What allows us to feel like we belong somewhere?

How do we harness belonging to create buy-in for our teams and how do outside influences affect our own sense of belonging in the world? What can damages that sense of belonging? How do we avoid destroying what we seek to create?

In Daniel Coyle’s book , The Culture Code – which I reviewed here, he puts forth the idea that the things that create great culture in groups and teams do so by triggering a sense of belonging. These are things such as uniforms, special phrases or codes, and a shared vision of purpose. By triggering these ‘belonging cues’ we feel safe and part of a collective. We have shared values and a shared identity. This feeling of belonging is even more strongly triggered when there is an outside enemy our outside set of circumstances.

The fear of the outsider being used as a rallying cry for uniting a people has a dark reputation in history, but also has its more positive outcomes as well. The dramatic drop in crime in New York city in the weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks being an obvious example.

My own personal sense of belonging was also triggered in the shadow of tragedy.

When the 10/1/17 mass shooting happened at the Route 91 Festival in my adoptive hometown of Las Vegas, which killed 58 people (60 at the time of this writing), there was obviously shock and horror from not just people in Las Vegas, but also around the country. People who live in Las Vegas have an odd relationship with its tourist nature, in as much as there is great respect for the people who visit and for the things that draw them to our town, but that does not necessarily mean that we want much do with those people or those parts of the town. However, to attack those things, and those people is very much seen as an attack on the entire city. A city based on welcoming strangers to our town, and hoping that they have a good time during their visit.

The reaction of the city, with people lining up around the block to donate blood, the general feeling of outrage that this could happen, and that someone could abuse our hospitality in such a hideous manner, created a greater sense of ownership of this odd place in the desert where I live than at any other time in previous five years of my residency.

But something else happened at the same time in Las Vegas.

The city got its first professional sports team in the Vegas Golden Knights (VGK).

To the hockey world and the sports pundits, this was less than a joke. A city which had no history of support for major league sports, that has shown little interest in hockey, and where it was 115 degrees in the summer. It seemed like a terrible idea from just about every corner. However, at its darkest hour – or what certainly felt like its darkest hour at the time, the Vegas Golden Knights showed that they wanted to be part of the community, which let’s face it – they were not.

What happened next is the stuff of fairy tales. An unprecedented run for the Stanley Cup, and a city adopting a sport and a team as their own – making Las Vegas one of the best places to experience a hockey game in the country. For the whole story of that first year, I cannot recommend enough the documentary “Valiant” the trailer for which you will find below.

 I should explain that this point explain that I have no time for sports. Apart from the odd summer evening watching baseball, more for the company and enjoying the summer evening in a crowd, than for anything happening on the field, sports was something that other people did.  So, the question becomes, how did I become the owner of three hockey jerseys? What happened that first year of the Vegas Golden Knights, and in successive years, to make mee feel like they were my team, but also to become proud and emotional about my adoptive hometown? How did I come to believe that I belonged as a Vegas Golden Knights fan and that by extension that I felt ownership of a city that is, by definition, a place to be visited?

The Route 91 tragedy was obviously a horrible event for all concerned, but it was also a serious blow to the city and to its self-image. Las Vegas – America’s playground to quote the movie Ocean’s Eleven – a safe place for people to go a little wild. To shatter that image in the eyes of the wider world, also damaged that image in the eyes of the people who live and work here. The Vegas Golden Knights were also a team with an image problem. The players were all cast offs from other teams, and they were expected to be the worst team in the league that year – and possibly for years to come. That alignment of adversity created shared purpose.

And then against all odds the Golden Knights started, and kept, winning. A city which needed something to cheer and be happy about – got it in spades. The Vegas Golden Knights belonged to Las Vegas and Las Vegas belonged to the Vegas Golden Knights.

But there was more than fate at work in this bonding. The Vegas Golden Knights created their own medieval pantomime as a branding exercise; however, they also adopted the symbols and sounds that have come to epitomize Las Vegas. The sounds of coins, the roll of a dice, a mascot named “Chance,” “Viva Las Vegas, and just the very golden coloring of anything and everything in sight made the Golden Knights feel like Las Vegas, but also to feel that it was okay to embrace the visitor tropes of Las Vegas.

People like to take pride in things, and it was easy to take pride in the Vegas Golden Knights. The fan experience was considered the best in the league, they continued to play well, cleanly, and get involved in the community. It also brought pride to the city because the Golden Knights did not exist for visitors – although all are welcome. They existed for the residents of Las Vegas.

The symbols of Golden Knights became synonymous with the city of Las Vegas, and with #VegasStrong. The uniforms, symbols, the shared experience of adversity, and the games created a whole new culture. A culture that the people of Las Vegas could belong to.

