The Power of Belonging

David Ivers is from Sydney, Australia. He is a qualified Primary and Secondary School Teacher. In total, he has served on school leadership teams for 16 years in senior leadership roles.

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

 “Late Fragment” by Raymond Carver

From: A New Path to the Waterfall, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.

Raymond Carver reminds us of something critical to the human condition, the need to belong, the need to feel loved. Love of neighbor is an important teaching in a number of religious traditions, including the Abrahamic faiths. According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, a sense of love and belonging is not just essential to good health, a lack of love and belonging will prevent a person from feeling esteem and reaching self-actualization. In other words, not feeling “beloved on the earth” to quote Raymond Carver, leads to behaviors such as a negative self-concept, an overwhelming sense of failure, even a false sense of humility, when praise does come their way.

Maslow conceptualized the basic needs of human beings in five ascending levels:

  • physiological needs
  • the need for safety
  • the need for love and belonging
  • the need for esteem and
  • the need for self-actualization.

Gibson, Emily., Barr, Robert. (2013) Creating a Culture of Hope (eBook) p.39.

In my article last month, “The Power of Community”, I explored how organizations can be seen as a community, something more than just a group of people working in close proximity to each other. As an Anthropologist, I like to conceive this notion of organizations being a community as the ‘village at work’. As the pandemic that is COVID-19 burns the year away, it is worth exploring this notion of community, a little bit further.

In previous articles, the notion of trust in organizations has been explored. For example the article from June 2020, ‘Communication, Crisis and Culture’ examined the research of Stephen M. R. Covey and the research of Professor Paul Zak on the importance of trust in high-performing organizations. Simply, the research showed that if you want your organization to be high performing, trust in your people, trust in your teams, is essential. What is the difference between a group and a community? The former may have formed loosely because of convenience or coincidence. Think of a group forming to wait for the next bus at the local bus stop. The only goal they share as a group is to get on a bus, not necessarily the same bus. A community on the other hand, has a set of common interests, possibly even a common set of values. Think of the local neighborhood and the sharing of common facilities and a common agenda that locals might have to make their part of the world, a better place. This agenda may well have representation at City Hall. This is the community operating in the world.

Writing in the Journal of Community Psychology, David W McMillan and David M Chavis note that a sense of community has four elements, most of which come down to a sense of belonging.

“A sense of community has 4 elements: membership, influence, integration, and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection.”

McMillan, David. W. & Chavis, David. M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 14(1), 6–23.

The question then emerges, what role does love have in powering an authentic, high-value organization? When we talk of love in this context, we should be clear. We are really referring to the notion ‘love of neighbor’, the care and love that a parent might have for their child, even an adult child. Think also of the care, concern, and trust that soldiers might have, especially on the battlefield. We are really talking about love that is nurturing and affirming, that is challenging and rewarding, that is accepting but interested in your personal and professional growth. The discussion at hand is about a healthy sense of belonging, which honors the ‘Psychological Safety’ needs of all people throughout the organization.

“Psychological safety is broadly defined as a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. More specifically, when people have psychological safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. They are confident that they can speak up and won’t be humiliated, ignored, or blamed. They know they can ask questions when they are unsure about something. They tend to trust and respect their colleagues. When a work environment has reasonably high psychological safety, good things happen: mistakes are reported quickly so that prompt corrective action can be taken; seamless coordination across groups or departments is enabled, and potentially game-changing ideas for innovation are shared. In short, psychological safety is a crucial source of value creation in organizations operating in a complex, changing environment.” 

Edmondson, Amy C. (2019). The fearless organization: creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth (eBook). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (p13-14).

If the issue is the formation of a healthy, vibrant community in the workplace, where people feel valued and have a sense of belonging, it is hard to conceive how this would be achieved without ‘Psychological Safety’. They go ‘hand in glove’. Experienced leaders know and understand this. They recognize that an organization powered by love of neighbor, respect, concern, trust, compassion, is an organization in which people have a high degree of buy-in. One in which synergy is created and purposeful, healthy relationships form in order to achieve the goals at hand. In short, it is an organization in which people matter.

John Mackay, CEO of ‘Whole Foods Markets’, makes the case for the power of love, as a key to a vibrant and authentic leadership of a team or organization.

“The leadership must embody genuine love and care. This cannot be faked. If the leadership doesn’t express love and care in their actions then love and care will not flourish in the organization. As Gandhi said: “We must be the change that we wish to see in the world.” . . . We should consider the virtues of love and care in all of our leadership promotion decisions. We shouldn’t just promote the most competent, but also the most loving and caring. Our organizations need both and we should promote leaders who embody both.”

John Mackey (CEO of Whole Foods Market. Quoted by Stephen. M. R. Covey (2012). Smart Trust (eBook).

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has tested the structures of every society, every business, every Government agency. It has tested populations professionally, economically and of course the health of people and health systems across the globe. Within reason, COVID-19 may well be with us into the New Year. There has to be a way in which leadership can harness that which comes from within, as they seek to guide their organizations through the pandemic. Logically, where there is a need for faith and hope, there is a need for love also. In short, 2020 has been such a hard, even a harsh year for many. COVID-19 has shown that we have a need to rediscover the connections we have to each other, rediscover the importance and quality of our relationships at work.

The question then emerges, what role does love have in powering an authentic, high-value organization?


