Surviving the Pandemic: Seven Practices for Creating a Culture of Belonging

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Practices for Creating a Culture of Belonging

A strong culture helps your team survive times of anxiety and uncertainty.

Have you ever experienced a herd of bison running straight toward you and your child, with nowhere safe to get out of the way? It is a uniquely terrifying experience, let me tell you.  A moment when you most definitely know you are alive, and are quickly assessing avenues to ensure you and your offspring remain that way.

This pandemic experience sort of feels the same to me. True – it is not a matter of split seconds before the impending impact of mountains of hide, muscle and hooves. The virus is invisible. We do not know when it will strike us, our friends or loved ones. But the speed of change with this pandemic, both social and economic, has been a whirlwind. And we have no idea where our safe havens reside or what the future will bring.

Do Not Bury Your Head

Now is not the time to freeze in place. Agility and creativity are required to come out of this with your team together, stronger and better than ever. The one thing we know for sure is that our new normal will be different.

The old ways will not work. Social distancing and revised protocols for interacting, along with challenging economics, are here for the foreseeable future. We are in uncharted territory.

Uncertainty Is UncomfortableUncertainty Is Uncomfortable

Humans do not like uncertainty. A few thrive on constant change, but most of us prefer to live in a world that we see as predictable, secure and safe.

The current pandemic and its economic ramifications are scary, anxiety producing and unprecedented. Social isolation and incomplete information compound the strain on our individual and communal mental health.

How do you help people through these disruptive times?

As a leader of your firm, your practice, and your team, what can you do to create cohesion and a culture that supports people now, when they need it the most?

How does a firm successfully weather this storm from an interpersonal perspective?

Sometimes the natural behavior of animals can provide a powerful image for us to model. In this case, a lesson can be learned from the different approaches of cattle and bison to an approaching thunderstorm on the Great Plains.

When cattle are out on the range and a thunderstorm approaches, they tend to scatter and go their own way. Often they head away from the storm or in haphazard directions.  As a result, the cattle end up enduring the brunt of the storm for longer, many times alone and with an increased chance of a deadly lightning strike.

The bison, however, behave very differently. They come together into a tight herd, and head directly into the storm. This serves to protect both the young and the adult members. By creating a unified group, no one individual stands out, resulting in a greatly reduced threat from lightning strikes. In facing the storm and actively moving toward it together, they come through the threat much quicker and safer. It is a great adaptation for protection and survival for the bison during severe weather.

Much like the bison, a culture of belonging and inclusion will help you, your firm and your team weather this pandemic storm.

Create a Culture of Belonging

Uncertain, disruptive times call for leaders with the ability to promote cultures of belonging and inclusion. A culture where people feel they belong is key to lowering anxiety and stress, along with increasing collaboration, creativity, engagement and ownership. These are all qualities that individuals and organizations require exponentially right now.

Unfortunately, most work cultures, regardless of rhetoric, require people to fit in. An unwritten code mandates individuals to bend to the majority or leaders’ preferences for how to act, think, dress, and be. People do not feel welcomed as unique individuals. Differences are discouraged and often belittled. Groupthink prevails. Often, a “preferred” or “in” group dictates the acceptable behavioral norms. Whether you are in or out of that group, the dynamic trends toxic.

Groupthink and the need to “fit in” go against belonging and a culture that promotes trust. When you belong, you know you are welcome to be yourself. Trust is the number one component responsible for decreased anxiety and increased engagement at work.

A culture of belonging does not mean there are no normative bounds.

However, those boundaries are much broader and more welcoming to differences of opinion, experience and outlook. They recognize that differences are important in maintaining a fluid, dynamic and agile work environment that can best respond to fast paced change and evolving disruption.

Create A Coaching Environment

How do you help promote a culture of belonging? By developing a coaching environment. This works best if it comes from the top down. But even if you are an associate or junior partner, you can model these approaches and influence the culture of your work environment and teams.

Below are seven key practices to begin a shift toward a culture of belonging. They are all practices, by the way — no one said change was easy or automatic. Do not expect to get them right all the time. Consider this (and you) a work in progress. If you set your intention to transform your culture to one of belonging with increased trust, you and your team will weather this storm and come through it faster and more agile.

  1. Self-Care – You must take care of yourself. You will need all your leadership skills to effectively communicate, listen, empathize and lead. Maintaining your equilibrium as a leader is essential.  Exercise, meditation, listening to music, connecting with those who you care about, having a safe space to be alone while sheltering in place.  Whatever you need, do it. Call on your support system. Create one if you do not have it already. Do not try to do this alone.
  2. Be CuriousPractice leading with curious empathy. Actively question your assumptions. All of us have unconscious biases and patterns of behavior. Become curious to your and others’ assumptions, thought processes and experiences. Curiosity without judgment will open a new way of leading and relating. This is a key component of cultural shift, the creation of awareness.
  3. Open Communication Channels – Be willing to be vulnerable. It takes courage, but it’s worth it. Leaders who show their humanity are more trusted. Schedule times to meet with your people virtually. Maintain an “open door” policy and encourage individuals to talk to you. Trust is earned over time through people seeing your behavior, response and care for their concerns and perspectives. In team meetings, make sure everyone is respected and is given an opportunity to contribute.
  4. Listen More – Learn to actively listen to your people. This can be challenging. We are used to being the expert and providing the quick fix answer. Allow people the opportunity to be heard. It is a gift many of us rarely receive. Try asking in one-on-one conversations or small groups, “What is on your mind?” Then be quiet. See what develops. It may take time before people feel they can be open with you. Be patient.
  5. Encourage Initiative – Facilitate people reaching their own solution. Our training as advisors is to tell people what to do and how to do it. Sometimes this is needed, given time constraints or the task at hand. However, micromanaging kills engagement and trust in your team. It will also lead to your burnout. Allow for mistakes. Create learnable/teachable moments and move on. Lawyers are perfectionists, and recognizing that we are human rather than perfect is a game-changer. Striving for perfection in the ultimate product for your clients is essential. I am not suggesting you lower your standard. Within the firm, however, mistakes should not result in bullying and shaming, as is often the result.
  6. Model Optimism. Emotions are contagious, especially those of a leader. Model calm, empathetic responses. Acknowledge the unknown and the fear of uncertainty, along with possible economic challenges. Transparency is important, but do not dwell there for long. Message in optimistic terms with realistic boundaries. Authenticity is key.
  7. Have Fun. Schedule time to socialize online and have some fun together. Mix it up and have small group meetings sometimes with people who would not normally be together. This can encourage new connections. Play and humor are great ways to reduce stress and bond.

* This article was originally published in the May issue of the ABA Law Practice Today and can be viewed here.


Not sure where to begin? Give me a shout and let’s start a conversation. Having a lot of chats these days with my clients just figuring out what is what and the next best step forward. There are so many unique challenges for everyone these days!

I am here for you as always. Now more than ever Success is a Team Sport! Let us do this together.

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