Belonging | an exercise in leadership

A sense of belonging: is one of humanity’s most basic needs; feeling an affinity with a group, that accepts you.

Enabling colleagues to feel a sense of belonging is an exercise in leadership. Leadership that creates the conditions for colleagues to feel psychologically safe and able to engage in meaningful work. It is under these conditions and when the climate is right, that colleagues feel a sense of belonging, that they have status and are empowered to use their agency to add value. When colleagues are encouraged and empowered they feel the protected and secure sense of being an insider.

“To feel a sense of belonging is to feel accepted, to feel seen and to feel included by a group of people… to not feel belonging is to experience the precarious and insecure sense of an outsider.” (Owen Eastwood, 2021)

Organisations that seek to be as amazing as the colleagues within, actively create the conditions for belonging. Under these conditions colleagues feel an affinity to the group and to the mission, they feel the security and acceptance that gives them the mandate to bring themselves to others and to their work. Where leaders create these conditions there is an alchemy of purposeful engagement that is self-sustaining and creates momentum; the momentum of the many on a mission.

Enhancing belonging requires nuanced leadership that understands the complexity of humans and human motivation to empower and align collective effort; freeing capability and capacity. It is this nuanced leadership that deliberately leads, makes decisions, upholds values, sets parameters and direction to a compelling future that empowers colleagues. Under these conditions colleagues feel the security of deliberate leadership that both holds and frees colleagues to make good decisions, more often and aligned in the pursuit of meaningful work.

“…an organisation is not a machine – it is a collection of individual human beings. …built on normal, everyday human relationships, and it will work so much better for us if we approach its design from a human-level perspective …understanding the “cultural magic” that makes an organisation feel truly human and creates a sense of connection and belonging.” (Tracey Camilleri, et al., 2023)

The following identifies the conditions required for connection and belonging.

Relationships, relationships, relationships

“It is difficult for us to realise how much information is socially transmitted, because the amount is staggering and the process is largely transparent.” (Pascal Boyer)

Treat people well. If belonging is an exercise in leadership, then leadership is an exercise in relationships. Leaders who engage with, listen to, seek to understand, learn, connect colleagues and at the same time make decisions, bring clarity, lead and set direction, create the climate for belonging. Be a host, not a guest.

Strong leaders use time to listen, learn and build relationships. This is about ensuring colleagues are known as individuals, individuals with a unique story, a story that is heard. Understanding an individual’s story allows colleagues to weave collective stories into the future; creating insiders, who feel and believe that they each belong.

“Isn’t it odd. We can only see our outsides, but nearly everything happens on the inside.” (Charlie Mackesy)

Taking time to build relationships and understanding what is on the inside is not just about securing belonging, it is also a matter of status and esteem.

Belonging that is alive in the DNA

Creating the conditions for belonging is not accidental, it is a deliberate attempt to influence the climate in which colleagues thrive. The organisation’s values, explicit and implicit, are the antecedent conditions for creating the climate for belonging. Values are never achieved just in words. Values need to be lived, to be meant, to be evident in artefacts, actions, behaviours, routines and language; our words matter, a lot, they are the window into the soul.

“…your culture is… (the) assumptions your colleagues use to resolve the problems they face every day …how they behave when no one is looking. If you do not methodically set your culture, then two thirds of it will end up being accidental, and the rest will be a mistake.” (Ben Horowitz)

Values that are just written, cliché ridden or tokenistic will erode, not build, belonging. Colleagues want to feel part of something bigger than themselves, something tangible and meaningful. Building culture is the result of all interactions and actions, over time, secured in years not months. Strong organisations invest deeply in values, they map values through the organisation, challenge anti-value behaviours and seek to nudge and reinforce values over time; it is what we do, it is what we are, it is how we come to be.

“Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” (C.S. Lewis)

Connect peers with purpose | describe a compelling future

Life is too short not to do something that matters. Connecting peers with purpose, encourages joint enterprise and individuals to have skin in the game, in the shared pursuit of something bigger, triggering a greater sense of belonging. Strong leaders paint pictures of what could be; building loyalty to the joint mission, rather than the leader.

Communication from set pieces to seemingly inconsequential comments, constantly set tone, reinforce culture and create the lived experience of what it is to be a member of this group. The art of leadership is revealed in meaningful communication, which connects colleagues to a shared purpose; knowing why we exist, gives us identity and something to belong to.

Belonging evaporates in a vacuum. Colleagues are cast adrift and feel a reduced sense of belonging where leaders fail to make decisions, set rules and implement well. Colleagues are not well held in an environment of constant initiative and u-turn or one that lacks direction or purpose. Place a few bets well; bets that all colleagues have a stake in, long term investments.

…and connect peers with each other. Build collaborative structures, give permission, provide mandates and expect colleagues to collaborate in a shared quest that adds value. This is at the heart of a learning organisation, one that frees colleagues to explore together, to learn together, to support each other and to make a difference.

“To be successful beyond the very short run, all organisations must incorporate moral purpose, respect, build, and draw on human relationships; and foster purposeful collaboration inside and outside the organisation.” (Michael Fullan)

Give away the ending, step away from the plot and the characters.

Leaders should give away the ending of the story/quest/mission in technicolour detail. They should also begin the story with the truth of the present situation, setting the scene, the baseline for the quest to follow. With the start and the end in place, leaders need to empower others to develop the plot, the twists, the character development that create the story; empowering others to find the way.

“…people rise to the occasion when they are helped by leaders who develop others to do something that is individually and collectively worthwhile. Such leaders tap into fundamental virtues of humans – and when they do, improvement happens quickly.” (Michael Fullan)

Leadership is not a passive activity, it is deliberate, seeking to empower colleagues, giving permission to exercise agency within the bounds of the shared values, headed toward our compelling, shared future. Colleagues thrive when they have purpose and the autonomy to seek mastery (Dan Pink).

Clarity is kindness. Colleagues need to understand the rules of the game and to understand what constitutes success in this team; how they belong. Without clarity, there is an uncertainty in action and a risk in expressing agency. Humans like rules, it is this clarity that creates safety.

Resist the temptation to simplify the complex.

Leave room for colleagues to express their agency. The dance between leading/directing and empowering drives the dividend, the value an organisation adds. The sweet spot between directing and empowering, enables more to contribute to the mission. Over directing, stifles contributions and agency, it denies professionalism and local decision making.

“When we build a culture of people who eagerly seek out and take responsibility, we build a culture that enables a special kind of resilient freedom.” (Seth Godin)

Feel the tension, leaders need to live and be happy with cognitive dissonance. Holding ideas in tension and resisting simplifications, or the urge to codify too far into the professional space. Whilst being clear about how we do things here is important (for the complicated), where provision is complex, leaders must invest in professional learning and the professional judgement of those closest to the action. We tend to be compelled to simplify, when many areas in education are in tension and require nuance; strong leaders live with and exploit this tension.

As a general rule people do not simply do what they are told to do (or at least not well or over time). Creating the conditions for colleagues to bring art to their work creates the climate for ownership, experimentation to get excited about the work.

Creating places of belonging is an exercise in nuanced leadership that invests deeply in human relationships. Leadership that influences the daily weather to create the long term climate that builds organisations as great as the colleagues within.

“In the end, all that matters is how we feel about the places we spend most of our time in. It is the sense of belonging that defines our experiences.” (Rob Carpenter)

When the weather conditions in our sector seem to be decreasing belonging, it is reassuring that belonging is typically situational, built, grown and strengthened locally with leaders building havens that we need to deliberately nurture more widely for our sector; a sector worth belonging to and where more feel that they belong.

