonging at Work

A sense of belonging at work, on the other hand, has been found to bring huge benefits to our health, happiness and longevity. It also acts as a buffer against stress and adversity, helping us to build resilience.  Workplace belonging has been found to increase job performance by more than fifty percent. It also reduces staff turnover by half and absenteeism by three-quarters. Workplaces with high belonging have more motivated and effective staff, greater levels of trust, better collaboration and more innovation. Yet around half of all employees say they do not feel a sense of belonging at work. 

Fostering belonging is about building a unique school identity and developing a feeling of unity that makes staff proud to be part of it.

So how do we create a greater sense of belonging for staff in our schools? Fostering belonging is about building a unique school identity and developing a feeling of unity that makes staff proud to be part of it. It is also about fostering an environment  where colleagues are respectful of each other’s cultures, views, strengths, and differences, and recognise everyone’s contributions.

Shared Purpose

Creating a shared purpose is essential to foster belonging. A shared purpose holds staff together. It brings a sense that their personal goals and those of their colleagues and the school are the same. When there is a strong shared purpose, staff are more likely to cooperate and prioritise the school’s needs. Shared purpose also influences social and professional norms by clarifying expected behaviours. This improves collegial relationships and builds trust.  Finally, shared purpose brings a greater sense of meaning to work. 

A shared purpose does not happen by chance but needs to be developed intentionally. It starts with a clear set of guiding statements - values, vision and mission - around which shared goals and behavioural norms can be established.  Developing guiding statements that promote a person-centred, caring, respectful and inclusive culture, can bring significant benefits to the workplace.  To be most effective, however, they must reflect the real beliefs and priorities of the staff community.

We are told that the role of the headteacher or principal is to develop and implement a vision for the school, but a leader that prioritises belonging should bring the community together to formulate the guiding statements collaboratively, based on their true values, aspirations and needs. 

Creating Ownership of the Values, Vision and Mission

Each member of staff has unique motivations and will  connect to the guiding statements in different ways. Individuals need time to reflect on their work and understand how they fit into the bigger picture. Support staff can find it more difficult to experience a sense of workplace belonging and it is, therefore, essential that they understand the value of their contribution. 

The Role of Middle Leaders 

While there is no doubt that SLT plays an important role in connecting staff to the shared purpose, the work of middle leaders is crucial in this process. Team leaders work with their teams to set goals that are aligned with the vision and mission, reinforce behaviours that are consistent with the school’s values, highlight successes and focus on next steps. Successful middle leaders understand their colleagues’ motivations, aspirations and strengths and can demonstrate to each individual the value that they bring. This involves providing time for teams to connect and utilising tools to allow them to understand each other better. 

Middle leaders can only be effective connectors if they understand the role they themselves play in the shared purpose.

Middle leaders can only be effective connectors if they understand the role they themselves play in the shared purpose. Time spent developing the middle leader team, creating a team identity and supporting leaders to connect their work to the guiding statements, helps build a cohesive and committed middle leadership,  who experience their own sense of belonging. This is an essential foundation upon which belonging can be fostered among all colleagues.  

Moving Away From Top-Down Approaches

Studies show that organisations that have a strong sense of shared purpose are more likely to have decentralised decision-making and high levels of individualism. For some, it may seem counterintuitive that to develop shared purpose and work towards collective goals, schools need to move away from top-down, hierarchical structures.  Collaborative cultures, which allow staff to have higher levels of autonomy are, however, much more likely to cultivate shared purpose and belonging. 

Tips for Creating a Shared Purpose in Your School

  1. Develop values, vision and mission in collaboration with staff.

  2. Move away from top-down approaches to decision-making and problem-solving.

  3. Provide staff with more autonomy and freedom to identify and draw on their own passions and talents in pursuit of the shared purpose.

  4. Build a strong middle leadership team that understands how their role is connected to the shared purpose. Ensure middle leaders feel a sense of belonging to the leadership team and to the workplace. 

  5. Provide middle leaders with time and tools to support their teams in taking ownership of the shared purpose. This may include:
    • Getting to know colleagues, understanding their motivations, aspirations, personalities and strengths. This can be supported by the use of tools such as the DISC personality profile or VIA Character Strengths.
    • Setting team and individual goals that align colleagues’ personal motivations and aspirations with the shared purpose.
    • Regularly and frequently sharing success stories and letting staff know about the value they bring. 
  6. Focus on support staff, to ensure they know how their work fits into the big picture and the contribution they make to the school’s success.