Community is important to the SPIN team and me, so it is a topic we keep on bringing back and inviting different community builders to share their knowledge, approach and philosophy with us.
Last year we had Lana Jelenjev talking about redesigning businesses as communities. For this edition, we invited Chris Bent, founder of Piccles, to share with us his best tips to help build belonging within your team, company or community today.
My girlfriend is Tahitian. You can’t be much more isolated, growing up on a small group of islands in the middle of the South Pacific; it’s a miracle anyone found it in the first place. The islands nearest neighbors are New Zealand, which is more than a four-hour flight away. And yet, from this tiny island nation with 200,000 inhabitants, my girlfriend’s first tattoo was text on her wrist saying, “Citizen of the World.”
She belongs everywhere.
We all need to feel like we belong. Humans are social creatures. We thrive in environments where we feel we belong, and literally, we die when we don’t.
Depression, anxiety and suicide are common mental health conditions associated with lacking a sense of belonging. These conditions can lead to social behaviors that interfere with a person's ability to connect to others, creating a cycle of events that further weakens a sense of belonging.
It can be a vicious cycle when we don’t feel like we belong.
Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer's disease, and even death.
The pandemic, with all of the social isolation, distancing, and masking, has only exacerbated this problem and led to a “Loneliness Epidemic.”
But you can’t get a vaccine shot in the back room of your local pharmacy to prevent loneliness. The cure can’t be ordered on Amazon.
Overall, well-being comes from relationships with others, ourselves, and the connectedness we feel from certain interactions. To fully understand belonging, we need to understand the three levels of belonging: World, Community, and Self.
Let’s first define building, so we’re on the same page. According to the Oxford Dictionary, belonging is “a feeling of being happy or comfortable as part of a particular group and having a good relationship with the other members of the group because they welcome you and accept you: A sense of belonging is one of humanity's most basic needs.”
Belonging in the world
It’s fascinating to hear avid travellers recount their favorite places and experiences. Being a foreigner in a new country, you’re certain to get attention, but the kind of attention you receive heavily influences your experience of the place.
When asked the question, “How welcome are foreign visitors in your country?” this map illustrates the level of belonging you might experience in a particular location or region.
Based on this data, it is probably not surprising to hear you feel warm, fuzzy feelings like you belong in the country when travelling to New Zealand, Canada, or Spain compared to countries like Venezuela, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
As an American who has met hundreds of Canadians, I agree that those hockey-loving, maple syrup-drinking neighbors to the north are nicer and more welcoming, but there is no unifying theory for why these differences exist.
Travel allows us to empathize with people of different cultures and ethnicities and to feel like we are part of this one human family belonging to one tribe. Want to maximize this feeling? Go to space. It is common for astronauts to experience the “Overview Effect” when in space for the first time, which is described as an overwhelming sense of connection to other people and the Earth as a whole.
Belonging in a community
Feeling like you belong when travelling to a new country is a nice-to-have, but feeling like you belong in your community is a need-to-have. Your communities might include your school, work, home, gym, church, sports team, club, bar…there are many containers that hold the communities we are all part of.
The most discussed is work. Why? Because we spend the most time there, and it has the biggest problem with belonging.
There’s been a lot of noise about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, which is now starting to include belonging. Why? Belonging is a byproduct of the other three elements, the feeling achieved when DEI works together.
Corporate hierarchies are exclusive by design, and the fear of being excluded is often utilized by companies to manage and motivate their employees.
It can be well-intentioned, like a sales incentive program to win a Bahamas vacation with other top performers, or it can be ill-intentioned, like a glass ceiling that doesn’t promote women past a certain level.
Regardless of the intention, without a deliberate culture that builds belonging, most workplaces rely on individuals to build belonging, which creates wildly different experiences for employees within an organization.
It’s no wonder retention is one of the biggest challenges companies and Human Relations (HR) professionals face today because, without a sense of connection, the employer/employee relationship remains transactional and jumping ship for a slightly better opportunity becomes a no-brainer.
There are many ways you can help build a culture of belonging in your workplace:
- Open communication.
- Welcome interest groups.
- Empower employees.
- Implement diversity training.
- Do the internal work.
- Use inclusive language.
- Make your technology stack accessible.
- Prioritize connection.
You will know you’ve achieved belonging when you’ve created an environment that supports all three elements of comfort, connection, and contribution. These happen in order - making people comfortable to connect and ultimately contribute to your community.
It is not an end goal that will ever be finished, but a living process with people at its centre. Culture isn’t created in a boardroom, it’s confirmed every day through each interaction between coworkers.
Belonging with yourself
But many of us are trainers, teachers, coaches and entrepreneurs. Lone wolves. When it’s only you, there isn’t a culture or employees to instil a sense of belonging in.
And that is why it is so important for you to work on #5 in the list about belonging in the workplace - Do the internal work.
If you’re afraid to express parts of yourself for fear of judgment, you’ll make other people hide parts of themselves to keep up the professional facade.
If you don’t understand yourself, you won’t be able to understand others.
Be comfortable in your skin. Welcome yourself as the unique, flawed, weird, beautiful person you are today. Not the one you’ll be once you finally get that (insert car, revenue, job title, client, 6-pack abs here).
Make time for connection with others, and make time for connection with yourself. Journal, reflect, explore, laugh, cry.
Belong with yourself. Belong in your body. That is the bedrock of belonging.
By doing these things, by being these things, you give permission to others to be themselves.
By being welcoming, respectful, understanding and accepting of others, you will generate a gravity around yourself that will pull others into your orbit.
Your people become ALL people. Strangers become friends, and dogs and children become inexplicably drawn to you.
When you’re able to celebrate and own your 1 in 9 billions, you will light up: yourself, your community and the world.
You are in the most exclusive club. You’re the only one who belongs in your body. The only one who thinks your thoughts. You will spend more time with you than anyone else, so it’s best to get along! It might sound lonely, the opposite of belonging, but when you start to fully welcome and accept yourself exactly how you are, you can accept others in the same way, and belonging can be found everywhere as you become a citizen of yourself, your community, your country…and ultimately a citizen of the world.
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