An Asian woman facing opposite direction in a crowd

How to Bring Belonging Back

Early in my career, I was recruited to sit on an association’s board of directors and given the opportunity to spearhead a priority initiative for the organization. I was thrilled and jumped at the opportunity to take on such a prominent role.

Imagine my disappointment when I attended my first board meeting and the initiative was tabled. The next several meetings I attended, the initiative continued to be backburned. It wasn’t long before I found myself feeling frustrated, unappreciated, and overlooked.

My admiration for the association and passion for the project waned. I felt like I no longer belonged.

Feeling like we don’t belong is a feeling we can all relate to, yet many organizations are struggling to foster a sense of belonging – and have been for quite some time.

We know this to be true because most associations have reported declining membership trends for the past decade, just as employers have reported declining levels of employee engagement. And here and now, the workforce turnover is so massive, this era is being referred to as the Great Resignation.

Belonging by definition means two things: ownership and a secure relationship.

We feel like we belong when we’re invited to actively contribute and share our opinions and ideas, and we are listened to, respected, and positively encouraged.

In the late 1990s, belonging began to transition. From workplaces to membership associations, the same trend was observed: Young people were less likely to join/stay/engage/renew. In other words, young people were less likely to feel like they belong.

Why the sudden shift? And why have so many organizations struggled to re-engage young people?

I’ve spent a lot of time researching this trend in an effort to find the answers.

The answer is quite complex, but here’s the condensed version:

  • The shift in belonging is a direct result of significant social change and the era during which younger generations have come of age.
  • Young people are wary of forging connections and emotional ties to others. They seek positivity, security, and respect. They are careful about who and what they trust.
  • Young people are less willing to wait for organizations to create a place for them to belong, and more likely to hold organizations accountable for their actions (or inaction).

In the aftermath of the George Floyd incident, society became hyper-focused on inclusion, but simply including people is not enough. As with the board experience I referenced above, it’s not enough to invite people to sit in the room, but refuse to give them any influence, power, or voice.

Belonging ensures everyone’s insights, commentary, and perspectives aren’t just heard but encouraged.

For far too long, young people have felt like they didn’t belong, and our organizations have suffered severe losses as a result. If you’re serious about making a change, consider these tips:

  • Listen

    Seek to understand how things look from the perspective of young professionals. What they want and expect from your organization is probably quite different from what established professionals want and expect. Listening is the first step toward building a relationship of trust and belonging.

  • Create solutions

    Make it your organization’s priority to generate new ideas and creative alternatives. Cognitive diversity and collaboration lead to innovation and community-building, and this can only be achieved by bringing people of various ages, backgrounds, and skillsets to work in a community together.

  • Encourage feedback

    An environment where only the executives and board members have influence seriously hinders the potential for innovation, problem-solving, and relationship-building. It’s imperative that people of all ages have a voice.

  • Prioritize

    Professionals under the age of 39 are now the workforce majority. Their perspectives should be represented at every decision-making table and prioritized throughout the entire organization.

Inclusion is incredibly important, but it can’t be the end goal – we must strive to create a sense of belonging for all people. Then, and only then, will our workplaces and membership organizations succeed at creating resilient, relevant, growing communities.

If you are ready to bring belonging back to your organization, let’s have a conversation.

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