Wednesday’s Wisdom #3: Building Belonging

You never quite know where your values and traits originate, or how they evolve over time. Nature vs nurture. Life experiences. Social norms. It seems impossible to attribute our sense of self with clarity. I was adopted as a baby, and welcomed into a loving home, but I’ve always wondered about the possible effects: how has it shaped me? Well, I believe, or at least my perception is, that it has had a profound impact on the way I view social mobility, opportunity, and belonging. My wife would argue, in jest, that being adopted has left me with a whole load of other issues, but that’s for another post!

Perhaps I am attributing a cause and effect that simply doesn’t exist, but in my formative struggle with belonging, the books or films that hit me hardest were those about rejection, not fitting in, or losing one’s way. And now, making others feel as though they belong is one of my drivers: whether that’s a student in class, working with colleagues, or greeting someone in a social setting. My view is that you get the best out of people when they feel at ease, or accepted. In my professional life, I’m curious to see if a strong sense of belonging could benefit workplace culture, productivity, and learning.

Baumeister and Leary (1995) proposed that to ‘belong’, individuals need (and they state it as a need, not a desire) frequent positive interactions with at least a few other people, and secondly these interactions must have a sense of long-term care for each other’s welfare. Failure to satisfy both of these factors could lead to distress and long-term consequences given that it is an unfulfilled need, and not merely an unfulfilled desire. Many people will cross that threshold at home, but workplaces can be another story.

I imagine that most of us desire a strong sense of belonging among our colleagues; we want them to feel safe and included, just as we do ourselves. But there are tangible benefits for the organisation, too. Harvard Business Review (2019) revealed, in an article written with behavioural insight experts Better Up, that a high sense of belonging, or in their words, those who feel ‘included’, can lead to a 56% increase in job performance, 75% reduction in sick days, and also leads to more promotions for those staff.

Better Up’s experts decided to experiment with how ‘included’ or ‘excluded’ employees performed, setting up a programme where they played a virtual game of catch – unbeknown to them, they were playing with bots, with some employees being ‘excluded’ from the game, i.e. they were thrown the ball less often, and some ‘included’ and therefore given more turns. Following this, the employees were placed in an individual task where, the better they performed, the more money they could ‘earn’; however, the money would be split evenly across the team. Those who were excluded in the ball toss game worked less hard than those included, even though they were sacrificing their own earnings. Researchers replicated this across four separate studies and found that feeling excluded causes us to give less effort to the team.

As the studies continued, they attempted (and succeeded) to mitigate feelings of being excluded through three measures:

  • Gaining perspective – speaking with previous participants about exclusion and how they coped
  • Mentorship: participants imagined how they could coach or mentor someone through being excluded
  • Empowerment: participants planned how they would adapt this team process to make it more inclusive and enjoyable

In Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code (2018), a section of the book (which I recommend highly) is dedicated to how different organisations nurture belonging. Greg Popovich, a slightly maverick NBA coach with a reputation for his volcanic temper, is cited for having sky-high expectations of his players, whilst building excellent relationships with them. He uses deliberately close physical proximity when giving them feedback, takes an interest in their lives, and fascinatingly, uses team meetings (usually for basketball strategy and tactics) to teach and discuss other topical issues, in order to educate his players and promote wider interests. Coyle then links Popovich’s feedback style to an evidence-based approach, which includes 3 powerful ideas to include when developing people: ‘you belong to this group’, ‘this group is special’, and ‘I have high standards that I believe you can reach’. Belonging in tandem with high expectations.

When it comes to students in our schools, feelings of belonging and inclusion are equally important. It sounds obvious, but studies have shown that students who ‘feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment’ (Goodenow 1993) are likely to perform better in school and show more favourable motivational, social-emotional and behavioural outcomes. Also unsurprising, is the link found between a sense of belonging and absence and dropout rates (Hascher and Hagenauer 2010).

