We know the importance of creating a culture of belonging for young learners. When students feel that they belong, they are happier, and they engage more—and learn more. Students who feel connected also better relate to other students and are less likely to engage in unacceptable behavior. As educators, we design activities and build school and classroom cultures to encourage students to feel connected, accepted, and respected.
At the same time, we may not give as much thought and effort to creating a culture of belonging for adults, despite the fact that a sense of connectedness, acceptance, and respect is no less important for us than it is for our students. When we feel that we belong, we spend less time worrying about social interactions, the perceptions of others, and how to fit in. In short, we experience less stress, worry, and anxiety about our work and relationships.
Of course, many of the same factors that lead to a sense of belonging for young people apply to the experience of adults. Consistent with our efforts to create a culture of belonging for our students, we need to be intentional in our work to build this type of culture for adults. Here are seven key elements and actions that can create and sustain a culture of belonging, one we can all enjoy.
We can start by assuming the positive intentions of each other. Assuming the positive intentions of others, even when we are not sure of their motivation, can generate a wide array of positive outcomes. In fact, assuming positive intentions is the first step in building and maintaining trust, whether in personal relationships with colleagues or on professional teams. Assuming positive intentions leads to better, stronger relationships, creates better opportunities for understanding and resolving conflicts, and encourages others to respond with trust.
Second, we can embrace vulnerability. Vulnerability means being willing to admit that we do not always have all the answers. Sometimes, we need to learn, and we may need to ask for help. Doing so conveys value and respect to those around us. When we accept our vulnerability, the barriers that divide us and arouse our fears dissipate. We open ourselves to the ideas and efforts of others who can help us to find solutions to the problems that confront us.
Third, we can show empathy. Empathy is a search to understand others. When we commit to listen and appreciate the experiences and perspectives of others, we gain access to important information and insights that can inform our perspectives and build our compassion. Empathy is the secret ingredient for getting through tough times together.
Fourth, we need to value kindness over niceness. Niceness is calculated to have the other person feel good, even if the truth or reality is not consistent with our words and actions. Being nice can be a way of avoiding conflict or hurt feelings. Kindness takes the interests of the other person into consideration but goes beyond solely wanting to make the other person feel good; it includes sharing what another person may need to know or guidance that would be beneficial, even when what is said or done may cause discomfort.
Fifth, we can choose to share our experience, knowledge, and wisdom. Sharing our expertise, coaching, and mentoring builds collective capacity. Sharing is an act of generosity and connection building. It is a gesture of caring and trust. Our collective knowledge, skills, and expertise exceeds what any one person can possess. Sharing makes us all better and stronger.
Sixth, we need to be quick to forgive. Disagreements, thoughtless words, and ill-considered actions are unavoidable in communities. When we experience slights and thoughtlessness, we can feel let down, unvalued, and isolated. We need to address and resolve the situation as quickly as we can. Holding grudges and harboring private hurts damages us, holds us back, and deprives us of connections that can feed our emotional needs. Holding grudges can also isolate us and undermine community cohesiveness.
Seventh, we can choose to maintain an attitude of gratitude. Gratitude embraces life in all its forms. We can feel grateful both in the face of tragedy and in response to triumph. Gratitude focuses our attention and emotions on others rather than being self-centered. It can lead us to move past quick, superficial expressions of thanks to pause and actually feel the emotion of the moment. Gratitude is a powerful relationship builder, and it reminds us of what is good in our relationships. An attitude of gratitude binds us to others by making them feel valued and appreciated.
Working in a culture of belonging can make all the difference between feeling as though we are just doing a job and being part of a collective mission. A culture of belonging reassures us of our value. It frees us to take risks and admit when we are not fully successful. It is not always easy to build and maintain a culture of belonging, but when challenges arise, when we are going through difficult times, or when we just need to feel accepted and respected, a culture of belonging can be an amazing thing.