Before a big, make-or-break presentation to shareholders, a rising employee in Silicon Valley was feeling nervous. Although her career was going well, it was still difficult to make it in a male-dominated industry, and she often felt like she didn’t belong.

Illustration of people holding  hands standing around the sides of the globe on lined paper

But before the talk, her CEO came up to her, looked her in the eye, and said, “You are changing this company.” It gave her the confidence to go in, give the speech, and nail it. Today, she is the director of a major firm in the technology industry.

The way we treat each other can help us feel like we belong—or not. Belonging is the sense that we’re part of a larger group that accepts and values us for who we are, to which we can contribute; we feel like we have roots, maybe even a home.

Advertisement X

As humans, we evolved to move through the world together, and there can be destructive consequences when belonging is missing, including for our health. Amid the pain of not belonging, we feel more threatened and stressed in the world, and sometimes we’ll seek out belonging wherever we can get it—even in extremist, violent ideological groups.

But there are small things we can do, day in and day out, to feel that we belong and help others feel the same. Based on research by myself and others, here are a few. 

Reach out. There is so much we can do to help one another, and small actions matter. It could be just a word from a mentor, or a well-timed pat on the back, that is just what we need at the right time.

Research by Gillian Sandstrom, Elizabeth Dunn, Eric Wesselmann, Kip Williams, and many others shows how little things make a big difference. Even talking to your barista in a way that conveys you want to get to know them, or making eye contact with people, has benefits for your sense of meaning, connection, and purpose. So does turning your phone off when you’re with friends or family.

The ability to connect in the smallest corners of social life is almost like a superpower that we all have.

Don’t underestimate the benefits of connection. What we think will make us happy isn’t necessarily what makes us happy, and sometimes that means we miss out on opportunities for happiness and connection. According to research by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder, people don’t think talking to a stranger on the train will make them happier. But when they actually do it—just a 10-minute chit-chat—they are happier. Even little connections energize us.

Connecting with other people has many benefits. First, you get alternate perspectives on your own troubles and worries. But you’re also experiencing the delight of encountering another human being. If you’re awake to that wonder, there is much joy to be had.

Don’t be so quick to judge others. The fundamental attribution error refers to our tendency to over-blame people—their personality, abilities, and virtues—and to under-blame situations and context. We fail to imagine how the things in their circumstances, even the ones right in front of our face, may be affecting them.

For example, teachers and managers overattribute poor performance to a lack of ability, especially in people who belong to negatively stereotyped groups. If a Black kid misbehaves twice in class, they may write them off as a troublemaker, and they’re more likely to suggest suspending them, suggests research by Jason Okonofua and Jennifer Eberhardt. That does more harm than good, aggravating the sense of exclusion and uncertainty about belonging that often drives kids to act out.

Instead, we can empathize and try to get the perspective of the people who disappoint and upset us. Research suggests that taking an empathic rather than punitive perspective on misbehaving students—inquiring into what’s troubling them, and responding by reinforcing connection rather than with punishment—reduces teenagers’ suspension rates, especially among members of underrepresented ethnic groups.

Reflect on your values. In numerous studies, researchers have asked individuals—like students, employees, and professional athletes—to take some time before a stressful moment and reflect or write about their core values. They look at a list of values, such as relationships with friends and family or community, and they select their most important ones. Then, they write about why these values are important to them.

  • Affirming Important Values

    When your self-image takes a hit, reflect on what matters

    Try It Now

When teachers ask students to do this, research by Eric Smith and Greg Walton suggests, it conveys that the teacher cares about them and wants to know their whole self. It also invites their full self into what can be a seemingly threatening situation (middle school), so they feel bigger than the problems before them and able to overcome more difficulties.

This small act of revisiting our core values can tamp down the stress response we have in threatening or stressful situations. For middle schoolers from underrepresented groups, the activity can improve their sense of belonging in school, boost their GPA over the next two years, improve their disciplinary behavior, and help them make it to college. And those benefits are strongest among students who are often made to feel like outsiders because of their income or background. New research by Julian Pfrombeck and his colleagues finds that these values affirmations help the unemployed to stay engaged during the often-discouraging job search process, increasing their likelihood of finding employment.

Be welcoming at the beginning. In the workplace, research by Dan Cable and his colleagues suggests we can improve retention by helping employees evoke their best self during the onboarding process, rather than trying to “break them in.”

If you wait too long to intervene or to plant that seat of belonging, it’s often too late. We have a lot of leverage at those early moments when we’re opening the door and welcoming a person in. It’s like arriving at a party: That moment when you’re greeted and welcomed can really shape the tone of the whole experience.

Give wise criticism. How do we give good critical feedback to our employees or students in a way that helps them learn but isn’t threatening or undermining to their sense of belonging? In a series of studies, we found a simple technique that can be very helpful: When you’re giving the feedback, first make it clear (in a genuine way) that it comes from high standards. I’m giving you this critical feedback because I have high standards and because I believe in your potential to reach them.

In one study with my colleague David Yeager and others, we found that when middle school students received this message from their teacher with feedback on an essay, the percentage of students who revised their essay jumped from 17% to 72%. Years later, those kids were more likely to make it to a four-year college because that message came at a formative moment when they were trying to get a foothold and feel like they belonged.

This essay is adapted from Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides (W. W. Norton & Company, 2022, 448 pages)

Share stories of adversity. When people are transitioning into new roles, one helpful way to convey the message you’re not alone here is to have those who are more senior share their stories of adversity and what they went through when they were transitioning.

My research with Gregory Walton and Shannon Brady finds benefits to this in college and in workplaces. The stories of adversity are conveying two messages: First, if you’re feeling like you don’t quite belong during this transition, that’s normal. You’re not alone. And, second, feeling like you don’t belong tends to be short-lived. It gets better if you hang in there, reach out to people, and ask for feedback.

Stories of people who have gone before us—who have “been there, done that”—help us to see our shared humanity. They can be reassuring and promote belonging, school retention, health, well-being, productivity, and morale.

Listen to other people’s perspectives. Too seldom do we take the time to ask people questions about what’s standing in the way of their belonging and how we can help—what Nicholas Epley calls perspective-getting.

In one study, researchers asked college students from historically underrepresented groups (Black and Latino students) about their experiences and struggles in college. The students said they wanted more faculty engagement and more tips on improvement. So instructors started sending emails that explained how to improve if the students weren’t getting good grades, and when to come for office hours. This simple message increased students’ grades in their course, with some evidence that it also raised graduation rates.

For many people in our society, systems of exclusion make them de facto outsiders in so many situations, and systemic change in many of our institutions is necessary. At the same time, all these brief practices can have lasting benefits for people’s sense of belonging, performance, and achievement if we offer them to our mentees, friends, students, or strangers, especially at timely moments.  Several of these strategies have been tested and validated in large-scale studies, even at the national level.

While these acts may be brief, they aren’t small. In fact, they are often psychologically very big from the perspective of a kid or a new employee who feels unseen or like an outsider. These acts can occasion a change in identity and trajectory by sending the message I see you, I believe in you, or You’re not alone.


This essay is based on a talk that is part of the Positive Links Speaker Series by the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations. The Center is dedicated to building a better world by pioneering the science of thriving organizations.

  • Now Accepting Applications!

    Join Greater Good Educators to build kinder, happier schools where everyone belongs.

    Learn More
GreaterGood Tiny Logo Greater Good wants to know: Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?

You May Also Enjoy

Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus