Sense of belonging: powerful force when the going gets tough

A personal leadership struggle I have had is coming to clarity about one of my core beliefs regarding an effective and sustainable workplace–that a sense of belonging is an important source of stability in times of chaos. It is as critical as knowing who you are as an individual, and here’s why.

Recently, one of my clients asked me if I would help them write their company values for them. Though I am a decent writer, I find good writing hellishly hard. What I understood was that, if this was to be done right, it was more of a discovery process than a writing process. Getting at the soul of the company and letting the values emerge – that was much more powerful than writing down what others thought were “good” values.  So I interviewed people and held focus groups. Through this creative process, one value emerged that really made me understand why so many people loved this company: a shared sense of belonging.

Why sense of belonging is an enabler 

For this company and its employees, this meant having a dynamic relationship with the larger world and yet retaining a strong sense of place in their world. The meaning, derived from the people who work at the company, was tinged with how the culture makes them feel important to the overall whole and that they are part of a well understood and beloved collective.

Sense of belonging is that unique crossroad of standing out and fitting in. This kind of connection enables employees to act independently in service to the company and to work with greater persistence to get the job done.

The story of “who we are” builds agility and resilience

Coincidentally, the importance of sense of belonging was underscored in The New York Times, in that how children face challenges has implications for the workplace, too. In The Stories that Bind Us Help Children Face Challenges, Drs. Duke and Fivush studied families stressed by events. They found when children have a sense of being part of a larger family, this helps them cope with and overcome difficulties with more resilience.

Enhancing confidence, supporting progress

The families and their stories build a structure of belonging that acts as an encompassing set of beliefs that enables confidence and connection, as well as encourages and supports progress. What directly connects to company leadership are the pathways to identity – the fundamental themes that suggest “we can and will make it,” even when faced with obstacles and challenges.

The study revealed three fundamental stories:

  • The ascending family narrative—“when we came here, we had nothing, and now…”
  • The descending narrative—“we had it all, now we have nothing”
  • The oscillating narrative—“we’ve had our ups and downs, but we stuck together”

It is important for leaders to intentionally work to create a sense of belonging. Purpose geared to belonging to something bigger than ourselves – the greater good–is a powerful force. And the greater good is why we all are in business, right?

Possibilities and miracles

With that perspective, David Whyte is an Irish poet who speaks eloquently to how miracles are possible at work in his poem Working Together, from The House of Belonging.

We shape our self
to fit this world

and by the world
are shaped again.

The visible
and the invisible

working together
in common cause,

to produce
the miraculous.

I am thinking of the way
the intangible air

passed at speed
round a shaped wing

holds our weight.

So may we, in this life

to those elements
we have yet to see

or imagine,
and look for the true

shape of our own self,
by forming it well

to the great
intangibles about us.

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