Belonging is a feeling. None of us wants to participate in communities where we don’t feel good, welcome, or appreciated. We certainly won’t invest our full effort unless—and until—we’re vested in this manner. Of course, what makes us feel welcomed differs from person to person.

When possible, people leave places where they don’t feel belonging. They proactively move to where they do feel it. At the end of the day, any thriving organization wants to create a feeling of belonging among its employees. Otherwise, you’ll never get the best from your team members.

What creates belonging?

Research indicates that belonging shows up when we experience two feelings:

  1. Feeling valued (or needed) by the entire group or some part of it.
  2. Feeling that we’re a fit for what’s needed in the community and the environment that’s been created.

Reflecting on the past 20 years of research and practitioners’ experience, we say that the feeling of belonging usually arises when participants experience some of the following feelings, at some level:

  • Accepted
  • Welcomed
  • Valued
  • Cared for
  • Appreciated
  • Possessing insider understanding

How can we create these feelings?

To produce these feelings, a community must provide an experience in which participants can notice they are accepted, welcomed, valued, cared for, appreciated, or in possession of insider understanding.

Successful leaders generate positive feelings in their employees and colleagues. Though this can seem like a magical task to some, after you’ve learned the principles that make communities work, it will sound more achievable. To start:

Understand it’s a first-person experience. As a feeling, belonging is experienced internally as a first-person experience. These experiences are difficult for a third-person observer to measure, but that difficulty makes the experience no less critical.

Many first-person experiences, particularly those that are important in relationships (and the world), don’t lend themselves to quantified measuring, such as a mother’s love or the trust in your neighbor. Measuring belonging is similar to measuring a mother’s love.

Promote the “inside view.” You can magnify a sense of belonging by helping community members share insider understanding, which simply means sharing things insiders understand that outsiders do not or cannot.

Here’s an example: Melissa Allen is a retired firefighter captain. She shared how much she appreciates spending time among other firefighters in her community because they understand the complexity, pressure, and passion that often comes with the role. The firefighters share a never-spoken understanding and compassion for one another. This is so strong that Melissa notices that if a firefighter’s spouse joins the group, the conversation changes. This isn’t because spouses aren’t welcome or loved. It’s because they never share the insider understanding that career firefighters gain.

Usually, when we seek out people who have shared an experience similar to our own (fighting cancer, living overseas, running a marathon), we’re searching for this shared insider understanding.

When an organization embraces the principles of building community, employees are drawn in because they share some values more intensely than do outsiders. We want to feel understood by the people who share our values. We want to see that the people inside understand this more than the people outside of our community.

Be selective. By the way, this is one reason why a community can’t succeed if it accepts anyone, anytime, with any values. So be careful to recruit people who not only embrace your organization’s core values but also fit with your culture.

Charles H. Vogl is an award-winning author, speaker, and executive adviser. Carrie Melissa Jones is the founder of Gather Community Consulting. Their new book is Building Brand Communities: How Organizations Succeed by Creating Belonging. Learn more at buildingbrandcommunities.com.

Share this post:

Chris initially chose to work within the Life Sciences and Medical Technology sector as he is passionate about healthcare and positively contributing to people’s lives. Chris has previous experience of both agency and internal recruitment, which has provided him with a real rounded understanding of what works well for clients and candidates. Initially working for a Times Top 100 recruitment agency as the second person into the Life Science Team, Chris positively contributed to the team’s growth through his commitment to providing a best in class service. Following a successful period of time in agency recruitment, Chris was headhunted by one of his largest clients. Perhaps due to the success of successfully providing them with 16 new and talented people for their business between March 2018 – October 2018. This business was ONI (Oxford Nanoimaging), who are one of the fastest growing biotechnology companies in the UK, with a headcount growing from 15 to 85 in just one year (2018). In the two years that Chris has been working with ONI, he has directly hired more than 40 people into the business, an incredible achievement.