Karen Natzel//September 19, 2022
Karen Natzel//September 19, 2022//
I recently returned from a 2,500-mile road trip. The two original objectives: attend the Red Ants Pants Music Festival in Montana and return to the Wind River Range in Wyoming for some climbing adventures.
But as road trips tend to go, the gems were more than the expected experiences, and even the expected events brought unanticipated insights.
When traveling, I always imagine what it would be like to live in the communities I’m passing through. Is the small-town charm genuine? Does the warm welcome extend beyond the gratitude for the economic boost of tourism? Would I fit in? Would I find my kindred spirits?
In Montana I met several impressive women entrepreneurs carving out purposeful lives and livelihoods for themselves and their employees. Their visions, resourcefulness, ambition and resiliency were inspiring. In Wyoming, I met creative souls generating art and music that lit up galleries and dance floors. In Idaho, I connected with a dear friend, who extended his generous, warm hospitality to this road-weary traveler.
And in between, I took side roads and scenic byways, soaked in hot springs, and showered at a truck stop. I visited locally owned cafes, observing the comings and goings of the regulars. I met locals in Butte, White Sulphur Springs, Bighorn National Forest, Ten Sleep, Pinedale and Lander. I heard stories of hardships and perseverance; I listened to dreams and observed the courage to pursue them. After two weeks, I returned to my hometown, basking in the embrace of friends and neighbors welcoming me home and listening to my tales (including an epic night on Steeple Peak).
It made me curious: what gives a place its sense of community? How can we create it where we are?
Changing our environment can change our perspective, illuminating what appeals to us — and nudging us to say yes to what matters most. Yet, the proverbial grass is not always greener. So, before I pack up and move to small-town America, what is it that I seek?
I was attracted to the perceived simplicity, the presence of mind (not distracted by digital notifications), and the random connections among folks I would not normally have encountered. I was encouraged by our ability to appreciate what we had in common, over the usual focus of where we might differ. I found traveling to provide a medium to live my values of freedom, exploration, independence, and connection.
Brene Brown explains the necessity of belonging this way: “We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.”
In the business world, what makes for a healthy work community? Creating a sense of belonging goes far beyond any employee engagement strategy. It is a way of showing up together, deeply caring about each other, truly seeing each other as we are, making space for each other and valuing what we each have to offer.
Ultimately, a work community generates a feeling of belonging. We feel accepted as a member, just as we are, for our strengths, contributions, and even our idiosyncrasies. Authenticity is required for real community to thrive.
Knowing you are seen and that your work is valued is a powerful motivator. The energy for the organization’s mission and goals becomes infused in the team dynamics in a way that exemplifies collaboration and commitment. When there is a true sense of belonging, people feel more confident in taking risks, thinking creatively, sharing the glory and supporting each other when things don’t go as planned.
In contrast, when we feel excluded, we experience pain, conflict, loneliness, distance and disconnect. It undermines our sense of personal agency, diminishing our capacity to contribute meaningfully. Disengagement commences, drama unfolds, and the community becomes divisive.
Be accepting. Acceptance doesn’t mean agreement; rather it invites a sense of curiosity and learning about diverse perspectives and experiences. Welcome alternative views, beliefs, problem-solving approaches, and work and communication styles.
Be empathetic. You do not have to solve other people’s problems, but if you empathize with them, you may find increased connection and fewer barriers.
Explicitly invite people to contribute to the organization’s mission and goals. Help them see exactly how they can contribute in a significant way.
Find common ground. Where do you align? What are the values that drive decision-making and behaviors? These become your shared code of conduct and provide healthy boundaries.
Ask for others’ opinions and listen to their answers.
Acknowledge contributions, strengths, and ideas.
Know what motivates people to be part of the team. Know what matters to them — personally and professionally.
Celebrate shared wins.
Offer support in times of difficulty.
Be forthright. In my small-town conversations, I cherished how refreshingly candid (and respectful), people were. It created an atmosphere for real engagement immediately.
Creating a sense of community where you are requires intentional work. You must put forth a genuine, committed effort to make it what you want. You will find a shared purpose and honest dialogue to be incredible conduits for building trust and fostering community.
While writing this column, my cherished neighbor/friend delivered some homemade, freshly squeezed blueberry juice. Yeah, I belong here.
Karen Natzel is a business therapist who helps leaders create healthy, vibrant and high-performing organizations. Contact her at [email protected].