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3 simple exercises leaders can use to design for belonging

May 24, 2022, 6:40 PM UTC

In a Tuesday morning breakfast session at Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, Susie Wise, adjunct professor at Stanford University’s and author of the book Design for Belonging, led attendees through a series of exercises that allow people to identify moments of low or high belonging and opportunities to improve every person’s experience as part of an organization.

The session opened with a mindfulness exercise led by one of Wise’s former fellows, Chris Rudd, founder and CEO of ChiByDesign. Rudd implored attendees to close their eyes and “take yourself to a place where you felt like you belonged… the people there, and the space, made you feel like you could be you,” and where in your body you felt that belonging.

Rudd then suggested attendees consider the counterexample of how it might feel to have the opposite of belonging, or being “othered.”

“When you’re othered, it’s pretty explicit,” Rudd said, “I bet you can think really quickly about a time where you felt othered, and you can feel it right wherever it hit you.”

For the next exercise, Wise drew a graph with the x-axis representing time and the y-axis representing belonging on the positive side of the y-axis and being othered, or negative belonging, representing the negative side. Attendees were asked to map how they felt across their last few days. 

Attendees expressed surprise upon reflection of their highs and lows, driving awareness for the way different moments shape their perceptions of an overall experience, like a work event. Wise pointed out that the acknowledgement of these moments provides designers an opportunity to improve inclusion.

“This is a starting point for thinking about what are the key moments to design for to be supportive of belonging,” Wise said.

As a final step, leaders can start to map out the entirety of the employee experience, in much more personal and granular terms than the administratively-driven progression—recruiting, onboarding, performance review—typically used by most companies. The example from Wise’s book outlined dozens of moments which provide opportunities to be redesigned from the invitation to join the company to the chance to freely provide feedback.

“There are also some less obvious moments,” Wise said, “One that I call out in here is dissent…thinking about what does it look like to disagree to give critical feedback that this is actually a moment and community that can be designed? And there’s another powerful moment to design to support really diverse opinions, different backgrounds, different identities that want to come to the fore.”

Rudd and Wise emphasized and reiterated the importance of participation. One of the best ways to make employees feel like they belong is to include them in company decisions.

“I asked my team what makes them feel like they belong at the company,” Rudd said. “The main thing they said was that we get to shape it.”

This approach to inclusion or belonging can also support a company’s mission and employees’ attachment to that mission.

“I think this is something that companies, organizations, governments have to now think about,” Rudd said. “Who are you beyond what you do for your customer?”

Wise quoted UC Berkeley professor john powell’s definition of belonging: “having a meaningful voice and the opportunity to participate in the design of social and cultural structures. Belonging means having the right to contribute to and make demands on society and political institutions,” adding that employees being empowered to express demands is a big mindset shift in this new era of work.

“This is really worth thinking about as designers have experiences in work contexts and workplaces.”

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