14 Ways to Build Authentic Relationships Across Differences in the Workplace

Whether working in the office, remotely or on a hybrid schedule, building authentic relationships with employees is key in helping employees develop a sense of belonging in the workplace. As leaders, it can be challenging to establish relationships without seeming like you are inauthentic or prying into your employees' private lives. So, what can leaders do to develop and nurture authentic relationships across race, gender, and other differences?

To help you find the best ways to build authentic relationships, I asked HR and people managers, and business leaders this question for their best insights. From leading with visibility and openness to focusing on creating a culture of belonging, there are several things you may do in your role as a leader to cultivate authentic relationships that cut across all differences in the workplace.

Here are 14 ways these leaders build and nurture authentic relationships across differences in their workplaces:

  • Lead With Visibility and Openness
  • Be Active and Curious
  • Make Space for Individuals to Fully be Themselves
  • Show Visible Support for Employee Resource Groups
  • Stay Focused on Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives
  • Understand Your Team's Way of Thinking and Acting
  • Have an Open Mind to Learn
  • Inspire People Toward a Common Purpose
  • Offer Career Support to Underrepresented Groups
  • Celebrate Differences
  • Connect With Your Teams by Sharing Your Stories
  • Listen to Learn
  • Embrace the Uniqueness of Others Without Judgment
  • Focus on Creating a Culture of Belonging.

Lead With Visibility and Openness

Visibility, presence, and openness are crucial to meaningful inclusion and connection. It’s important that different people are present throughout all levels of a business so that others can see the possibilities of their own trajectory within an organization. And of course, not all differences are visible, which is why transparency and openness from leaders when it comes to their own backgrounds and personal characteristics can be so positively influential. 

Another way to foster authentic relationships is to get involved in conversations around inclusion. Cyclical feedback and initiatives like reverse mentoring are great ways to show real investment in diversity. Because these conversations need to center on those with lived experience, it’s vital that leaders show humility and willingness to learn. Successful equity policy and practice should be informed by the perspectives of marginalized people.

Caroline Fox, Global ED&I Strategy Lead, Revolent


Be Active and Curious

Build relationships outside of “go-to” colleagues and collaborators. This holds particularly true for those in a leadership position. It’s key that they actively and genuinely try to get to know people: their background, experience, what they’re working on, and their aspirations. Not systematically, but casually. Human nature should take care of the rest.

Daria Islam, Senior Customer Success Manager, Joveo

Make Space for Individuals to Fully be Themselves

Authentic relationships are built and nurtured when leaders set the table and offer a place for team members to come to that table as their whole selves. People spend approximately 80% of their lives in a work environment - if we're interested in retaining talented, diverse individuals, prioritizing inclusion is critical. In DEI, we talk about "identity cover," a phenomenon that often occurs for diverse candidates who feel like they can't fully show up because part of their identity isn't welcome. This is one of the most common reasons diverse candidates may feel vulnerable to leaving a position. To avoid losing excellent candidates, focusing on opening genuine spaces for shared experience in your organization is key.

Prem Bhatia, Co-Founder of Coleaf

Show Visible Support for Employee Resource Groups

Authentic relationships begin with open conversations, which only happen when people come together - virtually or physically. In recent years, Employee Resource Groups have become the de facto way organizations facilitate those conversations. Some companies are self-led by employees, while others are organized by HR or internal communications. Either way, all such groups can benefit from the visible support of leaders. Through Townhalls, internal blogs, social posts celebrating their achievements, and much more, leaders can continually raise the profile of ERGs. They can stress what has already been done and ask staff what more they expect. By listening and supporting, leaders can grow internal awareness to make a positive difference.

Scott Hitchins, CMO, Interact Software


Stay Focused on Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

Stay focused on DEI initiatives. Encourage employees from all backgrounds to share their stories with their peers, including any obstacles they overcame to get where they are today and how it’s shaped them. This creates an atmosphere where people feel comfortable being themselves, cultivates a sense of psychological safety, and makes it easier to identify common interests - and goals - with their coworkers. By fostering a culture where employees feel free to express themselves, you break down departmental silos that can stifle collaboration and ensure all voices are heard and elevated.

