When you become a leader of a team or unit, you want to do a great job. But the challenge is there’s no single path or roadmap for what you should do.

There’s no “one size fits all” solution that matches every situation. And each leader comes with their own set of experiences, skills and tendencies.

The good news is there are some foundational principles and action steps that will help you make a difference as a leader, whatever your style or approach.

One of those foundations is to create a feeling of belonging.

Belonging is critical to your team well-being and business success

For early humans, being part of a tribe was essential for survival. Those who were kicked out didn’t survive the saber tooth tigers for very long. It’s no wonder that even in the modern day, the feeling of not belonging fills us with fear and other negative emotions.

Belonging means people feel they can be themselves at work. And when your team members can be themselves, they’re more productive, motivated and engaged.

Wherever you sit in the organization, you can help cultivate an environment that fosters belonging. You don’t have to be in the C-Suite setting policies. As the immediate leader or manager, you create the local weather through your behaviors and actions.

And when it comes to belonging, it’s vital to tap into the universal human desire to feel seen, heard and respected.

Develop the skills to get recognized, promoted and paid more

Here are three concrete action steps you can take as a leader to create a sense of belonging:

  • Slow down and truly listen
  • Get to know team members as people
  • Have career conversations with each team member

Slow down and truly listen

The first time I experienced being fully listened to at work was during a “selling interview”. I had been offered a job and was meeting with the CEO so that he could persuade me to join their firm.

He asked me questions and listened to my answers respectfully. He waited until I had finished speaking to share his thoughts. It felt like I was the most important person in the world and time stood still.

When I walked out of the interview, I looked at my watch and couldn’t believe only 20 minutes had passed. That’s what it feels like to be on the receiving end of someone who listens to understand, not just to respond.

How do you talk to your team members?

If you’re constantly busy (aren’t we all?) or rushing around, your team members won’t feel comfortable interrupting you no matter how many times you say you’ve got an open-door policy. It’s another reason to build in some calm space into your day to be available to your team.

To help me slow down and pay attention to my team and family members, I remind myself to “put relationship before task”. For you, it might be something different. But getting in the habit of truly listening will build trust and connection which will pay off in productivity and results.

Which brings us to the next action.

Get to know your team members as people

This doesn’t mean prying into someone’s personal life. It’s simply showing that you care about them. It can be as simple as asking how they are or remembering a birthday.

It can also be something far more valuable, which is to discover their “origin story”. Learning someone’s backstory not only provides insight into what makes them tick, it also strengthens your relationship because you cared enough to learn about their history.

For example, Ted came across as just another quiet, hardworking guy with a ready smile. It wasn’t until someone asked that we discovered Ted’s father was serious academic with three PhD degrees and that Ted is an avid reader at the pace of a book a week. This helped me to better understand where Ted’s perspectives come from and helped build our connection.

I’ve found there’s a sense of connection that grows when people express a genuine interest and when people choose to share their stories with you.

So look for times when you can ask people to tell you about themselves. It could be over a meal, while traveling to a meeting together or in a casual conversation. While it might feel most natural to ask new team members, you can do this with longstanding team members as well. It’s never too late to start a conversation and get to know your team members.

This brings us to the third action.

Have career conversations with each team member

It’s natural to feel reluctant to have career conversations with your team members. You might worry about opening a line of discussion that might lead to requests you may not be able to deliver on.

Perhaps you don’t see the person as a high performer and honestly don’t know what’s next for them in their career. Or maybe you simply don’t know what to say or how to get started.

Whatever might be holding you back, having career conversations is better than not having them. Your team members will be having thoughts anyway, so you may as well be aware of their needs and aspirations.

Simply having the conversation shows that you care about their future and that goes a long way. You’ll also learn what matters to your team members so you can be more directed in your efforts to develop and retain them. Even if you can’t personally deliver on what they aspire to, you can help them strategize and get in a position to achieve it.

I also like to ask what team members find inspiring versus frustrating. In one case, it was “it’s a little dark where I’m sitting, it would be great to have a lamp”. I couldn’t believe my team member hadn’t mentioned it sooner!

Hearing about frustrations will give you great information on what you can do to help. In this case, it was an easy frustration to fix, but you won’t know unless you ask and listen.

As for the average or low performers, you might just discover they aspire to a different line of work which you can help them pave the way for. But until you have the conversations, you won’t know. In the meantime you might have worried unnecessarily about how to address the fact that they aren’t going to be promoted any time soon.

Career Mastery has been a game-changer for me. Wonderful, actionable advice that helps me be better than the day before.”

Carol Vincent

But what if you don’t have time to spend with your team members?

How you spend your time is a choice. And one of the most important things you can do as a leader is to connect and engage with your team. It’s not a “nice to have”.

At this stage of your career, you’re no longer an individual contributor who gets things done on your own. You’re now accomplishing the organization’s mission through others, and that means leading and inspiring your team to bring their best each day.

This starts with helping people feel seen, heard and respected, which means having conversations. So figure out what you need to delegate or stop doing and make time for your team.

Just don’t make the mistake of asking but not listening

People can tell when you’re just going through the motions but don’t really care to listen. And this will backfire.

And remember that while it’s in your power to do your best to create an environment that helps people feel they belong, whether someone feels they belong is only for them to say. Belonging is a feeling someone has, not something you can dictate as a leader.

Be gracious with yourself and your team, and know that it’s a process and you will always be learning. 

What will you do as a leader?

As you lead and create an environment where team members feel they belong, remember to take those daily opportunities to help people feel seen, heard and respected. Cultivating a sense of belonging will help your team be inspired, productive and engaged. And that leads to greater results.

As you do so, remember to:

  • Slow down and truly listen – put relationship before task, especially when you’re busy
  • Get to know team members as people – discover their “origin story” and find ways to show you care
  • Have career conversations with each team member – learn about their aspirations and let that inform the way you go about developing and retaining them

Which action will you take today to help your team and colleagues feel seen, heard and respected?

Leave a comment and let me know.