Hearing the word “belonging” can affect people in very different ways. Perhaps it reminds you of sitting around the dinner table with loved ones, or acing a group project. Or maybe it makes you cringe, thinking of times you’ve felt isolated or excluded. For most people, it’s a mix of both.
It’s important for leaders to understand what belonging is, what it isn’t, and what we can do to better cultivate belonging in our workplaces. Here are four of the most powerful truths we’ve learned about belonging.
#1: Belonging is a Need
While it is wonderful to feel a sense of belonging, it’s so much more than something nice to have. Belonging is a motivational need that must be met in order for us to feel emotionally safe in an environment and fully participate there.
“Motivational needs” are needs we’re highly motivated to meet, and satisfying them increases our overall motivation. When belonging takes a backseat to productivity, profit, and other workplace priorities, we risk losing connection with our team and anyone else our work impacts.
Meeting others’ need for belonging isn’t solely your responsibility. But leaders play an important role in modeling behavior that strengthens belonging, which, in turn, strengthens teams and working relationships.
#2: Fostering Belonging is a Process
It’s great to have social gatherings, retreats, and other interpersonal team-building efforts. But these occasional events aren’t enough to foster belonging. Social psychology has shown us belonging goes beyond acquaintance. As Kendra Cherry writes, belonging is “centered on gaining acceptance, attention, and support from members of the group as well as providing the same attention to other members.”
Acceptance, support, and attention are not constants that are set in motion after a single fun event. Rather, regularly practicing the facets of belonging is essential to maintaining a safe, healthy work environment long term. When leaders model behavior that encourages belonging, we’re more likely to feel a sense of belonging, too.
#3: Differences Can Create Gaps in Belonging
Numerous studies have revealed trust impacts belonging in critical ways. For example:
- We are more likely to trust people who look like us, and that trust increases if we have other things in common.
- Lack of trust and lack of belonging go hand in hand.
Author Carly Hauck notes, “We are wired to [seek ways to] connect and belong and if we feel we lack trust, safety, and belonging, our survival can feel incredibly threatened and thus suffering lasts.” Since the feeling of belonging is diminished when someone is “othered” by a non-trusting person, leaders have a responsibility to model trust for their team.
#4 Modeling Trust and Belonging is Simple
While no one ever said that building a workplace with a rock-solid culture of trust and belonging is easy, it is simple. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are straightforward ways to show your team:
- Acceptance: Embrace what people bring to the team without trying to change them.
- Thank someone for printing handouts, even if you prefer to type notes.
- Attention: Notice and acknowledge contributions and achievements, even when they seem small.
- Thank someone who is working hard, even if they have yet to reach their goal.
- Support: Demonstrate your support in ways others can act on.
- If someone wants to be a better public speaker, approve time and funding for them to attend a public speaking workshop.
As with any skill, the more we intentionally practice it, the more acts of belonging will become a culture of belonging. The more we treat people as if they belong, the more our team will follow our lead.
- Where do I feel a strong sense of belonging? What do those places have in common?
- What is a simple way I can acknowledge the contributions of everyone on my team?
- What is my gut reaction to differing approaches or ideas on my team? Why?
For Further Reading:
- McLeod, Saul. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”, Simply Psychology, April 2022.
- Cherry, Kendra. “What is a Sense of Belonging?”, VeryWellMind, March 2021.
- “Study shows trustworthy people perceived to look similar to ourselves”, Science Daily, November 2013.
- Hauck, Carly. “The Science of Belonging and Trust”, LinkedIn, July 2019.
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Trusting differences is critical to a company for several reasons. When your people are able to recognize, value and celebrate diversity, they are able to:
- Address unconscious biases
- Build cross-cultural understanding
- Foster an inclusive workplace culture
Our Building Trust program also helps organizations attract and retain a more diverse workforce, and improve decision-making.
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