2021 International LEGO Serious Play Conference (3)

The second speech of the day was held by Prof. George S. Yip, who talked about digitalization, but I’m going to need a little more time to ruminate on my notes, so that’s why you don’t have a number 2 just yet and I’m skipping to number 3. What I’d like to bring you till […]

The second speech of the day was held by Prof. George S. Yip, who talked about digitalization, but I’m going to need a little more time to ruminate on my notes, so that’s why you don’t have a number 2 just yet and I’m skipping to number 3. What I’d like to bring you till it’s hot is the next speech.

After prof. George Yip, our third speaker tackling the topic of belonging is Professor Lee Waller, Professor of Occupational Psychology at Hult Ashridge Executive Education, specialising in interpersonal relationships, belonging, inclusion and psychological safety in the workplace.

The brief of her speech in the conference papers was enthralling enough.

«The ‘new normal’ hybrid environment presents significant challenges to our ability to feel included and establish a sense of belonging at work.

«And this matters to us as individuals and as leaders because the need to belong, to feel that we are accepted, welcomed, and a valuable part of our communities, is a fundamental need. It is in fact so critical to us as human beings that the pain of interpersonal loss triggers the same neurological sensation as does physical pain. Lacking a sense of belonging is as such, enormously damaging to our mental health, to our self-esteem, to our very sense of who we are, as well as to our motivation and performance at work.

In the work environment our sense of belonging stems from three key factors: meaningful interpersonal relationships through which we feel supported and understood; a sense of adding value, that we are contributing to our teams and organisations; and a sense of commonality and shared characteristics.

All of these factors are undermined by operating in a virtual and hybrid environment, and it is as such critical, now more than ever, that as individuals and particularly as team and organisational leaders, we do what we can to maintain our and our team’s sense of belonging.»


Fostering belonging in a hybrid environment is the title of her speech and is carried on with grace and an incredible kindness, the type you rarely see in an on-line speaker. She clearly is my new role model. Prof. Lee spent several years studying belonging and it has always been crucial for her, but it has become increasingly important in these times for two main reasons:

  1. The push towards inclusion and belonging following movements like the Black Lives Matter;
  2. Who and where we are because of the impact of Covid—19 in the workplace.

Particularly, there has been a significant threat to belonging when we started working virtually and a bigger threat nowadays when we’re moving towards a hybrid environment that might increase differences.

  1. So, we start by setting the stage: what does it mean to belong? Through menti.com we build a shared definition made up of warm keywords, the predominant one being connection, with a strong presence of identity and safety. As human beings, as social species, we have a fundamental need to belong. The workplace nowadays is crucial in creating that sense of belonging.

It’s a component of all theories of motivation and theories of need based on psychology, like Maslow’s hierarchy.

It’s also at the heart of the belonging hypothesis, proposed by Baumeister and Leary in 1995, in which belonging is a powerful driver of the way we think, feel and behave.

Belonging is also a powerful adaptive survival mechanism: humans aren’t wired to survive individually.

It is so important for our species that an accomplished sense of belonging releases dopamine. Conversely, the pain that we feel when we feel excluded comes from the same area of the brain where physical pain comes from.



  • What is our experience of belonging?


Again with menti.com we find out that a striking majority of people have felt a sense of belonging, at least once, in the workplace. I certainly was one amongst them. And how did it feel? We get again a word cloud with a strong presence of words like empowered, engaged, seen and loved, purposeful, connected, protected, united and appreciated.


By now we start to understand that what the speaker is doing is also a belonging exercise, in which our sharing of answers and the recognition of similar patterns into others is creating that sense of belonging. Brilliant.


And we also explore how the achieved sense of belonging can impact our behaviour: when we belong, we feel valued and energized, empowered, self-aware, more competent even.

On the other hand, we can all explore a situation in which we have felt like we don’t belong, and that has happened to everyone. For the next word cloud on how did that feel, we get a word cloud with a strong presence of lonely, sad and frustrated. The impact of the psychological wellbeing of not belonging on the workplace is strongly coming out. And the average behaviour, of course, is determined by a striking mediocrity: people who feel dismissed do not work more than they need to.

And, as we know and I like to remind as much as I can, «mediocrity is not sustainable» (J. Zallan).

The impact coming out from a research on not having a sense of belonging was that it undermines the sense of self-concept in terms of self efficacy and self esteem, and ultimately breaks the coherent sense of self: your knowledge of who you are and your having a clear identity is broken because the sense of vulnerability is in absolute opposition of how you normally feel, but the dissociation also comes out in terms of behaviour, as that might not align with who we are. An extrovert becomes an introvert. A loving caring person might become aggressive. All this can lead to depression and a sense of failure. The emotional experience of not belonging is very intense.


