‘Belonging’ is increasingly becoming a buzzword in the workplace. Among leaders and managers. On blogs and websites. In research institutes and conferences. But what exactly does it mean to ‘belong’ at work? And why is it now regarded as so important?
The BetterUp group offers an insightful perspective, defining the concept as a person feeling included and accepted for their ‘authentic’ self. Meanwhile, the Coqual thinktank breaks it down into four elements: being seen for your contributions, being connected to your coworkers, being supported in your daily work and career development, and being proud of your organisation’s values and purpose.
It’s increasingly a term referred to in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work as well. Pat Wadors from LinkedIn says, “Diversity and Inclusion may capture your head, but Belonging captures your heart.”
But if you’re a leader in an organisation, why does ‘belonging’ deserve your attention? The answer is simple: we all need it. Both inside and outside of work, belonging is key to being human. According to some psychologists, our need to belong is even equal to our need for love.
1. Articulate your vision clearly
When John F. Kennedy first visited NASA as President, he asked a janitor in the hallway: “What do you do for NASA?”. The janitor replied, “I’m helping put man on the moon.” When staff understand and believe their role contributes to a common purpose, they feel a sense of belonging. If you haven’t talked about your organisation’s vision lately, dedicate time to a meeting soon to focus on this. Show your team how their work contributes to the overall vision.
2. Focus on relationships
A recurring challenge in the International NGO sector is that managers are often recruited based on their technical skills rather than their ability to lead and manage people effectively. And so, managers should seek opportunities to develop relationships with their teams. For example, don’t dive straight into the agenda when starting a meeting. Make time to find out how people are doing and get to know them and what they care about. The simple question ‘How are you doing?’ can yield surprising results.
3. Make room for connection and fun
As the average person spends a significant portion of their life at work —as much as 90,000 hours according to one study— nurturing connections and socialising in the workplace is crucial. If your organisation doesn’t usually hold retreats, away days, or social events, it’s worth reconsidering this. Feeling isolated at work harms productivity. The canteen is a great place to get to know each other: unrushed time, with no agenda, in an informal setting builds relationships easier.
4. Acknowledge your team’s hard work
When people are recognised for their work, it instils a sense of pride—they feel valued, and it helps them feel a sense of belonging. You may already acknowledge your team, but what about people outside your immediate circle? You could try calling one of your operations team members, thanking them, and pointing out something positive you’ve noticed. Also, acknowledge the team as a whole, not just the individual.
5. Don’t bury your head in the sand
Organisations often come to us when something goes wrong and they haven’t dealt with the issue head-on. But believe it or not, a case of harassment, discrimination, or a safeguarding issue can actually be an opportunity to foster and encourage belonging. When faced with difficult situations, lean into the messiness, learn to listen to those who have been hurt, and consider how to take action to resolve, address, and restore the situation. But most importantly, follow through on the activities you say you’ll take. The pain of the past won’t go away, but the future is unwritten.
6. Equip your managers to be role models
When a manager feels a sense of belonging at work, they will help the rest of the team feel the same way. However, you can’t role model something unless you’ve first experienced it. If a leader or manager hasn’t felt a true sense of belonging, coaching or counselling can be an excellent way to help them unpack why this is.
7. Develop vulnerability
Vulnerability isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a way to build trust. And you can’t build belonging without trust. Thankfully, opportunities to be vulnerable at work present themselves every day. So why not share a concern about something personal or work-related, take responsibility when something goes wrong, or seek feedback on your idea? Start small if you struggle with this (who doesn’t?).
8. Consult your staff
Staff will only feel a sense of belonging if they feel heard. They need to feel involved with developments, innovation and adaptations to systems that aren’t working well. Although they may disagree with the eventual decisions, their voice is heard, and they are more engaged. This is a key contributor to overall staff wellbeing. Manage by walking around (or calling people if you work remotely). Ask what they are working on. Then, ask what’s getting in their way. This is a brilliant way to hear staff concerns and ideas.
Belonging isn’t just a word; it’s the heartbeat of a thriving workplace. As leaders, we hold the key to unlock its power. By embracing these eight actions, we create an environment where everyone’s voice resonates, where people don’t just work, but truly belong. This, in turn, fuels a more engaged, motivated, and productive team—a workplace where belonging is not just a concept, but a cherished reality.
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