Topics: Teams Leadership

How Great Leaders Sow the Seeds of Belonging

Coley World February 23, 2021

Today there are many discussions at work about diversity and inclusion (D&I) so that people no matter what background or hierarchical rank can be heard, valued and included. Another word has recently been added to the D&I conversation: belonging. So what does all of this mean? 

Think about a high-school dance. Diversity is about who is invited to the dance. Inclusion is about who is asked onto the dance floor.  Belonging is about being asked to help plan the dance including deciding what music is played. Belonging gives the voices at the table permission to plan and create the culture of the dance. Because the leader of any group decides who sits on the planning committee, the initiation of belonging starts with the leader.

Key Skills to Initiate Belonging

There are key soft skills a leader must have to create a sense of belonging for the group they are serving. Here are four ways to get started:

Be Aware

One of the most crucial leadership skills for building belonging is being aware of those that work around you. Being aware means noticing when a colleague is actively engaged in work and when a colleague disengages. It means noticing what lights up those around us and what turns those lights off. This leads us to the second skill.  


Noticing requires actively listening to what someone values, what motivates them, and what makes them feel comfortable. For example, ask open-ended questions and focus on hearing what is being said rather than on responding.

Celebrate and Reinforce Bravery

The next two skills, celebrating and reinforcing, require the leader to take a firm stance on creating a sense of belonging because these acts are bold. I’m not talking about celebrating an employee’s promotion or reinforcing corporate standards.  This is about celebrating the actions of team members who are expressing authentically and ensuring the celebration is reinforced by the rest of the team. For example, when someone on my team expresses a unique idea, as the leader, I affirm that I heard the idea and then open the floor for others to respond and build on it. This allows the person to feel heard and it communicates to others that it is okay to show up thinking outside of the box. I also encourage others to affirm ideas or accomplishments when they are expressed by their peers.

Create Psychological Safety

A sense of belonging creates space for all personalities and energy to exist. Belonging means accepting who is entering the space and all that they are. This is not meant in a utopian sense. It does not mean everyone will agree or be liked, but there is space for each person to exist and others do not try to close them out of the circle due to differences. It requires the last skill: creating psychological safety. 

Psychological safety is a group's ability to allow all members to express their thoughts and bring their personality to the table without condemnation or outcasting of those who are not the expected prototype in the environment. As Henry David Thoreau said, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Belonging in a Virtual Environment

Building a sense of belonging in person is difficult. Building a sense of belonging and psychological safety on Zoom during a pandemic is quite a daring task. But it can be done using awareness, listening, celebrating and reinforcing. As a mentor for youth attending an online continuation school, I use these skills to get young men to come together and form bonds through a screen. Zoom fatigue and exhaustion from communication through a screen makes it common for people to disengage, especially students. Strangely enough, we have been able to come together to the point where the screens are no longer a barrier to our connection. We call this brotherhood D2R, which stands for Dreams 2 Reality. 

There is learning and laughing together every hour we spend as a group or during one-on-one mentorship sessions. All cameras are on and students are participating in activities. As the role model and leader of the group, I am responsible for creating an environment where people feel a sense of belonging. Yes, even on Zoom. And evidently it’s working because they’ve shared they “feel heard, love the energy, know it’s okay to be who they need to be, feel cared for, and know they are in a positive environment to grow together.”

Emphasize Connection Over Correction

The process of creating a sense of belonging starts with the principle of connection over correction. Although my main objective is to create a high performing environment and a group of thriving individuals, I could not begin my interactions that way. My primary goal when I begin a one-on-one or group session is to make a connection with the individual, which usually occurs talking about things that happen outside of work, school or being productive. This connection is made by exploring the different elements of the person I am working with. 

At work, we often wear a “mask” (figuratively speaking). The connection I’m talking about happens beneath the mask because it has more to do with the human than the “employee” or the “student”. The exploration of different aspects of the human starts with open-ended questions which allow the person answering to show the listener what they truly value and think about whether they are aware of this or not. A simple question such as “what did you do this weekend?” can tell you a lot about someone’s world. It reveals their likes/dislikes, hobbies, relationships and so much more. 

As the leader initiates the conversation and listens, it is equally important for the leader to share about their weekend in order to connect on the same playing field below the mask. This is an urgent matter, especially during a pandemic when so many are working remotely, because it allows people in the workplace to see each other as more than a function of their role. They are not just their job title, they are a person. 

When this connection is made (with boundaries of course), any correction is often better received due to a deeper understanding of how that person wants to be communicated with. Repeatedly connecting beneath the mask builds a consistent experience of feeling heard, seen and valued making people more receptive. In short, those who feel heard by you will be more willing to hear you, which is why connection before correction is so important. The real test of this approach takes place in team meetings. This is where people will try different behaviors to see how far the boundaries of a sense belonging environment extend. 

In the beginning, it will be a bit awkward and the role of the leader is to show what is and is not appropriate when it comes to allowing people to be seen and heard. The goal of a belonging environment is to affirm and celebrate each other's uniqueness in order to enable psychological safety for full expression and input of everyone’s ideas. It is not about erasing professionalism with lackadaisical boundaries. It allows people to be authentic at work without feeling the need to compromise their own values and hide who they are. This naturally breeds innovation.

One of the best parts about initiating a sense of belonging within a group is that it only needs to be started by the leader. Over time, the members of the group will carry the torch of belonging and keep it lit. 

About the Author

Coley World is a youth mentor, motivational speaker and spoken word artist from Pittsburg, California. He is a class of 2020 graduate from Sacramento State and currently mentors young men of color at a continuation school. His name, Coley World, stems from his ultimate message, which is to create the life that you envision yourself living. Contact Coley at

Coley World


Topics: Teams Leadership

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