Belonging is a feeling. None of us wants to participate in communities where we don’t feel good, welcome, or appreciated. We certainly won’t invest our full effort unless—and until—we’re vested in this manner. Of course, what makes us feel welcomed differs from person to person.

When possible, people leave places where they don’t feel belonging. They proactively move to where they do feel it. At the end of the day, any thriving organization wants to create a feeling of belonging among its employees. Otherwise, you’ll never get the best from your team members.

What creates belonging?

Research indicates that belonging shows up when we experience two feelings:

  1. Feeling valued (or needed) by the entire group or some part of it.
  2. Feeling that we’re a fit for what’s needed in the community and the environment that’s been created.

Reflecting on the past 20 years of research and practitioners’ experience, we say that the feeling of belonging usually arises when participants experience some of the following feelings, at some level:

  • Accepted
  • Welcomed
  • Valued
  • Cared for
  • Appreciated
  • Possessing insider understanding

How can we create these feelings?

To produce these feelings, a community must provide an experience in which participants can notice they are accepted, welcomed, valued, cared for, appreciated, or in possession of insider understanding.

Successful leaders generate positive feelings in their employees and colleagues. Though this can seem like a magical task to some, after you’ve learned the principles that make communities work, it will sound more achievable. To start:

Understand it’s a first-person experience. As a feeling, belonging is experienced internally as a first-person experience. These experiences are difficult for a third-person observer to measure, but that difficulty makes the experience no less critical.

Many first-person experiences, particularly those that are important in relationships (and the world), don’t lend themselves to quantified measuring, such as a mother’s love or the trust in your neighbor. Measuring belonging is similar to measuring a mother’s love.

Promote the “inside view.” You can magnify a sense of belonging by helping community members share insider understanding, which simply means sharing things insiders understand that outsiders do not or cannot.

Here’s an example: Melissa Allen is a retired firefighter captain. She shared how much she appreciates spending time among other firefighters in her community because they understand the complexity, pressure, and passion that often comes with the role. The firefighters share a never-spoken understanding and compassion for one another. This is so strong that Melissa notices that if a firefighter’s spouse joins the group, the conversation changes. This isn’t because spouses aren’t welcome or loved. It’s because they never share the insider understanding that career firefighters gain.

Usually, when we seek out people who have shared an experience similar to our own (fighting cancer, living overseas, running a marathon), we’re searching for this shared insider understanding.

When an organization embraces the principles of building community, employees are drawn in because they share some values more intensely than do outsiders. We want to feel understood by the people who share our values. We want to see that the people inside understand this more than the people outside of our community.

Be selective. By the way, this is one reason why a community can’t succeed if it accepts anyone, anytime, with any values. So be careful to recruit people who not only embrace your organization’s core values but also fit with your culture.

Charles H. Vogl is an award-winning author, speaker, and executive adviser. Carrie Melissa Jones is the founder of Gather Community Consulting. Their new book is Building Brand Communities: How Organizations Succeed by Creating Belonging. Learn more at buildingbrandcommunities.com.

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