11 Tips to Foster Belonging


Do you belong at work or in your professional or community organizations? I am asking about your subjective, internal experience of belonging. Feeling as if you are accepted as yourself. Are you accepted? Do you belong? Or, are you merely fitting in?

Effective leadership nurtures belonging and a sense of community. Being able to address indirect or overt behaviors, beliefs or unconscious biases that create separation or the feeling of exclusion is a necessary skill. As an individual faced with disenfranchising behaviors and attitudes, there are coping skills and important mindset practices to develop.

What does it mean to feel like the “Other”? What types of situations create feelings of exclusion or objectification? What can you do as a leader and an individual to proactively heal dysfunctional environments and yourself – to foster belonging?

All humans crave belonging.

We are hardwired for belonging and connection – this is something we all need for fulfillment, according to social scientist Brene Brown in Daring Greatly. She defines belonging as “the innate human desire to be a part of something larger than us.” [i] Importantly, belonging is different than fitting in. “Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.”

A true team experience fosters belonging in its members. These team qualities – trust, connection and belonging – are bedrock, foundational. Understanding of environments and behaviors that work against those ideals is fundamental for effective leadership. Whether one is simply leading in one’s own career or the lead attorney on a matter or the head of a department.

Have you ever felt like an outsider?

Feeling as if you are the odd-woman or odd-man out? Most of us have felt like an outsider at one time or another, regardless of our gender, race, sexual orientation or other distinguishing factor over which we have no control – such as our age or the simple fact you are a mother.

The experience of being the “Other” can be uncomfortable, paralyzing and often full of shame. Bringing in the feeling that we – the Other – are not worthy. This experience readily leads, if unchecked, to disengagement. Our cutting off and pulling back from the team or group. Instinctively recoiling in a protective stance from that unwelcome sense that we do not belong simply by virtue of who we are or what we inherently represent.

What do I mean by feeling like the Other?

A simple example taken from a Cub Scout event helps illustrate the Other. As a part of Astronomy Camp there was a guest lecture. To keep the boys interested and provide incentive the astronomer brought out a large bag of candy. He promised a candy for every correct answer during his lecture. Not surprising, all the boys were highly motivated.

Problem is, for whatever reason, this lecturer could not see past the first row of tables. All the older boys (4th and 5th graders) were at one table in the front. The other younger ones, including my son, were at a table one row back. They all started out raising their hands and trying to get his attention and the candy prizes. After 15 or 20 minutes and who knows how many questions, the boys in the front row all had multiple candies. The kids in the back were frustrated and soon stopped consistently trying. Every so often they would have a ray of hope and even jumped up and down waving their arms – a handful of times in over an hour they were successful at getting this man’s attention. A few got a candy. Most stopped listening or meaningfully participating.

Two years later, the kids in the back still remember that experience as frustrating and unfair. They felt excluded from the group for no logical reason. They could not understand why this man would not call on them and, possibly, just could not see them.

This is a simple example, but parallel to what can happen in a professional environment where people are all vying for that prize assignment, case, pitch opportunity, recognition, etc. Are there some on your team that have a much larger pile of candy simply because they are louder or easier for you or those in power to see?

Other examples come from my own experience. Several times over the past 5 or 6 years, I have participated in meetings and ended up feeling invisible. Wondering what was going on and why I could not be heard or seen or sometimes even “allowed” to speak? While the Sociologist in me was somewhat fascinated by the behaviors, my emotional reaction was that of the unseen Other.

In these meetings, I was either the only woman or one of two women. That fact is not unusual, but the behavior that I want to highlight was, at least in my experience. At a professional organization’s leadership meetings one weekend, when I attempted to speak, the men talked right over me. This happened repeatedly.

I would begin to make a point and after getting a few words in would be drowned out by competing voices talking over me. At one point, four men all jumped to their feet and started trying to be heard over each other. I tried a few times to get a point in and be heard, always experiencing the same phenomenon. The other woman in the room looked at me and rolled her eyes at the guys. She was aware, but none of the men noticed.

Another time with a different group, I attempted to answer a question. The asker continued to repeat his question, looking around for a response as if I had never spoken. I repeated my response 4 times – each time getting a bit louder, and these guys never heard me. I was standing 4 feet from the person asking the question with a direct line of sight. Not only did he not hear me, neither did the other men.

