Five Ways Leaders Help Others Belong, Not Just Fit In

belongingThere’s a big difference between fitting in and belonging. In fact, fitting in can be one of the biggest barriers to belonging, says researcher and author Brené Brown. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and adapting who you are – your personality and behaviors – in order to feel accepted. Belonging is about freedom – freedom from having to change in order to be accepted and being valued and respected for being who you are.

In Brown’s research she asked a group of eighth grade students to describe the difference between fitting in and belonging. Here’s what they said:

    • Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you. Fitting in is being somewhere where you really want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.
    • Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.
    • I get to be me if I belong. I have to be like you to fit in.

Not much has changed since eighth grade, has it? Sadly, too many leaders and organizations expect people to just fit in. After all, it’s much easier to tell people they need to adapt in order to fit with the organizational culture, rather than find ways to help people belong and have the organizational culture absorb and reflect their uniqueness as individuals.

Helping people find a sense of belonging leads to them being fully engaged and committed to their work and the organization. It causes people to tap into their discretionary energy to accomplish the goals of the organization versus settling for just fitting in and doing the minimum to get by.

Leaders create belonging when they…

1. Give power away and allow people to take ownership of their work. People who feel they belong in an organization have a sense of ownership; it’s their organization. That ownership mentality comes from being given responsibility and authority for doing their jobs and being given the freedom to achieve results. Equip and coach your people, delegate wisely, and then get out of their way.

2. Listen and respond to feedback. Most leaders say they are open to hearing feedback; fewer leaders actually listen and do something with it. Leaders create an environment of belonging and safety when they actually take the time to sit down and listen, acknowledge a person’s concerns, and discuss how they will respond to the feedback. People don’t feel they belong when leaders don’t listen, dismiss, or disregard their input.

3. Help people understand how their work connects to the broader goals or purpose of the organization. People have an innate desire to belong to something bigger than themselves. Leaders tap into this reservoir of power when they help their people understand how their daily work helps the organization achieve its goals and makes the world a better place.

4. Appreciate and celebrate the diversity of their team. Each person is created with unique gifts and abilities and it’s a leader’s responsibility to leverage the individual strengths of their people. Treating your team members as individuals rather than nameless and faceless workers creates a sense of belonging that’s extremely powerful. One of my team members, Ed, has a jovial personality and great dance moves. Who do you think we go to when we need to make a fun team video? Another team member, Kim, is a champion snowmobile racer. Who do we brag about when we have team gatherings? How much do you know about the personal lives of your people? Get to know them and watch their sense of belonging increase.

5. Accept people where they are but refuse to let them stay there. Good leaders accept their team members for who they are, yet also have a desire and commitment to help them learn, grow, and become the best versions of themselves possible. When leaders show commitment to their people’s growth, it fosters a sense of commitment and belonging that can’t be underestimated.

Creating a sense of belonging for people requires that leaders be engaged. It means investing time and energy to understand what’s going on with their people, their hopes and dreams, their fears and insecurities. Fostering belonging is about humanizing the workplace and creating a safe space where people can be vulnerable, real and authentic. The payoff of having engaged, committed, and fulfilled team members is worth the effort.

29 Comments on “Five Ways Leaders Help Others Belong, Not Just Fit In

  1. It’s something similar to “Tolerating different Cultures” and Accepting different cultures”

    • Yes, good point. There are key differences between “accepting” something and “tolerating” it.

      Thanks for commenting,


  2. Great post….very important difference…fitting in is restrictive and inhibits growth…belonging is expansive and encourages growth. Thanks for this.

    • Yes! Fitting in is restrictive and inhibits growth. When I was describing belonging as freedom, I was thinking what you so eloquently described. Belonging takes the brakes off people’s ability to grow.

      Thanks for sharing your insights Jocelyn.


    • I Totally agree with you when you talk about fitting in being limiting because there is not much room for being flexible, its more of maintenance and nothing more.

  3. Years ago, when I managed technical people in large companies, “diversity” meant affirmative action compliance. Period. And I used to think this was such a waste – especially given that groupthink and stagnation are among the most common causes of organizational failure. The most powerful teams and organizations are heterogeneous mixes of gifts, backgrounds, foibles, temperaments, and aspirations. They are organic, often messy – a far cry from the “well-oiled machine” metaphor I still hear managers use (and which I hate). To embrace people’s individuality in deed and in truth is not easy – but neither is anything else about leading people.

    • Great points Kathleen. Capitalizing on the diversity of your team is a real challenge for leaders but can result in more creativity and better performance.

      Thanks for adding your insights!


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  9. A timely reminder of how to get the most from a Team at work………or anywhere for that matter. Good article.

    However, I don’t agree with the last sentence in item1. The Team Leaders I have worked with over the years, who consistently get the best out of all in the Team, have been those who do NOT get out of the way, but remain through thick and thin. I appreciate the comment could mean letting people get on, but even then the best Leaders/Managers remain with the troops. After all, the thrust of this article is to provide the necessary support to enable people to contribute and grow………..which is how they get to belong. Getting out of the way can prove damaging when someone loses their way and it takes too long for the Team Leader to re-appear…………..or at worst, for the Team ‘know-all’ to step into the breach.

    Cheers. DonR.

    • Hi Don, and thanks for your insightful comments. You make an excellent point about the necessity for leaders to stay engaged with their team and I completely agree with you. The point I was trying to make was that leader’s shouldn’t micromanage. They should properly equip, train, and coach their people so they are capable of performing the job on their own without the leader having to do it for them. But that doesn’t mean the leader completely disengages and abdicates any involvement in the relationship.

      Thanks for calling out that important point.

      Take care,


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  14. Out of curiosity, I swapped “organization” with “family” and “leader” with “parent” and “person” with “child” and guess what? This makes a great parenting article as well. I’m guessing with a little tweaking it would do double duty as an educator’s column as well. Thanks!

    • Great insight Sarah! These are leadership fundamentals that apply to all aspects of life, not just the workplace.

      Thanks for sharing!


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