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How to Build Belonging Through Allyship

Belonging is a core human need that you can only fulfill in mutuality.

Key points

  • Belonging, an innate human need, supports longer life, greater well-being, higher creativity, and better performance.
  • Modern society and workplaces are not always structured for inclusivity.
  • Organizations are responsible for creating inclusive structures, but we are individually responsible for our actions and allyship.

Humans need to belong. Deeply, authentically, as we are. The performative, conditional illusion of inclusion will not do–our brains know the difference, and our bodies respond to the lack of belonging as they do to a physical threat.

The benefits of belonging, of being accepted for ourselves–without having to pretend and use the energy to mask who we are–are priceless. They include longer life, better well-being, higher creativity, and better performance.

Sadly, modern society and modern workplaces are not structured for belonging. Drastic hierarchies of power make us feel insignificant. Excessive competition keeps us on constant alert. Unhealthy power dynamics and power struggles hurt team outcomes. Performative virtue-signaling is hiding exclusion. And stereotypes hurt our ability to understand each other.

Group labels interfere with our ability to see each other as we really are. And that interferes with caring.

For everyone's well-being, we must try to undo the damage of labels and divisions. We need to see–(sawubona) each other in a way that produces collective and individual well-being. If we classify a coworker as "too" old, young, loud, quiet, overeducated, undereducated, or from "that" department, looking beyond the label can make a world of difference.

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves to seek to understand–rather than to be understood. Is there a coworker who is not particularly friendly to you? I've had a few; most of us have.

I vividly recall one conversation with someone who did not seem fond of me based on their actions. I did not try to convince them to like me. I wanted to "see"–to truly understand–what moves and drives them. It greatly changed the dynamic for the better. Other-focused conversation can lead to much insight– and a much better relationship.

Belonging is a social experience in which we need to both give and receive. It is a gift exchange that only works in mutuality.

Organizations are responsible for creating inclusive structures, but we can't abdicate the power over our minds to "authorities," "structures," "media," and whoever else might be trying to influence us. We are responsible for doing better.

  • We need to develop a habit of checking how we "see" the world and other people. Are we biased? Are we open to learning and change?
  • We need to learn how to catch ourselves when we stereotype or use biased language.
  • We must remember that we can be allies to others even if we need allies. We can't belong if we withhold the gift of belonging.

Sadly, many people and groups feel a lack of belonging. The problem is not "on" members of these groups. Our collective resilience and recovery from stress and anxiety occur when we help all people belong–with compassion and kindness. To create a talent-rich world, all of our brains should work our best–on belonging. And that happens when we all become allies to each other.

An earlier version of this post was also published in the Best Work for Your Brain newsletter.

More from Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D.
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