Romero (2015) explores studies regarding how students could improve their sense of belonging in an educational setting, with a particular focus on students from minority groups who may not feel an innate sense of belonging in their school community. She found that ‘belonging programmes’ that acknowledge how difficult it can be to feel a sense of belonging, provided improvements in their feelings and attainment. Similar to the HBR study mentioned earlier, one method used was to read survey results and comments from previous students who acknowledged their lack of belonging in a new school, and coping strategies for those feelings.

Another study was conducted to see the potential impact a teacher can have on a student’s sense of belonging through their feedback. When feedback on work was accompanied by a message that conveyed high standards and assurances that they were confident the student could meet those standards, students were over four times as likely to revise and resubmit the essay than if they received the criticism alone; this type of feedback also improved the quality of students’ revisions. I don’t advocate onerous marking policies (!), but this reminded me of the Greg Popovich model of building belonging: ‘you are special and therefore I have high expectations of you’. Interestingly, follow-up on these same students showed that those who received a personal note that built trust with a teacher in 7th grade were more likely to enrol in university immediately after graduating from high school compared to those who did not receive the note.

So, what can we learn as colleagues, friends, leaders, teachers about building belonging?

Acknowledge exclusion: as discussed, studies of children and adults found that when others spoke to them about their own initial struggle to ‘belong’, and shared coping strategies, this improved the recipients’ sense of belonging and self-efficacy. Rather than hoping for the best, perhaps we should communicate how natural it is to feel excluded, and to take the lead with helping our students and staff acknowledge this feeling and convert it into something positive. Looking back, I would have loved to speak to fellow adoptees about how they eventually found their place.

Team dynamics have a big impact on belonging and productivity: the studies I have mentioned in the blog attest to how group belonging brings the best out of people. In The Culture Code, Coyle also links to studies where ‘bad apples’, or less motivated employees, also have a profoundly negative impact on a whole team. It works both ways. Harmonious, productive teams foster a sense of belonging and togetherness – that could be a personal togetherness, or simply unity regarding the aim of their work.

It only takes one person to increase sense of belonging: one of the HBR studies found that if just one member of the team began to include a participant, it fostered a sense of inclusion, which surely advocates coaching or mentoring in the work place. We know that coaching has a huge impact on wellbeing, belonging, self-efficacy and productivity, and with a wave of schools and workplaces now using 1:1 instructional coaching as a form of long-term, personalised CPD, it’s no surprise that this links with people’s sense of belonging and relatedness.

Belonging and high expectations:  a sense of belonging doesn’t have to be a fluffy, intangible arm around the shoulder. Having high expectations of someone, and telling them that they can do brilliant things, is an excellent way to demonstrate your belief in them, and nurture their sense of inclusion. Both the Greg Popovich case study, and the research into teacher feedback, implies that belonging and belief go hand-in-hand, and that challenge and inclusion aren’t mutually exclusive.

Researching this blog began with a deep breath, as I wondered how my past feelings of who I am, where I come from and where I belong might push to the surface or manifest themselves. But, like my blog last week on Expertise, this post has left me with a similar feeling of awe at how much more there is to read and understand. While I am reading Think Again by Adam Grant, I can appreciate that there are potentially hundreds of studies which draw very different conclusions to those I’ve cited. But this much I know: as someone who started life with an uncertain grip on how they fit in, and who now feels a secure sense of self and purpose, I truly wish the latter for everyone else. As people, we don’t have to be perfect, or visionary, or on top of our game every single day. But we do need to help others belong, so that they can thrive for themselves, and for the groups that they are part of.



Baumeister RF, Leary MR (1995) The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivationPsychol. Bull. 117, 497–529.

Coyle, D (2018) The Culture Code. Random House, London.

Goodenow, C (1993) The Psychological Sense of School Membership among Adolescents: Scale Development and Educational Correlates. Psychology in the Schools 30: 79–90.

Harvard Business Review and Better Up (2019) The Value of Belonging at Work.

Hascher, T. , and G.Hagenauer (2010) Alienation from School. International Journal of Educational Research 49: 220–232

Romero, C (2015) What We Know About Belonging from Scientific Research.

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