Creating a Culture of Belonging: Helping Your Team Members Thrive in the Workplace

Take a minute to think about the first time you felt like you really belonged in the organization you work for right now.

What did it feel like? Who was around you? 

What was it about that time and space that made you feel like you belonged?

The need to feel a sense of belonging is fundamental to the human experience. People are social by nature, and the desire to belong is built into our DNA as a means of survival and well-being. 

In his book Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides, Stanford University professor Geoffrey Cohen writes, “A sense of belonging isn’t just a byproduct of success, but a condition for it—in school, work, homes, healthcare settings, negotiations, politics, community policing, and virtually every domain in which humans deal with other humans.”

Belonging is not just nice to experience—it’s essential to our well-being and success as humans.

What Does it Mean to Belong at Work?

The average person will spend roughly 90,000 hours working throughout their lifetime. That’s  about 2,080 hours per year for a working adult in the United States! 

That is far too large a chunk of our lives to spend feeling disconnected, unwelcomed, or unfulfilled. 

But what does workplace belonging even mean?

In a summary of the 2024 Othering and Belonging Conference hosted by the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley, San Diego local community leader and founder of the Do Good Leadership Collective, Loretta Turner shares her takeaway that true belonging means that a person experiences agency, inclusion, connection, and recognition, and that a workplace that encourages belonging is one where people practice curiosity over judgment and embrace empathy and openness above assumptions and blame.

This is key.

Before taking steps to create programs or action steps, leaders must do the work to understand these concepts. There cannot be true belonging without deep, transformational work to move us out of traditional workplace environments and into a place of curiosity, empathy, and empowerment. 

What belonging looks like in your workplace

Workplace belonging can be tough to quantify, but you’ll know if you’re moving toward a culture of belonging at your organization when your employees, new and old, experience a strong sense of:

  • Community and connection with their colleagues
  • Psychological safety to take risks and try new things
  • Agency to influence their own work environment
  • Value in their individuality and unique identity
  • Freedom to express themselves and be not only accepted, but celebrated
  • Empowerment to meaningfully engage in social and structural dynamics and decisions 

When these elements are present and employees feel safe to bring their whole authentic selves to work each day, they are decidedly more innovative, productive, creative, resilient, and satisfied with their careers and in their everyday life. 

This is a win all around! Not only will your employees have a more rewarding and connected experience in their career, but your organization will reduce turnover, save money, and build its reputation.

Belonging and Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion

You might be wondering how creating a culture of belonging ties in with DEI practices in the workplace. After all, there are a number of communities that have been historically excluded from belonging in society and professional settings for centuries, so these two concepts definitely work together. 

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are at the heart of the conversation about workplace belonging and employee well-being. Belonging, though, takes things a step further.

While hiring a more diverse pool of candidates and improving educational opportunities related to DEI principles is important work in the workplace, creating an environment where people from a wide array of backgrounds feel fully safe and welcomed extends beyond structured policies and programs.

Creating a true culture of belonging means that every person who is hired at your organization—regardless of race, ethnicity, class, ability, life experience, gender, sexuality, or expression—feels welcomed, seen, celebrated, listened to, equipped, and supported by their peers and leaders.

When people from historically marginalized communities and a wide array of backgrounds can bring themselves fully and authentically to your workplace without fear or hesitation, that is the foundation for true belonging.

Strategies for Creating a Culture of Belonging

At the current moment, the U.S. Surgeon General cites workplace well-being as a top priority in the list of pressing public health issues in the United States. 

To him, workplace well-being includes—you guessed it—belonging! Among other notable aspects of well-being on the list like protection from harm, feeling like you matter at work, opportunities for growth, and work life harmony, connection and community (aka belonging) ranks at the top of the list.

According to the Surgeon General, organizations can begin to build a culture of belonging by creating opportunities for employees to build social connections at work through “prosocial” behavior, or behavior that promotes social relationships through support and reassurance.

Small actions like informal daily check-ins, asking questions about colleagues, or shared problem solving can go a long way in encouraging these types of connections.

Similarly, beginning meetings with an opportunity to share or learn about one another through an intentional activity, art project, creative expression, or simple check-in question can encourage employees to relate on a more personal level. By creating opportunities for employees to share and connect outside of their work responsibilities, you are opening the door for more genuine connection.

Leading by Example

Perhaps the most important step in moving toward a culture of belonging is for organizational leaders and managers to lead by example. This means modeling inclusive leadership principles, making connections, and exhibiting openness and curiosity in everyday interactions for your employees.

This can vary from leader to leader, depending on one’s specific strengths.

Perhaps it looks like sharing bits and pieces of your personal story throughout your day or exhibiting vulnerability and authenticity in business decisions. Maybe it’s making an extra effort to engage in strong and frequent communication with staff, encouraging teamwork on projects, or making sure to show specific and intentional interest in employees as you interact with them.

As big as “creating a culture of belonging” sounds, many of the strategies that move a workplace culture into one of connection and community actually start with small, everyday attainable practices.

From simply saying hello in the hallway to opening lines of communication in a way that empowers employees to show up authentically, leaders and staff members can begin the transformation in small but powerful ways.

At the end of the day, a sense of belonging is a key component of satisfaction for current employees and a key factor for recruiting new employees who will be a vibrant contributor to organizational culture. 

Blair Search Partners is a retained executive search firm for nonprofits and mission based organizations in San Diego, Phoenix, and beyond with executive connections and collaborations across the nation.

We celebrate, lift up, and encourage organizations who lead the way in creating radical belonging in their community and workplace. 

Are you a mission driven organization who believes in creating a culture of belonging, prioritizing employee well-being, and celebrating diversity?

Looking for a recruiting firm to guarantee you have access to the right fit for your team?

Then let’s chat! Contact us here. We can’t wait to see what we can do together.