Dan Nicholls | April 2023

The disconnection of disadvantage | reconnecting the disconnected

Please hold while we try to connect you, your life is important to us

dis: the lack of, not…

We live in a time when increasing numbers of children are becoming disconnected from their world. Too often, circumstances and events act to disconnect disadvantaged learners, who become increasingly disillusioned and disenfranchised from society and school; pushed to the fringes. As children become disconnected their status, sense of belonging and self-esteem diminishes, encouraging retreat.

We live in a time of increased disconnection and social inequality, that is tipping life and opportunity away from increasing numbers of children who are presently disadvantaged. Disconnection is an ever-present thread, a process, through life, accentuated by key events that chip away at a child’s belief in what is possible. This is an on-going and sometimes catastrophic erosion of agency over time that encourages children to step back and not forward into opportunity.

 “Disconnection is a fearsome state for a social animal to find itself in. It is a warning that its life is failing and its world has become hostile: where there’s no connection, there is no protection.” (Will Storr)

Looking through the lens of disadvantage we can see the circumstances and experiences that create disconnection and accentuate disadvantage. Almost none of it is purposeful, but we are inconveniently complicit through our actions and collude with practices that disconnect. The failure of a child to connect positively time after time, increases the likelihood of disconnection that drains the joy, the ambition and colour from life, profoundly harming well-being. Once disconnection leads to disillusionment, children find themselves on the outside, where return is possible, but rare. The powers of education are weak at this distance, too often any existing connection irretrievably snaps.

…loneliness can quite literally make us sick? Human beings crave togetherness and interaction. Our spirits yearn for connection just as our bodies hunger for food.” (Rutger Bregman)

We can counteract and remove these “forces of disconnection” and create better climates and cultures that enable children to grow, to belong and to have more agency. Only then will children feel like the hero in their story through life. Heroes that need equity for their quest, to be privileged, to not be let off and to be held by high expectations worthy of hero-status. We do, however, need to meet them there and up the bandwidth of connection to reach out and say you belong here.

The pandemic is the greatest “disconnection event” of our time and it has entrenched and exposed a world that is already riddled with disconnection. A world where connection systematically weakens over time for increasing numbers and gaps become chasms between those that have and those that have not. The following explores just a few examples of disconnection.

Alternate realities | schools hidden within schools

Alternate reality: a self-contained separate world, coexisting within the real world.

Schools are navigated entirely differently by each child. We may like to generalise provision, but children are the only real experts of their experience. The reality for too many is that they attend a school within a school, disconnected and parallel to the best provision. These alternate realities hinge on a range of factors: levels of attainment, timetable, staffing, setting, banding, reputation, pathways, peers, groupings, pre-conceived ideas, expectations. Typically, high attaining children experience a privileged route, whilst lower attaining children endure a less privileged route; different reality, same school.

“The last thing a fish would ever notice would be water.” (Ralph Linton)

The decisions we make about how we organise provision, have consequences for learners, that create or deny connection, systematically over time. We have come to accept the alternate realities, where those presently disadvantaged are disproportionately represented in the less connected, lower performing, under ambitious, alternate reality. They do not often feel the privilege of the high attaining reality.

“What provokes our outrage depends on what surrounds us – on what we consider normal.” (Cass Sunstein)

Lost in Transition | mind the gap

Children navigate many transitions as they move through their education. Advantaged children leap confidently across these transitions, whilst disadvantaged gingerly and uncertainly step across; this is not for me. Whether it is the summer break (any break), moving schools, moving years, options or pathway choices, advantaged families step forward, stage manage, resource and guide readiness and decision making. At the same time disadvantaged learners get lost in transitions and lose connection, disconnected from seizing opportunities. In these transitions they are reminded that this is a world that happens to them, they step back, not forward and the gap widens, on repeat. We need to stage manage and connect children so they find (not lose) themselves in transition.

