Safety, belonging and mattering – how to create top-performing teams during a crisis

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Through our coaching work we have found that by helping organisations build strong workplace cultures of inclusivity and belonging we create healthier, happier and higher-performing teams – something that is vital for business growth right now during this challenging period of uncertainty and fear. 

How can leaders use belonging – something that has to be built into the very grain of a business if you’re to get the best out of your people – to create higher-performing teams during times of crisis? And how do you continue to build these top-performing teams when an entire population is being kept physically apart from one another?  

Meeting basic human needs first

In his hierarchy of needs, Abraham Maslow states that at a very base level we need our physiological needs met: food, water, clean air, shelter, clothing and sleep. At the other end of the scale and at the very top of the pyramid is self-actualisation – realising our purpose, dreams and best versions of ourselves.

For most of us now we’ve tumbled down Maslow’s hierarchy from the previously self-indulgent heights of self-actualisation to worrying about what food we don’t have in our cupboards, and weighing up the risk of leaving the shelter of our home to procure this food.

Second up on Maslow’s hierarchy is safety: to feel safe and to have the resources to stay safe. Safe from the threat of disease by staying at home, safe from the threat of not carrying and passing the disease on to others, especially those more vulnerable than us, and safe from the threat of loss of work and money. 

Currently feelings of safety are thin on the ground. Reassurance that the work your employees are doing is enough and an understanding of their individual circumstances will go a long way in helping them feel safe and like they matter.

Why belonging is essential to team performance

Only once these basic physiological and safety needs have been met, can we turn our attention to belonging. In this crisis we will see people reascend up the hierarchy of needs, from checking that they are fed and safe to coming to the realisation that, when all is said and done, against this current almost-apocalyptic backdrop, all we really have is one another. 

We’re already seeing communities pulling together to feed the vulnerable and the isolated in ways not seen since the Second World War. Neighbours in otherwise too-busy-to-talk cities are getting to know each other for the first time in years. 

This powerful feeling that we’re all in this together against one common enemy, Covid-19, will provide many lessons in how to belong and how to invest in, and maintain, a sense of belonging by fostering a collective duty of care, concern, empathy and compassion. 

We must now prioritise the time to listen to others, to understand their situation and their challenges and to support them, if only by making them feel heard. Empathy is the glue that binds us, that which creates connection and belonging.   

Safety and belonging have long since been considered our two fundamental human needs (after the physiological ones). As British journalist John Sweeney says: “People with a sense of security and belonging are stabilised for learning, creating and innovating.” 

When people and teams have a sense of safety – physiological and psychological – and belonging, great things happen. High performance can be facilitated. 

How to help your teams perform at their best during a crisis

So once our basic physiological and safety needs have been met, how do we lean into what’s going on for our colleagues and teams while they are working remotely? 

As a leader, how can you listen with empathy so that your people feel heard, so that they know they matter – even if you can’t be physically present in order to reassure them that they do?

  • By fostering a culture of listening – by starting each team meeting by hearing from everyone, equally. 
  • By inviting a vulnerable conversation – one where everyone is given permission to express what’s on their mind, their challenges, concerns and fears. 

This pandemic is a leveller in many ways, and it’s a great starting point from whence to invite this kind of a conversation: “How is everyone coping?”; “How is everyone feeling?”.

Leaders must model and be prescriptive in what behaviours are acceptable and which are unacceptable. Model behaviours include:

  • Non-judgment
  • No cynicism – surely now is the time to say ‘yes’ to new ways of working and being
  • No interruption – something that is very tempting in virtual meetings
  • Equal share of voice

These are just a few of the new ‘rules’ or new leadership behaviours that we must now enact. 

The key now – and, arguably, should always have been – is that everyone matters, not just the privileged few. Everyone’s lives and livelihoods have been impacted by coronavirus. This is the opportunity for belonging to become a priority within our work cultures. 

Knowing that one matters, that one belongs, is the single most powerful ingredient towards self-confidence and a sense of self-worth. Knowing that you’re good at your job and that you’re valued is intrinsically linked to high performance. 

In these uncertain times, the emphasis on belonging has never been more important. With your employees forced to isolate themselves from friends, family and colleagues at home, it is the responsibility of business leaders to ensure they continue to feel supported, valued and an integral part of the team at work. 

We are running bespoke remote workshops via Zoom to help leaders support their employees through this difficult period.  


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