Working in groups is a deeply social and psychological practice, and its success depends heavily on the pro-social signals we send each other. This concept is covered in depth in Daniel Coyle’s book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, where he defines three key components that add to the success of a group: Build Safety, Share Vulnerability and Establish Purpose. In this piece we will focus on the first pillar — building psychological safety, which is mostly built through sending cues of belonging. In order for a group to be productive and work together, every group member must feel connected and safe. Recent research has examined the consequences of team prosocial motivation, showing that when teams are motivated to help others, they achieved higher performance and engage in more collective citizenship behaviour as a result of higher cooperation (Hu & Liden, 2015).
Adding to this, our brains are hardwired to detect and deal with threats. Today, many of these threats aren’t physical, but rather emotional or societal. When people’s sense of social connectedness is threatened, their ability to self-regulate suffers; for instance their IQ performance drops (Baumeister, Twenge, & Nuss, 2002), and feeling lonely predicts early death as much as major health risk behaviors like smoking (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008). If you are a manager or an employee, the book suggests various practical ways to send belonging cues such as: eye contact; active listening; body language and mimicry; and a cue I discovered through moving through the research papers — sharing common interests and goals with others in order to enhance feelings of personal worth.
Even though these cues seem obvious, they are often forgotten and can really aid in sending signals of belonging to others when deliberately engaged with. I decided to dig deeper into each of the four suggestions.
Belonging Cue One: Make Meaningful Eye Contact
Too often in presentations I see people not looking at the person sharing information, or in private conversations, a co-worker looks over the shoulder — breaking the connection. But making eye contact with a co-worker is one of the simplest ways to signal belonging to them, because it is one of the most powerful forms of nonverbal communication. We use eye contact every day to demonstrate interest while we listen and speak, it effectively signals attention. Even as babies we prefer it — where recordings of the brain activity of four-month-olds show that they process gazing faces more deeply than faces that are looking away (Jarrett, 2016), and as adults we remember faces more that we have proper eye contact with. Don’t overdo it, but make sure when you are in a conversation or in a presentation of another co-worker, that you make the effort to pay attention and make eye contact with that person to let them know you’re interested, and that they belong. And a bonus, it’s not only useful for your co-worker or group member, but when you make eye contact, others assume that you have a more sophisticated ability to act in the world — as it demonstrates self-control, acting morally and social expertise.
Belonging Cue Two: Active Listening
According to Hunsaker and Alessandra, when people are listening, they can be placed in one of four general categories, i.e., non-listener, marginal listener, evaluative listener, and active listener. Active listening is the highest and most effective level of listening, and it is a special communication skill (Jahromi, Tabatabaee, Abdar, and Rajabi, 2016). Active listening demonstrates empathic understanding, unconditional positive regard, and matching behavior (Rogers, 1959), which is known to give birth to positive interpersonal relationships and trust. You can be an active listener by giving full attention to what a person is saying; showing interest; mirroring behaviour; not interrupting the person; and summarising what the person has said to send the signal that you have listened. We often listen to reply, so a good way to foster good listening behaviour is to pause after the person has finished their sentence to allow them to continue their thought. This is called intentional silence, (Kemerer, 2016).
Belonging Cue Three: Body Language and Mimicry
It is well understood that non-verbal behavior and “emotional body language” have crucial roles in communication and guiding social interactions (Proverbio, Calbi, Manfredi and Zani, 2014). One of the most powerful forms of body language is mimicry. Mimicry is simply mirroring the behaviour of the other. The imitation usually happens quite naturally, and plays a role in empathy, affiliation, and rapport (Chartrand and van Baaren, 2009), and in three studies, the researchers consistently found that mimicry increases prosocial behavior where participants who had been mimicked were more helpful and generous toward other people than were nonmimicked participants. From mirroring facial gestures ie. smile-to-smile or frown-to-frown; to bodily gestures finger-lifting to finger-lifting (Carr and Winkielman), simple and subtly deliberate mimicry in a conversation can greatly enhance the quality of that communication. Even synchronising movements and activities, such as singing or dancing, have shown to enhance social bonding. I think we know the next company outing..
Belonging Cue Four: Sharing Common Interests and Goals.
Though sharing interests can be quite an obvious social connector, it is not often done deliberately for the purposes of establishing belonging. Four experiments by researchers at Stanford and Waterloo University show the minimal social connection required for group belonging to occur. This kind of minimal social connection revolved around discovering and sharing common details about each other, and because group relationships are important sources of self-worth (Leary, 2004; Sherman & Cohen, 2006; Tajfel & Turner, 1986), sharing common interests and goals with others may even enhance feelings of personal worth. Sharing interests and goals can be as small as a shared birthday, having lived in the same places, or having attended the same institutions, these are termed common life points. Sharing more common life points deepens connection. Sharing tastes in music, movies and activities are also examples of possible commonality, but it is important to try and find meaningful connections between each other beyond, say, the weather — even if we all like the sun out.
All in all, signalling belonging in a group is a compassionate act that can uplift the experience of those around you as well as yourself.
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