Remote work and the digital economy have shifted how people work across every sector. Organizations that prioritize belonging and a culture of learning will flourish, because these priorities can make employees feel safe, empowered and motivated to take risks and generate new ideas. Belonging also plays a key role in developing a culture of learning.

McKinsey & Company recently reported that “Employees who feel more connected are 150% more likely than their peers to report being engaged at work.” That connection comes in the form of belonging. While belonging can result from inclusion efforts, it is determined as much, if not more so, through an employee’s own thoughts and attitudes about their belonging.

Defining Belonging Through the Creating Belonging Model

Employers can nurture and promote a sense of belonging in many ways. The Creating Belonging™ model positions belonging at the intersection of authenticity and acceptance. Individuals start with self-reflection and self-acceptance, leaning into authenticity. They then advance to a radical acceptance of others, even when they don’t understand or approve of them. It requires individuals to recognize and accept that not everyone follows the same set of values.

In this model, when both authenticity and acceptance are low, learners can find themselves in a place of reclusiveness. They don’t show up with much of themselves and don’t take much time to get to know or interact with others.

When authenticity is high and acceptance is low, the individual is in a place of overbearing. They assume everyone sees the world in the same way they do. They lack empathy for others’ lived experiences.

On the other hand, when authenticity is low and acceptance is high, the individual is in a place of minimization. They mute or mask their identity, to their own disservice, to make others feel comfortable.

Finally, when both authenticity and acceptance are high, individuals find themselves in a place of belonging. It’s when they are comfortable to show up as their authentic selves — not what they feel others expect, but who they truly are. They feel accepted and simultaneously accept others.

The Relationship Between Belonging and Learning

In their 2019 research, “Belonging at Work: The Experiences, Representations and Meanings of Belonging,“ Cathrine Filstad, Laura Elizabeth Mercer Traavik and Mara Gorli explore the relationship between belonging and a culture of learning. They explain that belonging at work is linked to the possibility of sharing practices in a community — creating meanings, participating in common goals, and learning through participation — which are also important to a culture of learning.

They argue that learners struggle to engage when they don’t conform, or don’t want to conform, to a group’s identity. In summary, a culture of learning is influenced by the practices and places in which belonging materializes and community forms. Belonging is seen as a dynamic and situated experience influenced by social interactions, materiality, emotions and aesthetics. ​

According to Dr. Britt Andreatta, humans are wired for three things: to survive, to belong and to become. These occur chronologically, as without survival individuals can’t move into belonging, and so forth. Since learning is part of becoming — becoming our best selves — individuals must first feel they belong.

To feel a sense of belonging, individuals need psychological safety. Amy Edmondson popularized the concept of psychological safety as a “belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

What is learning, if not exploring innovative ideas, asking questions, relaying concerns and making a lot of mistakes? Psychological safety and belonging reinforce each other, and an absence of either can negatively impact the other.

How to Create Belonging, and Why It’s the Key to a Culture of Learning


The spaces team members occupy are often overlooked. The décor, the layout and what symbols exist (or don’t exist) can all impact feelings of belonging. The environment should aim to be inclusive of all rather than catering to any one population.

For example, at one end of the spectrum might be an all-pink space with fluffy pillows and motivational quotes in curly script on the walls. At the other end might be a workplace decked out in a sports theme, with games throughout and the March Madness bracket all over the break room.

When the environment caters to just one group, the rest may feel unwelcome. To create belonging, aim for an inclusive space with broad appeal. Balance out the football game by having a reality show on a second TV.


  • How inclusive are your spaces?
  • How safe do your employees feel?
  • How can you make your spaces more inclusive?

With many individuals working remotely, virtual spaces also influence belonging. The workplace has crept into their personal space and vice versa, so it may be important to consider how people show up for video meetings.

Virtual backgrounds can mask undesired backgrounds, but they can also suppress individuality. Although using authentic backgrounds offers employees an opportunity to demonstrate their personality, the unfortunate side effect might be visuals that create a hostile or unwelcoming environment.


  • What policies or practices do you have for environments in video interactions?
  • How can you encourage authenticity for others in their remote environment?
  • How can you discourage exclusionary or hostile elements in remote environments?


Individuals find belonging when they see themselves represented in the workplace. Do other team members or leaders look like them, have similar interests or come from similar backgrounds? It’s impossible to represent all facets of diversity within an organization, especially a smaller one, but an intentional effort should be made during recruiting, hiring and promoting.


  • Can employees see themselves in the organization?
  • In leadership?
  • How can you elevate underrepresented populations?

Similarly, how well does your training collateral create representation? While content and imagery shouldn’t be inauthentic to the organization, consideration should be given to using a diverse array of characters, even if it is aspirational.

For example, when developing an eLearning course, create a persona map illustrating a diverse mix of characters to include. Not just their ethnicity and gender but who they are and the experiences they’ve had. While this may not be directly called out in the script, it will inspire instructional designers to include the diverse aspects of the characters as they build the training storyline.


  • When an employee completes a learning experience developed by your team, can they see themselves in it?
  • What other abilities or facets of identity might you consider adding to your training experiences?

Shared Experiences

When it comes to building a culture of learning, it’s best to be intentional and create the desired experiences. When learning happens in isolation, it is less likely to align with the organization’s mission and values. This is why creating shared experiences is critical to integrating belonging into a culture of learning. Shared experiences also lead to shared meaning, which eases communication and can accelerate forward movement.


  • What do shared experiences look like in your organization?
  • What can you do to create more shared experiences?
  • Are your shared experiences inclusive?

Steps Learning Leaders Can Take

Training leaders have a responsibility to understand the mission, vision and goals of the organization to ensure alignment of training solutions. Additionally, training leaders must identify and push back on threats to psychological safety, belonging and ultimately the culture of learning. An organization’s ability to grow and adapt is directly impacted by its culture of learning.

“The single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organization’s learning culture,” Josh Bersin stated.


  • How aligned are your training solutions to the mission, vision and goals of the organization?
  • What are current threats to belonging and the culture of learning?
  • How can you tackle those threats head-on?


Our workplaces will continue to shift and do so at a rapid pace. The organizations that will survive and thrive are those that embrace a positive learning culture and create belonging for all who walk through their doors, whether physical or virtual. It’s within the power of leaders and training teams to ensure this happens effectively. While the steps in this article are not exhaustive, they are great first steps for many.