Last week, I had the great fortune to listen to a lecture by author, Dan Coyle. Both his lecture and his book, The Culture Code (which I highly recommend), emphasize a concept of belonging cues. These refer to small, consistent behaviors that leaders enact to show others that they belong. It communicates that “I value you, your contributions to the team, and that what we are doing is important;” these build psychological safety.

Additionally, I listened to a wonderful Intentional Living & Leadership podcast episode with guest, Ryan Hawk, over the weekend (Ryan is the host of The Learning Leader Show, one of my favorite podcasts). In the episode, the host, Cal, and Ryan discussed how leaders sustain excellence. Ryan’s answer boiled down to the need for leaders to be thoughtful and intentional in their leadership. I couldn’t agree more.

So, why do I share about these seemingly random and insignificant anecdotes? Well, in pairing the ideas from these two sources, I began thinking on some particular ways that leaders unintentionally violate those messages daily in ways that we don’t often think or talk about.

As Ryan argued, leaders must be thoughtful and deliberate, this spans across so many areas of our attitudes, behaviors, our time, priorities, and more. It certainly includes how we interact with and treat our people. But I think many leaders lose sight of being deliberate with many micro and mundane things that occur every single day – for this post, we will call these anti-belonging cues. When leaders fail to be thoughtful and deliberate in all of our behaviors, we unintentionally send anti-belonging cues that communicate senses of not valuing others and their contributions, not respecting the time we spend with others, nor honoring others’ time and how they use it.

I offer five subconscious, but clear anti-belonging cues that leaders send everyday without even thinking about it. These seemingly insignificant and careless behaviors send major messages to others and I think we need to consider these matters more routinely and intentionally in our daily lives. I’ve seen these five behaviors more times than I can count over the last 10-years; I’m sure many of you can relate. They certainly leave a bad taste in my mouth following an occurrence and, unfortunately, tend to overshadow the impact or significance of whatever is going on in the moment.

Five Anti-Belonging Cues That Leaders Must Become Aware of, Identify in Themselves, and Stop

I use the term “meetings” consistently through the following five points, but these can include formal group meetings, individual counseling sessions, mentorship meetings, “desk-side briefs” about a project someone is leading, and more.

  1. Not Showing Up to Meetings on Time = “I Don’t Respect Your Time.” I fully recognize how busy leaders are; we are often moving from one meeting to the next and we can easily become delayed. But think of it from a subordinate’s perspective – if I’m about to give a presentation to a senior member or my boss, I’ve put significant effort into preparing. By showing up late, the meeting hasn’t even started and I already know that this is not that important of a matter for the leader or others. I now feel small as I begin my presentation. I implore leaders to be on-time for scheduled events that require other peoples’ time as much as feasible. If you’re going to be late, do everything you can to enable the event or meeting to begin without you and/or send a message (text or phone call) to the person or people to notify them you are running late. Explain the reason, when you will be there, and remind them that you are looking forward to the meeting or session with them. These can show that you do value their time and the time you’re about to spend with them.
  2. Accessing Your Phone & Email During Meetings = “I Have More Important Things Going on Than You/This.” I learned this lesson the hard way last year. I would sit in the back of a meeting where I was not a key stakeholder, so I would use that time to process through emails and such. The Cadet who ran the meeting each week eventually made a small comment to me about it. Being on my phone showed her that I didn’t care about the meeting and that I did not respect what was going on during it. I was floored, because obviously that was not my intention. I learned a hard lesson that day – no matter who you are or what your role/position in a meeting, be present and engaged. Doing so may not be about you, but merely showing basic dignity and respect for those that are running it. Put the phone and computer away during meetings if not directly related; if you’re having a one-on-one session (counseling, etc.) in your office, get out from behind the computer screen, minimize or close your email app, and put the phone out of sight.
  3. Cancelling Meetings = “I Care More About This New Urgent Matter Than What We Were Going to Talk About.” Things happen and schedules have to change, I know. But to the best of your abilities, keep the appointments you make. If you have to change, include a proposed date/time to reschedule it for, try to explain the need to cancel or delay the meeting, and remind the person/people that you value your time with them and look forward to it. Always apologize for rescheduling, even if the circumstances are out of your hands; it’s disappointing to have a meeting that you prepared for is cancelled.
  4. Sending a Note Saying “Come See Me Now” = “What I Want is More Important Than What You’re Focusing on Right Now.” I loathe when bosses or superiors send messages along the lines of “come see me” or “I need you right now.” Especially with little or no context in the message, I feel like autonomy, trust, and respect for what I’m currently doing and how I’m spending my time is lost. If an urgent matter requires your immediate attention and the support from others, provide some context for their understanding of the situation, simply ask them what they are currently working on as a way to consider and respect what they are doing, and show appreciation for their support and willingness to engage in the new matter at hand.
  5. Not Asking (Good) Questions = “I Have Limited Interest in This Right Now.” Whether you’re receiving a presentation, engaging in a developmental counseling session, or enjoying some unstructured conversations with junior team members, failure to ask questions demonstrates a lack of interest in what we are currently talking about or, worse, a lack of interest in the other person. I like to say that I may not know anything about bass fishing or sports cars, but you know what I do know? I know how to ask questions about those topics and listen to others talk about them. Pour into the people and the moment by asking quality questions of the person or topic. Simply doing that shows you’re interested and engaged, it shows you care, it lets others feel seen and heard, and it allows the other person or people demonstrate some mastery on something they are passionate about or spent a lot of time preparing for.

I recognize that I may certainly be making mountains out of mole hills in sharing this idea, but I respond with a few important questions to consider:

  • Do I actually know the impact that these behaviors are having on others? Or is there organizational silence on this topic?
  • If I’m unaware of the messages my behaviors are sending in this area, what else am I unaware of regarding the impact of my behaviors?
  • Do these anti-belonging cues limit the impact of my leader effectiveness? Am I compromising trust by being careless in these behaviors?

Ultimately, thinking on such micro leader behaviors is the essence of being thoughtful and deliberate. Dan Coyle’s idea of belonging cues to build psychological safety and the countering anti-belonging cues are not a zero-sum game. Both can thrive simultaneously, but leaders must be aware of the consequences and lost opportunities created by careless anti-belonging cues. Every interaction with someone, from beginning to end, is a developmental opportunity. Let’s ensure unintended carelessness is not hindering those opportunities.

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