The resolution strategies are multiple:

  • some people might try and seek value, particularly people who have a sense of control and they can change the situation;
  • People who don’t have a sense of control might look for ways to fit-in or they retire and shrink as a mean of self-protection;
  • Some people might justify the situation blaming it unto themselves;
  • The last means people use to deal with not belonging is reconciliation: people will give up trying to fit-in or resolve the situation.

It ultimately undermines well-being, motivation, contribution, engagement, and eventually leads to a problem in retention: people leave.


What contributes to belonging at work? Some of these aspects might be undermined by the hybrid environment.

  1. Quality relationships, meaning genuine, trusting, empathetic relationships in which you feel you are able to bring value, but also to be open and talk about issues;
  2. The sense of purpose, of doing something important and valuable, the feeling of making a contribution and that we’re competent, resulting in safe esteem;
  3. Having shared characteristics are rooted in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexual and cognitive diversity, in terms of social, educational, professional background, and personality. This of course is a crucial aspect when studying the sense of belonging in connection to foster diversity and equal opportunities.
  4. The organizational culture in terms of value, psychological safety and the way hierarchy and power are creating interactions.


So. How are all these things undermined by the rise of a hybrid environment?

When it comes to relationships and connections:

  1. Opportunity to connect to people and culture is lost;
  2. We end up with “us” and “them” situations, especially when there are people who are unable to work from home as working from home can become a status symbol and create a parallel hierarchy. It can also diminish the sense of trust, as working from home is about the control on productivity.
  3. It can diminish the sense of community;
  4. It leads to mis-communication, in the full virtual world and particularly in the hybrid world, when people in the physical world can rely on body language while other people might not have that luxury;
  5. It can diminish trust.

When it comes to the ability of adding value and contribute:

  1. The lack of socialization leads to a lack of knowledge transmission, especially for someone who’s new in the role;
  2. There’s a decrease in visibility when it comes to contribution;
  3. There’s less spontaneous opportunities to contribute: when people are not invited into the conversation, the decision-making process becomes stiff and less inclusive;
  4. Along the same line, there’s an absence of development opportunities: the actual model for people shifting to a hybrid environment with the pandemic was based on trying to survive, but this cannot be our final model;
  5. There’s a rooted leader bias when it comes to working from home: some people might see it as a positive and others as a negative, but we need to ask ourselves how our own bias, as leaders, is impacting trust, opportunities and dynamics.


So what can we do in order to foster belonging?

  1. Awareness. As leaders and facilitators, as team members, we need to be aware of contributors and behaviours that are fostering or hindering inclusion and the sense of belonging. We need to be able to spot demotivation, disengagement, in order to act.
  2. Support the possibility to connect and foster the sense of community. There needs to be opportunities that are created and encouraged to recreate spontaneous catch-ups, which might help people identify their commonalities without resorting to traditional tools of finding common traits, like gender or race. The main goal is to create and maintain that sense of common purpose.
  3. Focus on growth and development. It’s important for people to have a clear expectation and goal settings, as a clear goal allows them to meet expectations and they will in turn feel more competent. Autonomy, on top of being the basics for working from home, is also deeply rooted into recognizing one’s strenghts, whether they are actual or in development.


Inclusive leadership however is also crucial and revolves around two main aspects:

  1. The mindset, in which we need to be aware of our biases and signals we’re giving out with our behaviour, so that we can be open and curious towards different and diverse ideas. Leaders need to be humble and vulnerable, enough to admit our mistakes and not having the answer, so that they demonstrate with a strong signal that it’s ok to open up with colleagues without feeling undermined. Leaders need to be culturally aware and to possess what we call culture intelligence, that our cultural lens are lens and might be extremely biased, impacting how we see things and what we see (and miss).
  2. The behaviour. Leaders need to give people autonomy and trust them to get the work done: when people feel trusted, they engage and are motivated to do a better job, but of course there needs to be tolerance towards failure, as most people are stepping into this hybrid world. There needs to be an active effort into inviting contributors and creating inclusive conversations, with a particular focus on the non-included and non extrovert that might not be prompted to contribute without an open and specific invitation.


«You lead by painting a picture that is intentionally incomplete; you make a few strokes and you leave lots of blank space so that others can make a contribution». — Otto Scharmer

The last key aspect is psychological safety. «It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves». — Edmondson

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