Developing a sense of belonging through coaching

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Written by Salma Shah on 23 March 2021

Hiring a team with differing backgrounds, thinking styles and experiences has proven to be good for business. But creating an environment where everyone thrives takes effort. You can't make people feel like they belong if you don't have an appreciation for their lived experience, challenges or perspectives

According to diversity advocate Vernā Myers, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” Following this logic, a sense of belonging is when you have the confidence to hit the dance floor without waiting to be asked.

Our sense of belonging is shaped by many interwoven layers of our lived experience. Ranging from our family of origin, our ancestral map and our personal psychological biography. Class, caste, religion, politics the list is endless.

There is a basic human need to belong, it satisfies things like our self-esteem and our sense of self.

Add to this a story of migration across land and sea, co-existing between languages, cultures, beliefs systems and traditions. Navigating these fault-lines is naturally going to cause bumps in the road, misunderstandings and the need to hone strategies for survival.

There is a basic human need to belong, it satisfies things like our self-esteem and our sense of self. We are validated by the fact we share some common ground with other people. Our belonging in each system is unconscious and we tune into what we need to do to be accepted.

But what happens when we feel we don’t belong at work?

For many work is critical to who we are and how we define ourselves. It provides an opportunity for feeling fulfilled, competent and valued. Feeling like we don’t belong, can threaten our sense of self.

A sense of not belonging at work may have important implications for self-concept, psychological well-being, and for behaviour and performance, all of which have significant implications for individuals, leaders and for organisations. Feeling we don’t belong at work can also lead to becoming distant and withdrawn.

Detaching from emotional responses is one form of self-protection. Similarly, not having any concerns about other’s opinions, distancing oneself from others, or disengaging from the organisation through withdrawal of effort or disinterest in work or colleagues, or destructive behaviours.

These may all be rooted in a deeper sense of not belonging.

A sense of not belonging is more likely to be prominent in organisational cultures which are hierarchical and political or are absent of psychological safety. However, according to research by Dr Lee Waller, Hult Ashridge Executive Education, “There is much an organisation can do to support personal sense of belonging”.

However, the core concern of sense of not belonging is the self-concept; the meaning that individuals attribute to the sense of not belonging. It is as such vital that individuals who are going through it understand that they are not unique in their experience, they are not ‘deficient’, and they are not weak.

Coaching around a sense of belonging is a powerful way of helping employees explore their own understanding and identify underlying beliefs that may influence interpretation of events. This can impact how they respond to an event. Challenging thought processes and overcoming the sense of not belonging on self-concept.


About the author

Salma Shah is the Founder of Mastering Your Power Coach Training, championing belonging, diversity and inclusion.

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