The Power of Belonging

A reminder that this e-column is about “everyday leaders,” therefore you don’t need to be authorized to lead, or to heed.  Today’s message:  Leaders always see, and tend to the importance of culture.  Culture is what unleashes or traps energy, creates meaning or meanness, offers focus or fuzz.  Here’s a way to think of unleashing purposeful energy in your culture (at work, or at home).

Check out an energized culture:  107,000-plus screaming fans at the Big House in Ann Arbor.  A scene repeated across the country: white-outs, tomahawks, painted chests, Lions, Tigers, Canes, Horns, and of course Trojans and Spartans.  The Wave, cartwheels and handstands, screams of passion, jubilation (or desperation) – all from belonging.  Similarly, in these first weeks of elementary, middle and high school-life across the country, kids are seeking to establish identity and belonging.  No leader should lose sight of that craving, aching human need!   Belonging creates a powerful sense of personal identity, and unleashes strong feelings of purpose and power.  

 I re-learned this lesson last week when I spoke on successive days at Facebook and then the California Workforce Association.  I saw at Facebook as I had at Google, that their employees feel mighty special.  Part has to do with making their way through close to double-digit interviews; they’ve run the gauntlet and feel they belong: they’re proud, deserving and happily expect that much will be expected of them.  Of course, they also feel like they belong – on top – because of the special place their companies hold in the world.  But, how about the California Workforce Association?  Not exactly the sexiest title for a group.  Not even clear that somebody would know what they do.  Well, in a nutshell: they are job trainers, community college folks, placement officers, and they are hugely busy these days helping people – including the hard-to-employ – to find work.  God bless them for that! 

Their Executive Director Virginia Hamilton told me that she’s proud of the conference she holds for her members, because they can easily think of themselves as “just people” helping others find work, but the conference helps them to see that they are more:  they are part of a profession, with best practices, ongoing learning, and career development.  They share common struggles, triumphs, and benefit from their diverse insights.  They also have important learning to deliver to the world of legislatures and policy makers.  Belonging to their Association, helps them see they have more to learn yet much to say.  Virginia’s words reminded me of how valuable it was for me to belong to the National Society of Fund-Raising Executives, or to the National Governors Associations First Spouses group.  Both took me out of my vocational isolation and offered me a world of allies and fellow-learners.  Virginia’s words also reminded me of how much confidence I had felt emanating from a group I addressed called the Professional Assistants to Chief Executives.  Together they expressed enormous confidence and passion to improve.  I was struck with the contrast:  how in their isolated offices they were often hidden behind a desk with a dirty little secret: If it weren’t for them their exalted bosses would be seen as confused, disorganized, and detached.  

This belonging I’m talking about has tremendous rewards. Belonging to a profession, a team, or an organization that values its members, and teaches, celebrates, and challenges them to grow, doesn’t just reward those members, but it rewards everyone in the culture with whom they work.

Do the people at your place have a sense of belonging – in your place but also to something linking them with colleagues outside?  Would your folks paint their chests or do cartwheels in pride at belonging?  That’s an energy worth striving to create, as you

Lead with your best self!

  • Dan,

    You could not be more “on-the-money” about our need to belong. Your article made me wonder: What could a laid-off employee and a freshly promoted manager possibly have in common? The answer, of course, is feeling ripped out of a group where you understood your role and felt confident about your future, and being placed into an environment at once as familiar as the back of your hand and as alien as the dark side of the moon. Old ties have been severed, often painfully and abruptly. New connections must be made. In the meantime, the isolation and feeling of helplessness is nearly overwhelming. Just think how much groups like the California Workplace Association could help if they existed all across our nation! What a place to put some of those precious Federal dollars being spent to help rebuild the nation — and start by rebuilding the confidence and spirit of those hardest hit by the recession!

    Much the same holds true for new managers or even those freshly re-hired from the ranks of the unemployed — but, into new and frightening careers. I remember back when upper management would smile and tell us we would likely survive our “baptism of fire.” What they failed to mention was that they would keep us at arm’s length to avoid getting burned, and therefore would provide no support or guidance for fear of the heat.

    I see no solidarity in the ranks of the unemployed…only shared misery and fear of failure. I hope the right people read your words and think about the vast number of unemployed folks out there, just looking for someone to lead them toward a more secure future. They don’t want political rhetoric and promises, they want — and need — connection, confidence, and common sense assistance. They need leadership to help them feel they belong someplace other than the unemployment line. Who will create that place, and will someone point the way?


  • Great column Dan, and a thoughtful response from Mick. Mick, I agree that having organizations similar to the California Workplace Association around the country would provide a great boost. Every day, I hear about people with tremendous qualifications who lose their jobs, or who seemingly have another strike against them in re-establishing their careers after a job loss. Just developing such an organization would be a huge example of innovation.

