U.S. Markets closed

Why leaders should seek and foster a sense of belonging

Katya Andresen

Originally published by Katya Andresen on LinkedIn: Why leaders should seek and foster a sense of belonging

One of the most profound of human needs is a sense of belonging. We yearn for connection. Finding ways to belong - be it within a family, a faith community, a team at work or a band of like-minded misfits - enhances our happiness, health, purpose and motivation. The fact we are social animals largely accounts for the survival of our species. It gives us a community built on the bedrock of shared values and bound by a sense of shared identity.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about this feeling of fit -- fit with others around us - and its remarkable effect on nearly everything. It shapes how we perceive a product, people and a professional environment. And it can make or break a business or a culture.

"It's just not me," a friend once said to me. We were talking about a product for which I was crafting a marketing strategy. He believed people who had that product were not of his tribe. Good marketers know brand is a mirror, and if people don't see something of themselves reflected back, no amount of advertising will change that perception. "This is not your father's Oldsmobile," the car company once tried to tell us. The subtext? "No really, this is you."

Last year, Robert Cialdini, the famous author of the six principles of influence, added a seventh principle: unity. He explained in his book, Pre-suasion, how shared identity predisposes us to be influenced by others: “The relationships that lead people to favor another most effectively are not those that allow them to say, ‘Oh, that person is like us.’ They are the ones that allow people to say, ‘Oh, that person is of us.'”

This is absolutely not an argument for sameness. The feeling that a person is "of us" does not mean they should look like us, act like us or think like us. Rather, it should be the sense of belonging that comes from shared values or direction. "Of us" is a collective endeavor of pursuing shared aspirations, challenges or purpose. It is the unity that comes of embracing something bigger than ourselves.

If you are a leader, you know shared values among very different people are the cornerstone of an effective team, along with a collective mission (why we are here) and vision (where we are going). Unity in how we work together, according to which values, will determine if we actually get anywhere.

Malcolm Forbes once defined diversity as the art of thinking independently together. That breeds the best kind of belonging.

As leaders, we must find a way to bring together people not in a job but in a movement to do meaningful things. In this way, our work becomes "of us." This - not sameness - creates substantive belonging. If we have a product or a cause, it will not be for everyone. But it has to belong to someone.

The poet and philosopher David Whyte has written,

"To feel as if you belong is one of the great triumphs of human existence — and especially to sustain a life of belonging and to invite others into that… But it’s interesting to think that … our sense of slight woundedness around not belonging is actually one of our core competencies; that though the crow is just itself and the stone is just itself and the mountain is just itself, and the cloud, and the sky is just itself — we are the one part of creation that knows what it’s like to live in exile, and that the ability to turn your face towards home is one of the great human endeavors and the great human stories."

We don't want to be alone in our lives and in our work. And so we will always seek connection. We will turn our face toward the places we fit. The unhappier times in my life have been when I lacked that sense of direction or worked in jobs that were lonely endeavors.

The greater aim is to belong to what brings us and others joy. And to do work that matters with people from all works of life, united in the shared identity of purpose. It's best to be connected to what is "of us," not alone, but together.