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Leaders – Don’t Underestimate Your Role in Creating a Sense of Belonging

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By April Townsend
October 27, 2023

I had recently been promoted and was asked to attend an executive leadership meeting for my boss who was out of town. As I walked in, I looked around the massive table and saw only men sitting around it, engaged in pre-meeting banter and conversation. I knew and worked with all of them, and I realized that if my boss was there, he would certainly be one of them. But I wasn’t sure where I belonged. To play it safe, I took a seat off to the side.

One of the men at the table was our organization’s HR director. He noticed me as I took my seat and shook his head. “April, you belong up here,” he said, and motioned for me to join him and the others at the table. I noticed the man chairing the meeting was watching the exchange out of the corner of his eye, but he didn’t object when I took a seat or as I participated in the meeting. I took this as acceptance.

Looking back, my taking a seat at the table shouldn’t have been in question. But as a young woman trying to figure out her place in a group of older men, it was a bit intimidating. Over time, as I advanced through the ranks to eventually be the person chairing that same meeting, I never forgot how it felt to be noticed and included. As I took on more leadership roles, that simple phrase, “You belong here,” was something that stayed with me and helped me realize the critical role that those in positions of power play in making sure that everyone feels they belong.

Leading the Way

As a new leader in the public sector, I began to appreciate how small comments like the one the HR director had shared with me could either build someone up or make them feel small and unwelcome. In an effort to improve, I started paying more attention to when my comments may have made someone on my team feel less than or that I was shutting them down. When I offered encouragement or praise, was it always to the same few? Did I use nonverbal behaviors such as shaking my head, rolling my eyes or sighing heavily to show my disapproval? Did I frequently dismiss, ignore or talk over others? Was I paying more attention to my phone than the person sitting across from me who was talking to me?

If you catch yourself in any of those behaviors, you may want to stop and acknowledge that you may be sending messages that could shut down the contributions of your team, particularly if they are from an under-represented or marginalized group. As a leader, it may be easy to discount someone’s opinion or idea when it differs from your experience. But by doing so, you may be inadvertently preserving the status quo, instead of using the conversation as an opportunity to learn from someone who has had different experiences.

The Big Impact of Micro-Messages

What happens when you hear someone making demeaning comments that dismiss or shut down someone on your team, particularly if that person is a woman or a person of color? Many times, they are the “only” in the room, and these micro-messages can contribute to feelings of being an outsider or imposter. While it may be uncomfortable to say something, think about a time when you experienced being unjustly questioned about your credentials or when someone made a demeaning comment to you, and no one came to your defense. How did it feel?

Being the target of repeated micro-messages intended to convey that you don’t belong can cause someone to not only shut down in the moment, but over time they may withdraw their contributions, eventually moving on to an organization where they feel more respected and appreciated.

Situational Awareness

Making a difference starts by paying attention to what’s happening around you. As a leader, developing your situational awareness can help you notice workplace dynamics that may be negatively impacting members of your team. To increase your situational awareness, use the next meeting you’re in to consider these questions (recommended by W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith):  

  • Who appears comfortable and who seems uncomfortable?
  • When someone tells a joke, who is not laughing or is avoiding making eye contact?
  • What’s happening in the room? How are colleagues from under-represented groups reacting? Are they actively engaged or withdrawn?
  • Are there comments being made that could be considered condescending or inappropriate? If so, who is the target?


As a leader, actively listen for comments that imply someone doesn’t belong or is inferior. If you witness this happening, step up in the moment and show your support. Interrupt those behaviors and become the leader who reaches out and makes sure each person on your team feels accepted. Be the one to say, “You belong here.”

Author: Dr. April Townsend has published numerous reports and articles focused on leadership, particularly the challenges faced by women leaders. She worked in the public sector for over 30 years, holding a variety of executive leadership positions. She is a credentialed International Coaching Federation coach and founded Townsend Consulting, LLC where she provides executive leadership coaching. Her email is: April@ Townsend.Consulting.  Twitter handle: @AprilT2014

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