Jessica Arias, Director of People & Culture, OnPay Payroll Services


Understand Your Team's Way of Thinking and Acting

It is a fact that in an organization, people naturally develop a certain group identity that usually surpasses the individual. Group issues impact one's behavior, building codes of practice linked to the workplace. In a team, each employee contributes directly to the successful development of the work. The employee's conduct and the leader's attitude influence the organization's progress and development. It also generates better assimilation of the organizational culture and eases the process of understanding the differences. Thus, developing and providing team dynamics and training that focus on understanding the way of thinking and acting of each one influences the nurturing of authentic relationships across race, gender, and other differences.

Ricardo von Groll, Manager, Talentify


Have an Open Mind to Learn

A significant part of being an impactful leader is developing an ability to have an “open to learn” mindset. To build authentic and meaningful relationships across race, gender, and personal differences, leaders must be willing to listen more than they talk, ask for feedback regarding management and communication preferences, and intentionally seek opportunities to learn about different backgrounds and cultures. This can be through individual relationship-building activities, team-building exercises, and professional development seminars and conferences highlighting gender and cultural differences.

Chelsea Jay, Executive Leadership Coach, Chelsea Jay Consulting


Inspire People Toward a Common Purpose

Differences are all the more glaring when focused on. This doesn't mean you can ignore differences, but setting clear goals beyond them and focusing on building teams around the skills that it takes to get there is the best approach to overcoming a deadlock of differences. Historically, only worthwhile goals have brought people together across antagonistic borders and differences. But when such "teams" were formed, it often resulted in the most significant successes.

Tony Topoleski, Project Manager, ECA Partners


Offer Career Support to Underrepresented Groups

When leaders intentionally provide career support to team members of underrepresented groups, they contribute to their career advancement and create a foundation for an authentic relationship. Career support can happen in different ways, such as introducing people to your influential networks, offering high-profile opportunities and projects, and mentoring.

Simone Missagia, Marketing Director, Pulsely Limited

Celebrate Differences

Employees seek work environments where they can show up as their authentic selves. Leaders play a critical role in fostering psychological safety and building genuine relationships across all demographics. To build these desirable relationships, leaders should become comfortable with being uncomfortable learning more about the unique aspects of diversity that each team member brings to the team.  Asking questions and learning about different cultures, religions, and diversity of experience is one way to nurture and build these relationships in the workplace.

Tawanda Johnson, HR Leader, Sporting Smiles


Connect With Your Teams by Sharing Your Stories

We have all taken big swings and completely missed the ball. We have all second-guessed ourselves. We've all had bouts of luck. We've all had emotional growing pains. Tell your truth. Authentic relationships are built by people who share their real life experiences. That's how you bridge the differences that often divide us.

Stephanie Margalis, Head of Brand & Culture, ClearForMe


Listen to Learn

As a people leader of over a decade, the best advice I can give other leaders is to listen to learn.  Then galvanize action. By listening to learn, you will understand where prejudice has made its way into your policies and practices. It will enable you to be the voice of change within your organization, and with that proof of commitment to change, you will build trust across the different demographics of your team.

Karen Saab, VP, Satellite


Embrace the Uniqueness of Others Without Judgment

The best leaders are the ones who want to understand things that are different or outside of their comfort zones. An employee will allow themselves to become open if they think that they are psychologically safe and that their leader is willing to understand who they are, not only as an employee but as an individual.

Alysia Straw, Talent Acquisition Specialist, Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital-Dartmouth Health


Focus on Creating a Culture of Belonging

The current political climate has many leaders focusing on being more welcoming and inclusive in the workplace. One way to build more authentic relationships is by focusing your efforts on belonging. As a leader, reflect on how you intentionally cultivate a culture where all employees feel welcomed and included and as if they belong. If you're unsure where to begin, start by reviewing those times you felt most included at work. Notice the commonalities that transpire and begin to implement a few in your workplace.

Dr. Kyle Elliott, Founder & Career Coach, CaffeinatedKyle.com


The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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