And, to be clear, in all of these meetings they knew me well. I have felt I belonged. I am or was in leadership, and I have never been accused of being a wall flower. These experiences were bizarre. There is no other word. I found myself thinking at the time, “Am I actually talking out loud? Yes, check.”

Frustration, Anger and the Impulse to Disengage.

It is incredibly frustrating and disenfranchising to not be seen or heard or even acknowledged. When I mentioned my experience later to some individually, they each looked at me with blank faces and honestly said they had no idea what I was talking about. “When did that happen?” they asked, incredulous.

My first response every time has been anger. Not overt, but a strong internal reaction. Pretty normal. Then a desire to walk away, to disengage from the leadership position and the group. Why am I wasting my time when I could be somewhere adding value? Now, perhaps, I could have yelled or waived my arms around like those desperate young Cub Scouts looking for candy. But really? How would that be perceived? It would not go over well. And, to be fair, if this had occurred when I was representing a client, my actions would have of necessity been different.

These examples of the creation of non-inclusion and a feeling of being an outsider are pretty straight forward. They typify behaviors that exclude through failure to acknowledge another presence, contribution or even at times, existence. The individuals participating in the behaviors are apparently – at least in these examples, oblivious to their actions and the overall impact on the “Other”. They know not what they do. Does not make it right. The challenge being waking them up, creating awareness of the group dynamic and having leadership that promotes collaborative, inclusive behaviors.

Effecting an obvious, insurmountable barrier for the Other.

There are behaviors that are more insidious and much more direct in their disenfranchisement than the prior examples. They draw attention to the “different”, the “Other”, by overtly stating a characteristic that sets a person or group apart from those in power. They are by their design intended to distance, undermine, and subvert the power of the targeted individual or group.

For example, the act of calling attention to a woman’s looks while in the middle of a court hearing or settlement conference. When the judge and opposing counsel start to talk about you in the third person as if you are not there, commenting on your looks, well, it is awkward at best. Disarming and upsetting at worst.

Another example that can be a kick to the solar plexus, is being told that mothers cannot be effective lawyers or partners, much less trial counsel. This pronouncement, expressed as fact, has been stated to me on a few occasions when I was a partner both before and after I became a mother. I was told this directly, first-hand from partner and associate level men and even a General Counsel with a sizable in-house department.

On one occasion a senior partner was present during these remarks. He sat through my actively attempting to dissuade the speakers that the idea that mothers could not be dedicated to their careers and valuable attorneys had no merit whatsoever. I provided numerous examples demonstrating how incorrect they were, to no avail. The senior partner said nothing to these men, and sat silent through the interchange. Later he said to me, “I am really sorry. You should not have to listen to that.” Note, he did not say that what they said was wrong, but that I should not have to listen to it.

I know many moms who are amazing and highly successful attorneys and trial attorneys at that – myself included. I know these men’s belief is entirely inaccurate and untrue. That did not diminish the impact of having them overtly and proudly take this position towards me and practicing mothers in general. I will tell you, it genuinely astonished me and was difficult to effectively process.

Wow. Don’t hold back – what do you really think?

When behaviors or comments are direct and combative, disengagement or seeking the assistance of senior leadership (although they may or may not be supportive) is more often a good call. Talk to someone outside that environment to help you process and develop a strategy forward. Get support.

Sometimes just ignoring the comments and going on with the hearing is about all you can do at the moment. After all, you carefully pick your fights with your judge – otherwise you can jeopardize your client’s position. Disengaging by not pursuing employment with a firm or in-house department espousing such antiquated views is obviously a wise move.

When these sorts of blatant excluding comments are made by those in your firm, care is required to address the politics of the situation. Unfortunately, many times the one who makes a complaint or highlights an unfair or discriminatory position ends up taking the brunt of the fallout. This is why firm and corporate leadership are indispensable in effectively addressing these types of harmful and hurtful cultures and behaviors of exclusion. Support all of your people.

What can you do as a leader to foster a collaborative, inclusive environment?

If you want to retain talent and nurture your people, it is important to cultivate an environment of collaboration and inclusion, not of competition and divisiveness. Save the advocacy and combativeness for the opposition.

