Getting Below the Culture Surface to Build Cultures of Belonging

Updated: May 11


Written by LaTonya Wilkins, Bestseller Author of "Leading Below the Surface" and CultureCon 2022 presenter.

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I’ve written many articles about the dangers of oversimplifying culture change, specifically, on the process of building an inclusive culture. In fact, in my guest post on this very blog in 2019, I offered some practical tips on overcoming the difficulties of building truly inclusive cultures.


But a lot has changed since 2019. I wrote a bestselling book, grew my company, and, most importantly, worked with dozens more clients. This new knowledge has shaped how I’ve refined my approach to building cultures of belonging even more. If we truly want to build cultures of belonging, we can’t just dive right in. We first need to take a step back to simply access our company cultures—below the surface.


What exactly does this mean? Well, let’s start with the opposite concept first. The surface culture level is everything that can be seen from the outside. A classic example of a surface culture level observation is what is seen on a company’s website. For example, you will typically see the company’s perception of its culture, a list of values, and other testimonials either from employees or clients. But there’s much more going on in these organizations below the surface. Questioning things like what the culture is really like is a below the surface gesture.


In this article, I’ll break down how to get below the surface in your organization so you can understand your existing culture, how you can get below the culture surface with your employees, and how you can truly build a psychologically safe culture of belonging in your organization.


Why Cultures of Belonging Are So Important Today

Earlier in my career, I often heard one of the most dreaded sayings of all time: “What is the ‘business case’ for inclusion?” Over time, I learned that this question was coded and it meant that if I was asked this in a job interview, I should run the other way. But considering that I was a culture leader for many years, while I could choose to run, there would be few places to hide.


But seriously, I remember the days when culture leaders like me were asked this question, we took it as a challenge. Some of us would create lengthy PowerPoint decks and show up in our best suit to boot. We were ready to convince the organization that this was the way to go. And unfortunately, when many of us ‘succeeded’ in those organizations, we eventually saw that the ‘commitment’ was short-lived.


What if I told you that fostering a culture of belonging is a core business need—just like innovation, strategic planning, and even business financial planning? This recent McKinsey report proves it. In fact, employees said belonging was one of the top things that they wanted at work. But employers continue to think that other things are more important such as career paths or remote work. This is the issue with staying at the surface level. You have to get below the culture surface if you really want to access what’s really important.


What Does It Mean to Get Below the Culture Surface?

What does getting below the culture surface actually mean? In my book Leading Below the Surface, I discuss three prongs of Below the Surface Leadership: REAL leadership, empathy, and psychological safety. Below is a brief description of each prong and a tip on how to get below the culture surface.

Prong

Brief Description

How to Get Below the Culture Surface

REAL Leadership

A below the surface leadership signature concept -- REAL leaders are relatable, equitable, aware, and loyal.

Build DEIB-inspired principles like equity into your day-to-day leadership. Asking yourself how you can be more a more equitable leader should be just as important as a question such as “how can I lead my team through a large-scale change?”

Empathy

Here are two ways to access empathy in below the surface leadership: person-to-person listening (P2P) and person-to-belonging listening (P2B).

Have regular one-on-one conversations with employees and include the same questions you ask in culture surveys. Practice below the surface empathetic P2P or P2B listening.

Psychological Safety

Psychological safety means that employees can make mistakes, openly express their opinions, and bring their entire selves to work without punishment or judgment.

Open up psychologically safe conversations about company culture in individual and group sessions dedicated to listening. Don’t judge or ‘correct’ comments, just listen.

This table is just the beginning. I discuss many more strategies in Leading Below the Surface.


Remember that This All Takes Time

No leader or culture is going to be completely surface-level or below the surface all the time. So I must mention that there is a level that exists in between called the transitional level, and most people fluctuate between this and the surface level. Organizations at the transitional level may be trying to mold their culture through organizational rituals such as values, strategies, principles, and standards. If you can get to the transitional level, it’s a start. Consider that success for now.


So are you ready to get below the culture surface? Give it a shot. I’ll be speaking on an alumni panel at Culture Con, so stop by and tell me how it’s going.


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About LaTonya:

Navigating differences in the workplace is a surface problem. I work with executive leaders and their teams where human connection and cultural change really happen: below the surface.


I started my company Change Coaches to serve more organizations and teams who are willing and ready to grow. At Change Coaches, we work with teams to create cultures of belonging. We also partner with organizations to eliminate workplace toxicity. As a change coach, I've worked with leaders from companies including Google, GE, The New York Times, and other. I have also worked with several non-profits.


As a professional speaker and facilitator, I inspire audiences around the world to look below the surface in themselves and others and to build relationships from a place of empathy. All my speaking is delivered through a coaching lens so audiences tend to experience longer-term effects. You can learn more about my speaking topics at latonyawilkins.com/speaking.


I have been featured in publications such as Fast Company, Inc, NPR, and Well+Good. I was also rated an "excellent" teacher by my undergraduate business students and gained peer-nominated recognition for most inclusive HR influencers in 2019.