Beyond the theoretical, what does this look like in practice? It really is about having people in leadership positions who are very much on their game, who articulate, who can think outside the box and who care about people. It’s not just about achieving the next KPI or metric but it should also be about how you got there. I would go as far as to say that the CEO of the organization should mandate a metric around how the leaders showed they care, how this neighborly love translated into how the people that the leader is responsible for, developed personally and professionally? If the community is about the individuals that collectively make up the community having a sense of belonging, then the Anthropology should be evident.

Applying the theory of ‘Social-Interactionism’ becomes not just useful but illuminating. Symbolic Interactionism is the notion that we are all actors on the stage of life, in which our interactions are not just important to each other but are highly symbolic of things that are much deeper, not unlike the subtext or hidden secret within a good narrative. Here, the interactions of the leadership within the organization, reveals what truly is important. To say you care, to say you practice love of neighbor in the workplace, is one thing but do your interactions support what you say? Does the subtext reveal something very different? People aren’t silly! The incongruity between word and interaction is something they will pick up on and human instinct will tell them to trust the hidden secret behind the narrative. The importance of this has been noted by many world leaders, including the former US Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Colin Powell. 

“The day you are not solving problems or are not up to your butt in problems is probably a day you are no longer leading. If your desk is clean and no one is bringing you problems, you should be very worried. It means that people dont think you can solve them or dont want to hear about them. Or, far worse, it means they dont think you care. Either way, it means your followers have lost confidence in you and you are no longer their leader, no matter what your rank or the title on your door.” 

Colin Powell (2012) It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership (eBook). p49.

If you think about it for a minute, leadership is relational, it is and always should be about people. Community and that sense of belonging is always about people and that sense of belonging can only be experienced within a community of people who share a common view, purpose, values, and/or ideal. Remove people from the equation and you get zero! Without people you do not have a community, you do not have leadership and you do not have a healthy, functioning organization. At the heart of most organizations, government or private, is the services provided to your client base, your customers. Without those people, you do not have a business or organization that is an ongoing concern. That should be a concern to everyone.

That love is essential to success in life and leadership, is found readily in the literature. In their groundbreaking research and best-seller, ‘The Leadership Challenge’, James Kouzes and Bary Posner, after more than thirty years of researching the area of leadership, confirms that love isn’t just important to the leader’s success or the success of the organization, it’s absolutely critical!

“Of all the things that sustain a leader over time, love is the most lasting. It’s hard to imagine leaders getting up day after day, putting in the long hours and hard work it takes to make extraordinary things happen, without having their hearts in it. The best-kept secret of successful leaders is love: staying in love with leading, with the people who do the work, with what their organizations provide, and with those who honor the organization by using its products and services. Leadership is not an affair of the head. Leadership is an affair of the heart.” 

Kouzes, James M., & Posner, Barry. Z. (2017). The leadership challenge (6th ed.) (eBook). John Wiley & Sons. p309. 

Whilst some leaders might readily use the word ‘love’, others may not. Some may speak of love as respect, kindness, compassion, concern, or a similar ‘synonym’. As we have already discovered, by the simple application of ‘Symbolic Interactionism’ words not supported by action are empty and meaningless. In the end, your actions will always say much more than words. Leadership in organizations that seek to create this sense of belonging needs to first begin by putting others, the people on your team, first. This empowers each individual and helps to build this sense of community. 

John Maxwell suggests five ways in which leaders can put people first. He offers a ‘bonus point’ to the list. 

  1. Develop a greater appreciation of other people.
  2. Ask to hear other people’s stories.
  3. Put yourself in other people’s shoes.
  4. Place other people’s interests at the top of your list of priorities.
  5. Make winning a group activity.

Change yourself before expecting a change in others. 

Maxwell, John. C. (2017). The Power of your Leadership: Making a Difference with Others (eBook). New York: Center Street Hachette Book Group. (pp.27-30). 

For those in leadership positions within government agencies, companies, not-for-profit organizations, and the like, consider to what extent your team, your people, have a strong sense of belonging? How do you do this? Ask them and then check-in periodically to see how they are traveling. John Maxwell has already named one approach, ‘listen to their stories’. For leaders looking to harness the power of this ‘love of neighbor’, this sense of belonging and commitment, this sense of trust and compassion, two things need to happen. Firstly, there must be a deliberate set of actions to create ‘Psychological Safety’ within the organization, mindful that this may vary initially in strength from team to team. The second thing that needs to happen is to consider adding an essential criterion to your list of ‘must-haves’ when hiring. The ‘must-have’ of course is hiring leaders that are highly relational and highly adaptive in their leadership. Hire leaders who know how to create synergy through the community, by putting people first, remembering that actions speak louder than words. This is where harnessing this power of love, this sense of belonging becomes transformative within teams and across the organization. This is not something new. The literature of leadership and on organizational behavior has covered this for some time. Curiously, it is not a new idea. On November 17, 1957 in a Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King jr, explained to the world that the power of love is redemptive and transformative. In a world coming to terms with COVID-19 and the light it has shone onto the ‘underbelly’ of societies around the world, the fractures, and ruptures we have seen and continue to see in organizations, it may well be that Dr. Martin Luther King jr was offering our organizations of today, our communities, indeed the entire world, a real and long-lasting solution, if the synergy can be created. 

“As our eyes look to the future, as we look out across the years and across the generations, let us develop and move right here. We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world.” 

Dr. Martin Luther King jr. “Loving Your Enemies” (Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church). (17 November 1957, Montgomery, Alabama).

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