For that first Vegas Golden Knights season in 2017 / 2018 I was not a fan or even really bought into the culture. I was aware of it building all around me; but being aware of how the triggering of belonging cues can feel like manipulation I tried to stay aloof. It was not until the beginning of the 2018 / 2019 season, and going to my first game, that I finally succumbed, and ultimately embraced the sport and the team.

Fast forward to the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The first game of the second round. The Vegas Golden Knights vs. the Colorado Avalanche. Colorado were considered the favorites, of not just the series, but of the entire playoffs. Game one is a disaster for the Golden Knights. A 7-1 loss. Not only do they look out classed on the ice, but they show their frustration by getting into fights and giving up penalties. This culminates in Vegas enforcer Ryan Reeves kneeing on the head of Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ryan Graves in apparent retaliation for an earlier hit by Graves on Vegas player Janmark. Reeves was tossed from the game and received a two-game suspension. The VGK receive an extraordinary nine-minute penalty, and arguably play their best hocky of the game for the first seven minutes of that penalty, until two Vegas players decide they would rather hit a Colorado player rather than defend, and Colorado scores yet again.

This game caused a great crisis of faith for me. In the game and in the team I had come to love. Vegas is known as a team that plays “heavy, but clean.” Reeves actions, seemed dangerous, petty, and revengeful. In addition, the entire team seemed petulant at the resounding loss. To add to the disappointment, Reeves had been an outspoken advocate for police reform in the light of the George Floyd murder, and yet here he was kneeling on the head of another player. A professional, using excessive force because he could.

Chuck Klosterman in his book “But What If We Are Wrong?,” which I reviewed here, talks about the fall in popularity of boxing, and the potential for the fall of professional football, due to mainstream occasional fans, as opposed to dedicated “my team can do no wrong” kind of fans, being turned off by the serious life threatening injuries than can occur in those sports.

At the end of that game against Colorado, I was ashamed to be a Golden Knights fan. I believed that they had betrayed what they stood for. Other fans had a problem with them losing in such spectacular form – I didn’t. My problem was with them seeming to being petty and vengeful.

Game two of the series, while still a loss for Vegas, began to restore my faith in the team as they acquitted themselves as professionals.

However, just nine games later again my faith would be shaken. Testing my commitment to this sport and to being a fan. This time due to the behavior of the fans themselves.

Round Three, Game four, was not a good game for Vegas. Ultimately a 4-1 loss for the VGK at home. However, seeing your team booed off the ice at the end of the second period and at the end of a power play but their own fans was more than a little disquieting. As was the failure of the two people next to me and the eight people in front of me not returning to their seats for the 3rd period. I did not want to belong to a fan base that only supported a team when they were winning. Near the end of the game, Montreal scored an empty net gold making the score 4-1. There has always been fans who leave near the end of a game when it is obvious that their team is going to lose. This, however, was not a few fans.

This was an exodos.

I estimated 2/3s to 3/4s of the auditorium.         

It was heartbreaking for the players I’m sure. Yes, they did not play well, or it would seem with much heart, but they did not deserve to be treated that way. Vegas has always seemed to have a hospitable fan base. Welcoming opposing fan bases into T-Mobile Arena, making sure they felt welcome in our barn and in our city. It has also forgiven its team for its losses and supported them as they once supported us. Its one of the things that I love about supporting the team – everyone was generally ways positive, friendly to all, and just wanting to have a good time. It the light of this game some fans expressed that the team deserved it as they had not shown up to play, and that far worse happened at other areas with other teams.

But that misses the point. Vegas was supposed to be different.

Cultures are made up of shared beliefs, shared values, and a shared sense of identity. This is reenforced by the sharing of uniforms, language, and customs. Damage to the sense of belonging by upending any of these threatens that fragile culture.

I myself have found myself feeling like an outsider in a culture I helped create in an online community, due to the shifting priorities of those in charge, a lack of inclusiveness, and a feeling that my sense of wanting to contribute was devalued and unappreciated. The feeling that I’m getting far less out than I’m putting in is often why people leave companies.

We mess with shared values and culture at our peril. These are fragile things. Belonging allows us to feel safe. It flips a switch in our cave-person brain and tells us “it’s ok,” “you are among friends,” “the saber tooth tigers are not going to get you today.”

But belonging goes further. Belonging allows us to feel. To connect. To bond. To Think.

All we do as humans is think, feel, and run around.

Cultures have to be fought for, to champion for, but they are not a bottomless well. When that sense of belonging is gone, it is gone for good.

I am still a Golden Knights fan, but there were some ugly moments for our team and the fan base during these playoffs.

Our teams that we lead and belong to, if we are lucky, have the same sense of belonging that fans feel for sports teams. But we can damage them just as easily as sports teams can by our actions and inactions.

Belonging is what we all want. But it can never be taken for granted.