How coaching can address belonging at work

Coach Salma Shah on how coaches and managers can help employees feel a greater sense of belonging and combat workplace loneliness.

Inclusion, diversity and equality concept. Letters on wooden cubes over pink background.


Now more than ever, understanding how to coach through a wider systemic lens of inclusion, belonging and diversity is going to be one of the critical tools for supporting and making a positive impact – a crucial asset in the multi-layered complexities that coaches, organisations, leaders and teams are going to face in their new expanded role. This Mental Health Awareness Week had a theme of Loneliness – and common feedback we receive from coachees from under represented groups is how they can feel lonely – lack a sense of belonging – in the workplace…even though they try hard to cover it up.

Why individuals might feel they don’t belong

Our sense of belonging is shaped by many interwoven layers of our lived experience, ranging from our family of origin, our ancestral map and our personal psychological biography. It can include class, the town or city where we live, caste, religion, politics – the list is endless. Our need to belong is vital to our sense of wellbeing and identity. It is deeply rooted in our DNA and is observed biologically and neurologically. When this need isn’t met, the impact on our psyche can be devastating.

So how does this lack of belonging manifest? Our brains are impacted by the visual cues surrounding us. Whether it’s in our family of origin, the community where you live, ‘looking different’ from the people around us can impact our sense of not wholly belonging. Our psyche and ego are partly influenced and reinforced when we see those around us with similar traits, so it can feel very disconcerting when you’re the only person who doesn’t look the same as everyone else at school or in the workplace.

A powerful depiction of this is the storyline of Randall Pearson in series five of the US show, This is us. Randall, a black man who has been lovingly raised in a white family, had throughout his childhood kept his sense of not belonging and inner conflict hidden from his family. In series five he joins a transracial adoption group to unpack his feelings of loss, disconnection and sadness. In this very poignant example of looking very visibly different from the rest of his family it is clear the character is on a journey to heal his wounds and untie the knots inside.

Remember that we are all fragile and we all have bias; it’s how we use this awareness that will make a difference, but if we never start the conversations there will not be the opportunity to bring about change.

As managers and colleagues how do we help?

Reaching out is a good first step, but we can be held back by our own fear of unintentionally saying the wrong thing. And this is where coaching through a lens of inclusion comes in – if we can take the time to understand our own lived experience and how this has influenced our own biases and fears – we can in turn become more conscious of not bringing these into play. Especially if we want to create trust on both sides and the psychological safety for our clients to feel comfortable to bring their whole self into the coaching space. Together breaking down the barriers and starting to build confidence and a sense of belonging.

The fear of saying the wrong thing

In writing my book I decided to run a poll through the social media platform of LinkedIn. The poll question was as follows:

‘While there are many conversations happening about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, I know that some people feel uncomfortable talking about it freely. What do you feel holds people back from talking about inclusion, diversity and belonging in their workplace?’

The responses showed up a clear winner!

  • Fear of saying the wrong thing: 76 per cent

  • Lack of knowledge: 16 per cent

  • Lack of confidence: 8 per cent

This result was not at all a surprise as it echoed many conversations I’ve had with coaches, colleagues, friends and family in recent times: an overwhelming fear of saying the wrong thing. The seismic shifts of major events such as Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests mean our lives and our workplaces will never be the same again. Both these events have affected different segments of the population differently and although it has raised awareness and opened up new and much needed conversations, for many it has also raised concern about what or how we say things; that we may unintentionally be offensive or cause hurt.

We all have bias: We all face a fundamental paradox. We are inherently social and wired to connect. Getting along with one another is important to our survival as human beings. Nonetheless, we are also hardwired to spot and react to differences, and we often do so without really being aware of doing so or how it informs our initial perceptions of each other. These are our unconscious biases at work.

To take the first step, it has to be OK to be clumsy

How then do we get started?

It is important that as coaches we acknowledge, show empathy and accept that our clients may be in systems where they are excluded and in circumstances where it is very difficult for them to feel they are accepted or that they do belong. Coaching our clients to identify, articulate and express the reality of what is happening in the system/situation is a pivotal stepping stone which could free them up for the deeper self-work of building their own sense of belonging. The challenge here is whether our clients feel safe enough to share how they are experiencing exclusion without feeling they won’t be believed.

At the beginning of all my talks, coaching and mentoring sessions I am always clear in one thing. I give you permission to get things wrong and in return I ask for your forgiveness if I get something wrong. We all have limitations and blind spots. My knowledge is imperfect and if I waited for that moment of perfection I would be standing still. It is ok to make mistakes along the way, as long as we learn from them and adjust our thinking… and more importantly avoid repeating them.

At times, taking this path of coaching can be challenging and uncomfortable. You may even feel triggered. For those from a majority group there may be discomfort as themes of privilege and inequity surface. For those from an under-represented group, it will bring to the surface traumas related to past experience. Remember that we are all fragile and we all have bias; it’s how we use this awareness that will make a difference, but if we never start the conversations there will not be the opportunity to bring about change.

*Salma Shah is founder of She explores the lived experience and how it shapes our sense of belonging in her book Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging in Coaching. If you are interested in finding out more about her Coach Training or Awareness Workshops please email to plan a time to talk. This article was first published on

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