by: Brent Lowe

“You can call me Coop, Dave or Fuckface, it’s your choice […but never call me by my title]”. Those were the words of Dave Cooper to his newest team member. Harsh? Perhaps. But Dave set the vibe fast. Dave is one of the most admired Navy Seals of all time because of his leadership skills. You’ve likely never heard his name but you know his team’s work. It was Dave’s team that undertook the mission to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden in May 2011.

Navy Seals have long been studied for their disciplined teamwork skills. Establishing and maintaining a sense of belonging is at the root of their success. It’s a concept often misinterpreted as soft or mushy where personal comfort gets prioritized over accountability. Not true.

Belonging means each individual is considered an important part of the team. No punishment or humiliation results from speaking up, asking tough questions, expressing concerns or revealing mistakes. Teams that excel in this area focus on psychological safety. All other teams operate below their full capabilities.

What kind of culture is your team building?

In one sentence Dave clarified his team’s culture to his new teammate. 

“We’re peers, even if my title or tenure or anything else has you thinking otherwise. Speak to me the way you speak to everyone else on this team. We’re defined by our character not by our titles.”

Your team will fall short until a sense of belonging exists. Want to build belonging on your team? Here are 10 phrases to personalize and bake into your vocabulary so you can boost a sense of belonging. Before long your colleagues will begin using similar phrases because you’ve made it safe to do so.

“I fucked up.”

– Until you are willing to own your mistakes, why would anyone else?

“Hey, can I check something with you?”

– Assumption-making is a bad habit we all have. Test your assumptions in a way that values others’ opinions and experiences.

“What am I missing? Anyone got any ideas?”

– You’ve surrounded yourself with smart people. Invite them to help make your ideas better.

“Here’s a potentially flaky idea”

– Get the conversation started by showing your own vulnerability. There are no bad ideas, only conversation starters.

“I’m noticing a pattern that I’d like to get your insight on.”

– When we see unhealthy habits, explore them with curiosity. Trust that there will be a good reason for the pattern… and a good opportunity for shared learning.

“What would you have done in that situation?”

– Teams with a high sense of belonging strengthen that muscle constantly.  Retrospectives allow for reflection, review and growth.

“Let’s see what this challenge has to teach us.”

– Reframe daunting challenges as learning opportunities.

“Love you brother/sister.”

– Uncomfortable with the word love? Teams with the highest levels of belonging say or show love repeatedly.

“How’s your family?”

– If we truly care about our colleagues, then we care about the people they care about.

Have you noticed a pattern throughout? Teams with high levels of belonging see themselves as humans on a learning journey. The actions they take –and phrases they utter– create safety. These are teams where everyone can give it their all. When missteps happen, it’s safe to say “I screwed up and I’ll do what’s needed to get things back on track.”

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