We assume too much | pedagogy and teacher that connects children to what is possible

Classrooms should build connection, not just between peers or with adults, but also with the joy of learning and the richness of subject. A connection that enables children to feel clever, to build knowledge and understanding that opens their eyes and inspires them to feel enfranchised and empowered; connecting and giving them access to the world.

Too often we make assumptions that erode connectivity and deny access, particularly for disadvantaged learners. Each time we assume knowledge, cultural capital, language, vocabulary, ability to attend to verbal and written instruction, resilience, persistence in seeking to understand… we limit accessibility and the ability to connect. Assuming too much over time, disenfranchises learners; there is a limit to how often a child will go back and try to connect.

“Making good use of school time is the single most egalitarian function that schools perform, because for disadvantaged children, school time is the only academic learning time, whereas advantaged students can learn a lot outside of school.” (Hirsch)

Enhancing connection in classrooms:

  • Invest deliberately in a Reading Strategy; perhaps the most important enabler for learning, connecting to the best that has been written. Literally connecting a child, forever, to learning and the world around them; fundamentally enhancing quality of life.
  • Invest in vocabulary, the keys to language, to comprehension, discussion, building fluency and falling in love with words.
  • Invest in oracy; supporting children to find their voice to articulate, apply and explore their understanding out loud, connect to others and have a voice that is heard.
  • Tell stories that bounce up and down through the curriculum, reducing assumptions, inspiring, connecting knowledge and understanding in rich retrieval spaces.
  • Weave schema nets: really understand the architecture and structure of subject. It is this spine, these key organising concepts that create the net or holding baskets for future learning. 
  • Keep the curriculum tight, spiralling and bouncing not far from the core spine of the subject. Too much unconnected breadth or arbitrary content disconnects disadvantaged learners; who are much more likely to blame themselves than the quality of teaching.

“The curriculum should whisper to our children, you belong. You did not come from nowhere. All this came before you, and one day you too might add to it.” (Ben Newmark)

Connection lost | attendance first

Looking for the disconnected? they aren’t in. Everyday too many children are physically disconnected from school. If we do not consider attendance first and reach out to reconnect we reinforce disconnection. In our endemic world the forces disconnecting children from their education are strong. There is a growing sense of wider disconnection that is shifting attitudes and weakening the contract held between families and schools. Children need to feel like they belong, that they can succeed, that it is worth attending and that we deeply care if they are in. Belonging is rarely achieved through compulsion or penalty.

Small moments of prestige | interactions can have serious repercussions for the future

“Anything you do could have serious repercussions on future events. Do you understand?” (Doc Brown, BTTF)

Tread carefully, you know not where your influence will lead. Each interaction or experience can trigger a child to connect or disconnect to a new self-image a new sense of whether this is for them; whether they step forward and persist or step back and dissociate. Each positive connection fills a child’s “confidence locker” stacking evidence that they can do.

“An ignition story … when a young person falls helplessly in love with their future passion … a tiny, world shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them (Dan Coyle)

Small moments of prestige, give status. We all need to feel clever, to achieve something, to be acknowledged, to be truly listened to, to be invested in, to see yourself in the learning, to build belonging and status over time. Every interaction, word, comment, response, expectation, experience builds or breaks a child’s sense of what is possible (often stickily into adulthood). It is too easy for individuals to grow disconnected and to feel the insecure sense of being an outsider.

“To feel a sense of belonging is to feel accepted, to feel seen, to feel included.. to not feel belonging is to experience the precarious and insecure sense of an outsider (Owen Eastwood)

Our language and expectations are an expression of our attitudes towards others. Deficit language erodes connection, we need to invest in specific language, in high standards and expectations; if we let you off we let you down. High expectations are an expression care, that connect and include individuals. To grow up advantaged is to be shaped by high expectations.

“My expectations about you define my attitude towards you.” (Rutger Bregman)

“some of us may need to start with bubbles of safety.. when we belong and where we are encouraged or at least allowed to make a contribution, the magic happens.” (Jon Alexander)

Dan Nicholls | March 2023