How to Cultivate a Sense of Belonging

Early in my career, I was recruited to sit on a board of directors and asked to spearhead a priority initiative for the association. I was both humbled and ecstatic…

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Early in my career, I was recruited to sit on a board of directors and asked to spearhead a priority initiative for the association. I was both humbled and ecstatic to take on such an influential role.

Imagine my disappointment when I attended the first meeting and the initiative was tabled. During the next several meetings, I was informed the initiative would continue to be delayed.

Suddenly, I felt like I was on the outside looking in. I felt like I didn’t belong.

At some point, we all experience the feeling that we don’t belong. It’s a feeling we can all relate to, yet many organizations struggle to foster a sense of belonging among their members and employees.

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

  • We feel ownership when we actively contribute and share our ideas and opinions; and
  • We feel safe and secure when we’re listened to, respected, and encouraged.

In the late 1990s, belonging began to dissipate. From workplaces to churches, service clubs to country clubs, associations, and non-profits, 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 belonged.

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

Society is hyper-aware and focused on inclusion right now, but simply including people is not enough. 

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 the direct result of significant social change.

Young people are wary of forging connections and emotional ties. 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).

For far too long, people have felt like they didn’t belong. It’s why entire generations of people are leaving established organizations to start up their own.

If you’re serious about being an organization where people feel like they belong, take these tips into consideration:

Listen

Try 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. Universally, people associate trust with someone listening to what they have to say.

Create Solutions

Make it your organization’s priority to generate new ideas. Trust isn’t built from trying to win personal victories. Resolve conflict by identifying each other’s motives, goals, and agendas and clarify points of mutual agreement and interdependence.

Encourage Feedback

An environment where only the executives and board members have permission to solve problems seriously hinders an organization’s potential for innovation, problem-solving, and relationship-building. When people are able to express their ideas freely, feelings of trust and belonging increase.

Be Inclusive

Professionals under the age of 40 are now the workforce majority. Their perspectives should be represented at the decision-making table. Purposely excluding people from any aspect of your organization’s operations is a sure-fire way to kill belonging and trust.

Society is hyper-aware and focused on inclusion right now, but simply including people is not enough. We’ve all had experiences when we were invited to sit in the room, but didn’t actually have a voice.

Inclusion says: Come on in!

Belonging asks: Do you feel welcome here?

Belonging ensures everyone feels their insights, commentary, and perspectives matter. Inclusion isn’t enough: there must also be a sense of belonging for all.

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