Your Playbook for Building a Culture of Connection & Belonging: The Power of Relational Intelligence

Since the events of 2020, with both the pandemic and social justice, connection and belonging have become critical topics in today’s workforce. Most people want to feel a sense of belonging to their organizations. When employees feel connected to their leaders and teams, they are more engaged in their work, confident in their capabilities, inspired to perform above expectations, and fulfilled in their roles. This leads to greater levels of productivity and higher job performance. It also drives organizational commitment and retention of talent. Despite the benefits of creating a sense of connection and belonging at work, many organizations fail to include it in their DEI programs and initiatives. To better understand why this is the case, it is important to highlight what diversity, equity, and inclusion focus on and how leaders can practice the skills and behaviors needed to create a sense of belonging at work.

Diversity focuses on the measurement of demographics in an organization as these differences impact acceptance and progress in the workforce. It means respect for and an appreciation of individual differences. The term represents a broad range of experiences including but not limited to, race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, religion and spirituality, upbringing, gender identity, neurodiversity, and life experiences. Having a diverse team provides access to a wider range of skill sets and different ways of thinking, behaving, and communicating. This leads to increased creativity and innovation, improved problem solving, higher employee engagement, reduced turnover, improved company brand and reputation in the market, and stronger hiring practices.

Equity focuses on making all employees, regardless of their backgrounds or experiences, feel that they are treated fairly and equally. It’s providing opportunities to level the playing field between different demographics through proactive action. Equity often involves issues related to fairness in pay, opportunities for advancement, and equality in daily work experiences. However, it is important to note that equality and equity are not the same thing. Equality refers to treating each of your employees the same. Equity refers to allocating resources based on need because everyone has different circumstances. Equity considers historical and sociopolitical factors that affect opportunities and experiences, and it designs policies and systems to meet the unique needs of others without giving unfair advantage.

In an inclusive organization, employees feel that they are seen, heard, and invited to contribute to the company’s success. It involves creating a climate and environment where all employees feel valued, respected, and supported. It is when employees are comfortable expressing their opinions and have a voice at the table. Inclusion should be reflected in an organization’s culture, practices, and relationships that are in place to support a diverse workforce. It’s about deploying the skills of all your people to achieve the mission, vision, and goals of the organization. Some of the ways to build an inclusive culture include strengthening your hiring practices, creating employee resource groups, and practicing inclusive leadership.

Although diverse representation, fairness, and making sure people are seen and heard is important in today’s business landscape, it does not automatically create a culture where every employee feels like they belong. Belonging is the desired outcome. It is when your people feel part of something bigger than themselves. Developing a culture of belonging allows people with different backgrounds, mindsets, and ways of thinking to feel connected, accepted, and empowered to perform at their highest potential. However, it is situational and constantly being negotiated through our experiences. For example, an employee may feel a sense of belonging to a company’s shared purpose or vision, but not to their team, their manager, or even other people across the organization. This sense of belonging must be built on the relationships leaders develop with their people.

Leaders that understand the power of relationships practice Relational Intelligence. This is the ability to successfully connect with people and build strong, long-lasting relationships. Relationally intelligent leaders know how to make their people feel understood. They create the conditions of psychological safety on their teams so that employees can bring their true selves to work. Relationally intelligent leaders know how to make their people feel connected. They take the initiative to build authentic, intentional, and positive relational interactions with their team members. Relationally intelligent leaders know how to provide consistent support. They invest the time, energy, and resources needed to develop and grow the talents, skills, and capabilities of their people.

So how can you develop your Relational Intelligence? What skills must you learn and put into practice to create a sense of connection and belonging in your organization? What ways do you need to strengthen communication and collaboration with your people? What behaviors must you model on a consistent basis to bring the best out of others? Research conducted by our team at Bandelli & Associates has found that there are three principles relationally intelligent leaders’ practice:

Modeling Authenticity: To build a culture of connection and belonging in your organization, leaders must learn how to model authenticity for their people. This starts with every leader figuring out what authenticity actually means to them. Broadly speaking, being authentic means finding ways to bring the best version of yourself to work. In practice, it can show up in many different ways. To one leader, it might mean talking about their family and the relationships they have with their children. To another leader, it might be about sharing their love for basketball and the teams they follow. To a third, it might mean hanging pictures in their office with friends they volunteer with in the community. The exciting thing is that you get to define what authenticity mean for you. To do this, you have to put in the work to figure out what’s most important in your life. In my book, Relational Intelligence: The Five Essential Skills You Need to Build Life-Changing Relationships I talk about the ‘Mirror Test’ – this is putting in the self-directed work to gain clarity on your values and beliefs, the things that you’re passionate about, and what your strengths and blind spots are as a leader.

Once a leader has clarity on how they want to bring their authentic self to work, it is important to model certain behaviors for others. Some of these behaviors include honesty, openness, transparency, confidence, and most importantly, vulnerability. Vulnerability can be a tricky subject for many leaders. Recently, a leader I was coaching asked me, “isn’t vulnerability just another word for weakness?” “No, it’s not actually,” I said. Vulnerability is about humility and admitting when you don’t have all the answers. It’s knowing when to ask for help and who you can turn to for guidance, mentoring, and support.” Practicing vulnerability is also about discussing failures and lessons you have learned over your career with team members. This takes you off the pedestal and humanizes you to others. It is one of the quickest ways to form a strong lasting bond with another individual. There are watch-outs though when it comes to vulnerability. How much information is too much information when sharing things with others? Can you stay true to yourself but still maintain a desire to learn and grow? Once you define your personal brand, do you know how to effectively manage it with different people and situations across the organization?

Creating the Conditions for Psychological Safety: Psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that it is ok to take risks and admit mistakes without fear of negative consequences. It is a felt permission for candor. It leads to better decision-making, as people feel more comfortable voicing their opinions and concerns, which often leads to a more diverse range of perspectives being heard and considered. It fosters a culture of continuous learning and improvement as team members feel comfortable sharing their mistakes and learning from them.

Relationally intelligent leaders create psychological safety by practicing certain behaviors with their people and teams. They take time to build rapport with their direct reports. Establishing rapport is the ability to use energy to create positive connections with others. It’s about finding common ground and being attuned to what’s going on in the room. It’s not trying to push your agenda and having the sensitivity to recognize how people are responding to you.

Relationally intelligent leaders are also intentional about putting in the time and effort needed to understand others. The practice active listening. They are curious and inquisitive. They know how to show compassionate empathy towards their people. Understanding others must be practiced consistently to gain strong followership from your employees. It is a necessary factor in forming a climate of psychological safety on your team.

Lastly, relationally intelligent leaders create the conditions for psychological safety on their teams by embracing individual differences. This is the ability to acknowledge and accept that everyone comes from different backgrounds and experiences. It’s about encouraging open communication between your people. It’s actively inviting input from team members. It’s making clear “why” your employees’ voices matter. It’s making sure people feel supported and showing appreciation for their work.

Being Intentional & Consistent in Developing People: One of the ways relationally intelligent leaders build cultures of connection and belonging is by looking for ways to intentionally invest in developing the talents, skills, and capabilities of their employees. This is where intentional generosity comes into play. Intentional generosity is about making investments that have meaning to your people. For example, this could be as simple as thanking one of your direct reports for putting in extra hours on a project. It could be going out of your way to help a team member with a sale or business development opportunity. It could be remembering to give recognition to an employee in front of others during a team meeting.

Relationally intelligent leaders also know how to cultivate influence with their people.  Cultivating influence is the ability to have a positive impact on the growth of your team members. In practice, this involves becoming an effective coach by assisting with goal setting, letting employees arrive at solutions without directing their efforts, recognizing strengths and reinforcing positive behaviors, and providing structure and a healthy learning environment for problem solving. It is also about providing consistent developmental feedback. Constructive feedback should be with the intent to help an employee grow. Great feedback motivates people. It is not about showing folks where they’ve made mistakes. To do this effectively, take time to prepare for a feedback conversation, reflect on what you hope to achieve, and be open and receptive to what your employee has to say during the feedback discussion.

Using Relational Intelligence to bring belonging to the forefront of your culture can transform your organization. When employees feel like they belong, they’re much more likely to share ideas and work together towards a common goal, feel like they have allies committed to their inclusion, and can contribute in ways that spark creativity to collectively solve problems in an effective manner. Workplace belonging can help teams feel more inspired, understood, and trusted. It not only makes employees feel that their contributions matter to the success of your business, but it shows them how much value they add to your organization.

Adam C. Bandelli, Ph.D., is the Visionary Founder & Managing Director of Bandelli & Associates, a boutique consulting firm focusing on leadership advisory services and organizational development. He is the author of the book Relational Intelligence: The Five Essential Skills You Need to Build Life-Changing Relationships. It is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, and everywhere books are sold. Follow Dr. Bandelli on Instagram at @adambandelli to learn more. You can also visit the firm’s website at for information on other leadership topics and to learn about their consulting services.