Four Ways to Cultivate Belonging

Picture of Dan Spira

Dan Spira

Managing Director, North America and Global Partner

In the 1940’s, my grandparents hid their true identities in order to survive. They lived in a time and place where they did not belong – it was not safe for them or their children to openly identify with their ethnicity. For a while, they changed their names in order to blend into the majority. As refugees and later, immigrants, they retained a wary-yet-optimistic sensibility of belonging-yet-not-belonging within a wider society that was gradually becoming more open, inclusive, diverse… and flourishing.

These words – diversity, inclusion, belonging – have become crucially important for organizations to survive and flourish, particularly in the new realities of 2021.

Providing people with feeling of belonging inside their organization is, arguably, one of the key goals of diversity and inclusion programs, as well as virtual team building efforts. A feeling of belonging is also a necessary ingredient for developing a cohesive, high performing team.

What happens when there isn’t a sense of belonging within an organization – or a sense of belonging for some, but not all?

Neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists have long known that the experience of exclusion and alienation – social pain – is profoundly distressing. As humans, we will go to great lengths to avoid social pain, even if it means suppressing aspects of ourselves, including our identities, our ideas, and our willingness to innovate.

If a sense of belonging is a desired feeling, then how does cultivating that feeling translate into action and behavior?

How can we create workplace cultures where there are few barriers to belonging for newcomers who bring a different set of experiences, who may even look and sound different from the established in-group?  

Reverse Brainstorming Belonging

At Arcadia we often use the reverse brainstorming method to develop a wider range of practical ideas for achieving a given end goal. This method starts with asking a question about the opposite of the goal, e.g. “How do we undermine and prevent a sense of team belonging?” Then, taking all the negative (and sometimes, sobering) responses to that question, we reverse the outputs to yield new insights.

In the clinical research of Dr. John Gottman, the prevalence of four negative behaviors – he called these the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – predicted relationship instability and collapse in married couples. These are: 1) criticism of a partner’s personality, 2) defensiveness in the face of criticism, 3) contempt, from a position of superiority, and 4) stonewalling, or emotional withdrawal from interactions. These behaviors were shown to create self-reinforcing negative loops of behavior between both parties, ultimately eroding trust and cohesion.

Borrowing from Gottman’s research in our reverse brainstorming exercise and applying it to the notion of workplace belonging, here are four ways to cultivate a greater sense of belonging within a diverse, geographically distributed team:

  1. Instead of criticism, help others cultivate their strengths. Whether in an informal coaching capacity or as part of a formal development program, help others develop a feeling of belonging through their contribution to the team, in a way that honors their unique attributes, experiences and perspectives.
  2. Instead of defensiveness, practice growth mindset. Whether you are a team leader or an individual contributor, demonstrate a willingness to step out of your own comfort zone and continuously improve by soliciting feedback from others. This will generate positive behavioral loops across your team and a feeling of being “in it together.”
  3. Instead of contempt, be empathic and vulnerable. Accept people where they are in their personal and professional journeys, and let others see that you too are far from perfect. Cultivating an environment of psychological safety is a prerequisite for a feeling of belonging. 4. Instead of stonewalling, create ‘’hearth building” opportunities where you can get to more personally know those who are most different – or distant – from you. Structured activities and guided interactions are significantly helpful in making this less awkward and more powerful, particularly in a virtual working environment.

Take a moment to consider: Which of the above four ideas can you do more often in your organization?

What else can you do more of, or less of, to cultivate greater inclusion and belonging within your team?

Belonging , Together.

The years 2020 and 2021 have been challenging – even seemingly apocalyptic at times – but as with any challenge there are real opportunities now here to break from the past and build more connected, cohesive, and thriving remote teams.

As one of the lucky descendants of my grandparents, living as I do in a time and place where I am given privileges, resources, and freedoms that they could scarcely imagine, I’m grateful to have the opportunity to create spaces for greater diversity, inclusion and belonging, where people can bring their whole selves to work.

Now more than ever, it is possible for any organization, however diverse and dispersed around the globe, to create a feeling of togetherness as expressed by the motto, E pluribus unum – out of many, one. 

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