There’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.