    In my part of the state, we’re extremely fortunate to have a proactive group called Southwest Michigan First, which serves as “a catalyst stimulating growth across the Kalamazoo Region” by addressing the situation from the business perspective, and this group has brought quite a number of jobs to SW Michigan. I would envision an organization like the CWA as working hand-in-hand from the perspective of the individual.

  • Dan,
    In my role as Chief Financial Officer of the Michigan Association of School Boards and my role as Board Chair for the Michigan Society of Association Executives I would love to forward your article to every single member of both organizations! Like many associations, the memberships of both have tremendous power to improve the communities they serve, help formulate public policy and thus to improve society.

    Associations are unique entities in our professional lives, where the benefits and rewards of shared knowledge are leveraged into great achievements and where the value of membership is enhanced further by participation. Membership in associations provides a great example of “the more you give, the more you get”. So thank you for reminding people of the value of belonging and let me add a request to members to become involved. Your associations provide you with yet another opportunity to “lead with your best self” as Dan would say! Nanette Pearson, CPA, CAE

  • Knowing that giving everyone a sense of belonging is one of those immeasuerable qualities about an organization that helps it be outstanding in whatever field it operates in.

  • Dan,

    Your comments are so true. There is nothing like the senses of community to make everyone of us feel valued.

    Professionally associations play an essential role in the community for the profession or industry they serve. Associations are known for facilitating the sharing of knowledge to better the common good. When Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America in 1835 he commented: “I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing then voluntarily to pursue it. In America I encountered all sorts of associations of which, I confess, I had no idea, and often admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men and to get them to advance to it freely.” It is still true today that associations help better others.

    So the win, win from your comments is when an employer encourages his/her best and brightest to volunteer and work with others in the profession through their association they expand their community beyond the workplace into the profession as an expert. Surprisingly, when an employer does this they are more likely to reward and recognize the talent and expand it. This benefits the employees and the employers.

    If anyone needs help locating the association that is right for them I’d be please to help them.

    Cheryl Ronk, CAE, CMP

  • Belonging is very important but what is most important in belonging, true friends. Friends who want the best for you and you in return want the best for them. Belonging to a gang or a mob mentality group will not be in your best interests.

  • Hello Dan, I think your right on target. But, I also think people need to know how to build that “Sense of belonging.”
    In my opinion, associations are really in the teambuilding business!
    Most of my research over the years has been in the area of effective teams. In the past three years I have worked with several associations and have concluded that the elements of success for building highly effective teams are the same for highly effective associations. In order to have a high performing team or association, a strong sense of belonging must exist.
    Like teams, associations must focus on this sense of belonging to enhance overall effectiveness and in the case of associations, membership value.
    Three key elements need to exist in order to facilitate a greater sense of belonging:

    Include and exclude-
    Set boundaries that make membership exclusive to the extent possible and necessary. When the fans enter the “Big House” on Saturday afternoon to watch Michigan play football, there are generally 105,000 that are fans “members” of the Michigan group and 4,000 fans of the other teams. It is easy to see who is in and who is out.
    A common language is also very important. Use acronyms, logos, certificates, levels of membership and encourage exclusivity.
    A sense of belonging is enhanced through clarity of who is included and who is not.

    Safety in numbers-
    Humans naturally like to be, or feel a part of something bigger. Neighborhoods, churches, alumni groups, clubs and associations are few examples of organizations people can join and feel comfortable. But comfort commonly doesn’t last. Membership isn’t enough!
    Just as in teams, associations and their members must share common goals.
    Most people join associations to increase their “bottom line.” Individuals define that “bottom line” in many different ways and the more successful an association is at understanding their member’s “bottom line”, the more value they can deliver. However, if an association maintains a laser-like focus on increasing membership and revenue, it will become apparent to their members and the sense of belonging will be diminished.
    Being part of a higher purpose engenders a powerful sense of belonging.

    Input/ Output Ratio-
    This element is most often misunderstood. People don’t just want more!
    Research has shown that people are more satisfied when they feel their results are equal to or greater than their expense. In other words, the more they are involved…the more they get in return. Associations will create a much greater sense of belonging by increasing the input to output ratio. Frequently, associations center activities around “serving” benefits to their membership while underutilizing their member’s willingness to be more engaged.
    Now this is where you are thinking; “This guy is crazy!”
    Look, simply asking members to volunteer to perform a task is not what we are talking about here. Doing things does not equal engagement.
    In an effort to attain the highest sense of belonging, make sure your members believe they will get more if they give more.

    This past Saturday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Michigan football program produced a very high sense of belonging. Just ask the other 104,999 Wolverine fans that were there.
    Highly effective teams and associations maintain a high sense of belonging because they set boundaries, share common goals and are engaging. Hope this helps!

    Terry “TJ” Wisner

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