When you understand these four components, you can promote a more inclusive culture and take steps to ensure your own sense of belonging.
“Everyone here looks down on me.” Over a Zoom coaching call, the executive assistant at a large global corporation hunched over and looked downward, hugging herself. “I’m not a city girl. I come from a very small rural town and I just know that when everyone here looks at me, they see a hick. A stereotype. They assume I’m uneducated and not as smart as they are. I just don’t feel like I belong.”
“How do you know they think that?” I asked.
“They’re city people! They’ve all lived in big cities their whole lives! They think they’re better. Smarter. Faster. Better.”
“Okay, what about your stereotypes?” I asked. “What do you think of ‘city people’?”
Her eyes grew huge. She’d never considered that perhaps her own preconceived notions and attempts to protect herself contributed to feeling like an outsider.
As I asked more questions and we dug deeper, she admitted that her coworkers treated her with respect and kindness and even frequently paid her compliments! Yet due to her fear of rejection, she presented herself in a way that did not invite or confirm connection. As is often the case, her negative perceptions created a downward spiral: You don’t feel like you belong, so you withdraw, so then others interact with you less, reinforcing the feeling that you don’t belong. It’s a vicious cycle.
After discussing all the positive feedback she’d dismissed and friendly interactions she’d overlooked, I asked, “When will you feel like you belong?”
A sense of “belonging” comes from four main ingredients, as outlined in this study paper. But if you’ve ever done any baking (or watched The Great British Baking Show), you know you can’t just dump ingredients in bowl and expect it to magically turn into a Victoria Sandwich Cake. It takes a little more effort than that. Similarly, you actually have to put in a little effort and practice into building a sense of belonging. It, frustratingly, doesn’t happen by magic.
Here are the four components of belonging: