7 Keys to Foster Belonging at Work

An excerpt from Lauren Parsons new book ‘Thriving Leaders Thriving Teams’.

With the talent shortage, making it difficult to find great people, it’s more important than ever to create belonging at work, to reduce staff turnover.

Here are seven keys to master:

  1. Embrace diversity.
  2. Build commonality.
  3. Call out cliques.
  4. Foster collegial love.
  5. Follow the platinum rule.
  6. Reinforce how people are part of your story.
  7. Have shared icons and catch phrases.


Diversity is important in the workplace for so many reasons. Not only is it critical to ensure equity and fairness, but it also allows you to achieve better results by having a wider range of ideas and input. If you consistently hire people with similar backgrounds and demographics into your team or your organisation, you’ll create a lack of diversity and foster ‘group think’, which inhibits creativity and innovation. This is why it’s so important to ensure your hiring practices support diversity.

Everyone benefits from having staff from different backgrounds, cultures, faiths, demographics and with distinctive life experiences. They each bring unique things to the table and much can be learnt from varied approaches and ways of doing things.

It’s critical leaders champion this, constantly reiterating the benefits of hearing contrasting points of view. Leaders must regularly communicate the importance of diversity, sharing stories and raising awareness. Staff must be allowed and encouraged to show up as themselves. Having to put a filter on for the workplace can be incredibly draining and destroy feelings of belonging.

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Fostering commonality isn’t about trying to get people to be the same as each other. It’s about embracing what makes them unique, while finding common ground to build connection and understanding. This can be things such as shared interests, hobbies, tastes, preferences, strengths, and communication styles. 

Leaders can actively foster this, for example by opening or closing meetings with a question of the day, inviting people to share their favourite family traditions, where they grew up or what they’re passionate about. These build understanding and help people connect at a deeper level. The more things you discover you have in common with someone – even someone you may not have immediately warmed to initially because of perceptions, lack of familiarity or unconscious bias – the better you can work together.

In New Zealand, tikanga Māori is a set of principles that outline suitable behaviour and customary practices. It’s common to start meetings by introducing your forebears and your connections to the regions you’re from and the region you’re visiting, before getting into the purpose of the meeting. This is about honouring those people and places and creating potential connections with those you’re meeting. This practice of taking time to connect before diving in to business is shared by many other cultures where the success of the preamble often determines the success of the meeting overall.

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Most of us have been there. The first day at a new school, feeling awkward and out of place, not knowing quite what to do or where to go and seeing groups of people talking and laughing together. Especially for more introverted souls, it can be overwhelming.

The same thing can happen when someone joins a new workplace. Virtually everyone will harbour natural (often subconscious) fears like, “Will I fit in?” or, “Will they accept me?” While tight social groups can be a good thing, if they’re managed poorly, they often have negative consequences. Established cliques make it harder for new staff to feel integrated.

Call people out if they’re behaving in ways that exclude others. For example, leaving some people off group emails, inviting the same people to lunch repeatedly, or only offering certain people help. Leaders need to break down workplace silos by intentionally cross-pollinating ideas and experiences and creating ways for people to connect across teams and locations.


Love may not commonly be talked about in the workplace, yet teams that display collegial love – a type of non-romantic love that’s based on warmth and connection – have significantly better workplace outcomes. You might like to think of it as the Greek word philia, defined as “affectionate brotherly love”.

A meta-analysis of the relationship between employee engagement and business outcomes found the three workplace attitudes that create high-performing business units are joy, interest, and love. Leaders who foster daily rituals that support these outcomes help bond individuals to each other, to their work, and their organisation.

Researchers, Sigal Barsade and Olivia O’Neill, found teams displaying philia (collegial love) have higher staff satisfaction and better teamwork and this flows through to their clients. In long-term care facilities they found it led to key tangible outcomes such as improved patient mood, quality of life and fewer trips to the ER. They’ve since replicated these results across a range of industries from financial services to real estate. Regardless of industry, they discovered, “people who worked in a culture where they felt free to express affection, tenderness, caring, and compassion for one another were more satisfied, committed, and accountable for their performance.”

Leaders set the tone for this. They have the opportunity to demonstrate compassion and foster highly connected, close-knit teams where people care for one another. This isn’t something to be seen as ‘soft’ or inappropriate at work. It’s often seen in extremely challenging settings, such as elite sports teams, in the military and in workplaces that create a ‘family’ feel. These teams have strength and discipline, make tough calls and are focused on important tangible results; they also care deeply about one another, demonstrate philia and ‘have each other’s backs’.

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The golden rule teaches us to, “Treat others as you want to be treated”, which is a noble and worthy goal. What is even better however, is the platinum rule, “Treat others as they want to be treated.”

It’s powerful to understand your natural communication style (using whatever tool you choose to measure it by – there are so many out there). Once you understand your default style and the fact you’ll naturally think, plan and communicate using your own style, you can discover the power of tapping in to other people’s styles to better connect with them.

If you’re a task-focused person, you’ll get better results with your people-focused colleagues if you spend a little more time at the top of the email or the start of the call to check how they’re doing. Conversely, if you’re more people-focused, you’ll profit from minimising chit-chat and getting to the point for your task-focused colleagues.

Caution: These examples are oversimplified – there are many nuances to communication styles and personality profiles. However, the more work you can do as an organisation to help your staff be aware of their own and others’ styles, the more you create understanding, which will vastly improve working relationships.

Training staff on using inclusive language can avoid unintended hurt and offence that could otherwise occur, creating friction and damaging relationships. As Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” When staff know things to avoid, they can connect with one another more effectively and maintain strong relationships.


It’s also important to share your story as an organisation. Each time you hire a new staff member, they become part of that story. There’s a great opportunity to build belonging by showing staff how they fit into your organisation’s narrative. 

Recognising the journey and the knowledge of the staff who’ve gone before builds a sense of connection and deeper understanding (just as learning about one’s genealogy builds a sense of identity by learning about and honouring one’s forebears). Someone should be responsible for collecting and communicating your organisation’s story on a regular basis to both new and existing staff, reinforcing a deep sense of purpose and commonality.

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Another way to build belonging is to have visual reminders and catch phrases that reinforce your culture. Seeing things on the wall and having sayings that become part of the lingo of a workplace help define ‘the way we do things’ and create a sense of commonality. 

A shared vocabulary can glue a team together. When I worked at the New Zealand College of Fitness we had a whole language that staff embraced. Days of the week were renamed Terrific Tuesday, WOW Wednesday and Sparkleday Saturday. Lecturers weren’t just lecturers, we were ‘Presenters of Fun and Laughter’ – it was even printed on our name tags! Feedback became ‘feedforward’ and was proclaimed as a positive thing to look forward to, in order to help us grow. 

One motto that sticks with me to this day is, “There are no problems, just challenges with three solutions.” By owning and using these common phrases we felt more connected and in-sync as a team.

New Zealand’s rugby team, the All Blacks, have 15 key mantras that are admired worldwide. These include:

  • Sweep the sheds – be humble enough to clean the dressing room.
  • No dickheads – be a team player, drop any negative attitude and do what’s best for the team.
  • Keep a blue head – remain cool and calm under pressure rather than hot-headed and reactive.
  • Sacrifice – good is not good enough, champions do extra.
  • Train to win – train as if it’s the real thing, to condition your body and brain to win.

These sayings form a crucial part of the team culture. Anyone can call another out, especially if they’re breaking the ‘no dickheads’ rule, so the team consistently performs at its best.

Icons matter. Think how much passion and loyalty goes with a country’s flag. Most people feel a deep sense of pride and connection when they see their nation’s flag. Similarly, company brands exist to create a focal point that people (both customers and staff) connect with. 

Branded uniforms, merchandise and stationery continually reinforce your brand and ideally the significance behind it – your company’s story, vision and values. When these are communicated well, they create enhanced loyalty and a deep sense of connection. 

Online retailer Zappos go much further than having their values displayed on the wall. They print them into a colourful, visually-appealing culture book which is given to all staff, offered to guests, and available on their website. 

It includes hundreds of photos of staff moments and events and Zappos’ 10 core values, which include; ‘Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit’, ‘Be Adventurous, Creative and Open-Minded’ and ‘Be Humble’. Every staff member is invited to answer the question “What does the Zappos culture mean to you?” and have their responses published in the book. Examples include:

“Zappos culture is holding the door open for someone, helping out on the phones during the holidays, 1500 employees embracing the downtown move, wearing a costume on a Wednesday for the hell of it, wrapping an entire team’s desks in plastic wrap, having a meeting in a bedazzled spaceship… The list goes on and on because this company is always changing; however, the culture stays tried-and-true.” – Kara O. 

“Zappos culture, to me, is not being afraid to express oneself. By itself this doesn’t seem like much, but when compared to equivalent environments at different companies, it’s the difference between going to work and loving to go to work.” – Charles A.

They also have pieces of swag representing each core value. For example, a steering wheel shaped keychain for ‘Embrace and Drive Change’ and a smiley face with spiky pink hair for ‘Create Fun and A Little Weirdness’. Staff can receive one of these trinkets when they display that value. If they collect all ten, they receive a t-shirt with the mission statement on it.

I leave you with two questions to consider:

  • Which of these seven things are you doing well? 
  • Which ones could you focus on to increase belonging?
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Enjoyed this article? Check out the whole book Thriving Leaders Thriving Teams for more insights to help you stop languishing, start flourishing and cultivate a positive, energised workplace.

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