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Teams and the Art of True Belonging

Though working in a group can be invigorating and a lot of fun, it is frequently challenging. We all have different perspectives and personalities, and we continually need to figure out how to how ideate, integrate, and converge on a common direction in order to be effective.

As humans, we have a strong desire to contribute, while being heard and respected. When teaming works properly, we often refer to this synergy as clicking. As we look deeper, though, we find that a prerequisite to clicking is making everyone feel that we belong at the table–which is also necessary for effective teaming.

What Does It Mean to Belong?

For many years, I have been interested in the process of bringing people together. I have seen how crucial this is at home as well as at work. But in the context of work, it can be more challenging at times. How do we bring people together to conjure up a mission that we all support, and help everybody feel empowered to contribute to it?

Recently, I have been reading Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness, which has enlightened me about what it takes to feel that we belong. Brené recalls the following quote from her 2010 book, The Gifts of Imperfection, regarding belonging:

Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.
Brené Brown – The Gifts of Imperfection

This sparked a realization in me, though it was maybe more of a re-realization, that belonging is more about acceptance and feeling welcome than about fitting in. It’s about feeling the freedom to be yourself. This sense of freedom in the presence of others is what creates a true sense of belonging.

How Do We Facilitate a Sense of Belonging?

We want to be part of something, but we need it to be real-not conditional or fake or constantly up for negotiation.
Brené Brown – Braving the Wilderness

In order to foster a sense of belonging, you need to build a sense of trust that people can bring their whole selves to the group. This is not about “fitting in,” but about acceptance of each individual just the way they are. Everyone should feel there is no bar to be reached.

I have found it very effective to facilitate this sense of comfort by modeling it myself. And the most important way I have found to break through to other co-workers is to express my own vulnerability. Specifically, I make a point of acknowledging when I am lost or confused about something. This lets others know it’s okay to not know everything, and also that it’s quite all right to butt in when the train starts to go off the tracks.

The pressure to convey that you are following along may feel strong at times. However, as a teammate, you need to get to a place where you’re comfortable clearing up confusion before the gap of knowledge, and connection, gets too wide to address.

It’s likely that if you are confused about something, others are confused as well. If nothing else, modeling the proper acknowledgement of confusion helps to make others feel comfortable doing the same, knowing that none of us are perfect or all-knowing.