What's So Important About Belonging?

4 min read | Kelly Primus


In 2020, many factors collided that caused business leaders to double down on initiating diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging initiatives. Fast forward to now, and the political climate and recent pushback surrounding DEIB have many leaders struggling to successfully implement inclusion strategies.

Here’s where leaders often get it wrong. Many think an employee who appears engaged in their role is happy and plans to stay with the organization. But research shows there are actually many factors that can cause engaged, high-performing team members to leave their employers. This is because there's a distinct difference between engagement and belonging.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, belonging is "a feeling of being happy or comfortable as part of a particular group and having a good relationship with the other members of the group because they welcome you and accept you." At Leading NOW, our research has shown that belonging at work, in particular, is the feeling of acceptance, kinship, loyalty and inclusion within a team or organization. Leaders must understand that cultivating a sense of belonging is a key component of a successful DEIB strategy.

The Right Leadership Mindset Will Foster Belonging

When developing an organizational culture that prioritizes belonging, you must start with a leadership mindset shift from "business first" to "people first." In a business-first organization, employees are treated as a means to accomplish the primary goal of business performance. In a people-first organization, leaders emphasize interpersonal relationships and respect individual differences. They recognize that when you prioritize your people, the business performance will follow.

When researching this notion of belonging, I struggled with the conundrum of a hard-charging leader having the ability to develop and demonstrate empathy or humility. At no time in my corporate career were either prioritized over results. But the Arbinger Institute has identified that best-in-class organizational cultures were a direct result of DEIB initiatives focusing on leader mindset shifts.

According to the research, leaders’ behaviors don’t change until their core mindset changes. DEIB efforts that aren't focused on leaders’ mindsets have shown little, if any, progression toward DEIB goals. These organizations that focus on mindsets have employees who feel they're doing meaningful work, with 73% more likely to report they have employees who trust each other, 61% having employees who are eager to improve and 73% having employees who feel genuine respect for each other.

To help leaders shift their mindsets, leadership styles and behaviors, DEIB programming should teach them how to think differently. In particular, it should ensure that leaders have a strong understanding of sonder—the realization that each person is living a life as vivid and complex as their own. They must let that notion sink in; I guarantee their minds will more easily embrace the change needed to bring a culture of belonging into an organization.

Key Leadership Skills That Support Belonging

Rhodes Perry, author of Imagine Belonging, writes that leaders need to develop and celebrate certain skills that will help transform their style from the traditional "command and control" to one that's more collaborative. Here’s how I interpret the skills he refers to in his book.

  • Authentically Connecting With Team Members: Leaders should demonstrate empathy and humility.
  • Building A Culture Of Trust: By utilizing effective communication and feedback structures that come from a place of deep listening, leaders can help develop an atmosphere of psychological safety for all.
  • Instilling Accountability Across The Team: Everyone must take ownership for the results of the team’s work. This means demonstrating a willingness to accept mistakes and, rather than blame the individual, prioritize finding the solutions to fix the process.
  • Recognizing Each Team Member's Uniqueness: With a strong grasp of sonder, leaders can empower their teams' autonomy and celebrate the different perspectives and skills they bring.

Transitioning from traditional leadership behaviors that emphasize control to more modern styles that prioritize collaboration and employee support isn't going to be an easy journey for many leaders. This is especially true for those whose entire careers have been focused on the achievement of results, no matter the cost to the employees on their own team. But today's leaders must recognize that a people-first mindset shift will still deliver the results necessary while also improving employee retention and performance metrics. Given the attrition trends of the current workforce, it's crucial for leaders to recognize how they can create a culture of belonging. Otherwise, they'll plan for a significant decrease in the performance of their business.

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Forbes Human Resources Council_LogoThis article was originally written for the Forbes Human Resources Council, and published on the Forbes website in May 2024. You can see Kelly Lockwood Primus' other Forbes articles on her author page