  1. Make sure you are giving everyone a chance at the table. Encourage those who are more reserved to speak up. Invite them to comment. A simple, “What do you think?” or “Do you have anything you would like to add?” Allow folks to provide follow up to the discussion through email or in private. Some individuals need more time to process. As these individuals realize their input is valued, and that you are trustworthy, they will contribute more in meetings.
  2. Be aware of the dynamic within your group. Understand how the communication patterns work. Is there a person who constantly dominates the conversation? Allow their participation and curb the excess by reminding all that everyone’s feedback and thoughts are valued. If some individuals continue to talk over others – remind them, nicely, that someone else is providing input. If the talkers don’t reasonably curtail their behavior, pull them aside in private and ask for their cooperation. They may not realize that their behavior is not team oriented and ultimately, will not be rewarded.
  3. Model the behavior you seek to cultivate. If leadership is not congruent and fails to act in a manner that supports their stated goals, your team will notice. The whole “Do as I say not as I do” standard will not create a cohesive culture. This requires you to do the hard work on yourself and become more self-aware of your patterns, habits, unconscious biases (we all have them) and emotional triggers. The hard work is not easy – that’s why it’s called hard work, but you, and by extension your team, will benefit tremendously.
  4. Do your best to spread the opportunities equitably and be transparent. Ask individuals that are not volunteering or who have been passed by if they are interested in stepping up. You may be surprised. Women in particular tend to believe that they will be rewarded for their efforts as a matter of course. Do not assume they are happy riding shotgun. Most are as ambitious as their male counterparts. Hopefully there are objective reasons for assigning one individual over another, make your decision process transparent. Fairness and transparency are vital.
  5. Consistently communicate the collaborative, inclusive ideal. Normalize the discomfort of changing behaviors. Acknowledge this cultural perspective may be different and different actions and behaviors are often not easy to cultivate. They take time and a willingness – often incentivized – to change. Effective communication requires much more than simply having a diversity statement on your website. It means actively getting to know people, encouraging participation, holding individuals accountable if they are not being inclusive (e.g. gossip, exclusive informal groups or blaming/scapegoating, etc.), supporting and mentoring members as they develop. The message needs to be deep to sustain the change required for inclusion.

As an individual, how can you combat an experience of the Other?

If you find you are experiencing a non-inclusive environment, it is important to have some tools to effectively address your reaction and a strategy for moving forward.

  1. Acknowledge and be aware of how you are being treated. Allow yourself to feel the normal reactions of anger, disbelief, shame or similar discomfort at experiencing that feeling of being an outsider. If you stuff or deny your feelings, they ultimately resurface later as depression, an illness, a volatile angry explosion at home – somehow, they will resurface in a manner that is not healthy or productive.
  2. Understand that you do not have to react right away. Give yourself time to process. Unless you are someone who is comfortable calling people out directly and you implicitly trust your instincts, taking a breath, sorting through feelings and developing a rational strategy prior to reacting often make the most sense.
  3. Do not take things personally. Easier said than done and essential for your success and mindset. Understand that while the behaviors or statements you experience are not ok, many times they are performed without conscious intent. Similarly, the small mindedness of those who seek to disenfranchise you as a part of a group, says much more about their insecurities and inner conflicts. It really isn’t personal in the broader scope even when it is said with the intent to undermine your confidence. Don’t let it.
  4. Practice resilience: your reaction is a choice. Disengaging from a group may or may not serve your best interest. Especially at work, learning to step up and into your rightful place at the table can feel risky. Particularly when you have been ignored or belittled by other practice group members or team leaders. Learning to stand up, dust yourself off, and go back in ready to fully participate is a skill. It is a practice of resilience. Something to cultivate.
  5. Find mentors, sponsors and a support system that understand your environment. There are lots of amazing women and men who are willing and more than able to provide inspiration, insight and valuable advice for navigating politics and team dynamics successfully. A coach can also be helpful. Preferably one with life experience in a similar environment to you and coaching credentials demonstrating tools for helping you move through challenges.
  6. Pick your battles. Just because someone is a jerk does not mean you need to let it impact you or disempower you. While it is good to feel into what is a normal reaction, some things are not worth your attention, energy or time. Let it roll off your back and realize that their actions say everything about them and are not a reflection of you. Keep it real.

These tips are simply a beginning for leaders and individuals wanting to fend off disengagement and to create a culture of inclusivity and belonging. What ideas do you have for additional steps or proactive approaches? Drop me a note at: michele@elitelawyercoach.com.

[i] Brown, Brene. (2012). Daring Greatly, How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transform the Way we Life, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, NY: AVERY/Penguin Books, p. 231.