Longing to belong

Shared values create a powerful sense of meaning

As an immigrant who came to the US at a young age, the word ‘belonging’ holds special meaning for me. Being an immigrant, or in any way a ‘first generation’ in leaving one community and entering another, can be deeply unsettling.

You reside in a space between two worlds. You become an outsider to your former community, no longer a full participant in its future – yet you also feel like an outsider in your new community, struggling to learn the language, decipher unspoken norms, and be seen as ‘us’ rather than ‘other’.

Survival in this psychological no-man’s land requires the ability to see things from multiple perspectives and confidence in a new identity that is distinctively yours. Those who master the challenge have a tremendous opportunity: to become a bridge-builder and a convener of spaces that offer a place of belonging for others.

I have discovered two critical things about belonging. One is that belonging doesn’t have to be tied to a place, geographic construct, or organization. Our identities transcend these physical markers. More than ever, communities are built on a shared mission, values, and purpose: the places and organizations that house communities are vehicles for expression of those values.

For me, as a leader and a coach to leaders, this means we need to focus on framing the mission and purpose of our organizations, and the meaning that drives the work we do. Conveying what we stand for is as important as knowing what we make or the services we provide. Scaling this, so people throughout our organizations can do the same, is crucial.

The second discovery is that the desire for belonging is incredibly widespread and a driver for many of our actions. It is a need that is not always met. I often find that someone I perceive as an insider sees themselves as an outsider or an imposter. The reality is we can all relate to the feeling of ‘outsiderness’, a sense that we don’t belong, even in organizations in which we hold leadership positions or have worked for years. Yet we often assume that others have an innate sense of belonging, rather than it being something we have to actively cultivate.

It is this sense of outsiderness which creates the opportunity for leaders to empathize, build bridges, and convene. As leaders, we have the agency to proactively invite others in, to co-create, and to scale a sense of belonging in our people.

In Zulu, the word for hello is sawubona. It means, “I see you.” A simple way to activate feelings of belonging is to truly see our people and help them to see each other. What are their hopes and goals? What is their version of their best, full, selves? How do they matter to us, and to the organization? Do we let them know they matter by seeking their input? That’s important, because belonging is about knowing and feeling that one matters.

In an unpredictable and uncertain world, belonging is an imperative for the success of our organizations. We need our people to feel a sense of shared ownership and have the psychological security to speak up. With a purpose they can believe in, and a feeling they are seen and matter, we can inspire people to bring their full selves to work in service of the organization. That is the upshot of belonging.

— Sanyin Siang is executive director of the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics (COLE) at Duke University