Have you ever experienced the feeling of not belonging? Do you remember how awkward, uncomfortable and self-conscious you felt? At some point in our lives, almost all of us will be in a situation where we feel like we don't belong.

It may be because of our skin color, ethnicity, age, religion, work function, etc., or just being the new person in the class, on the job or in the neighborhood. For some — depending on the situation and context the feeling of not belonging may be brief or minor, while for others it may be intense and difficult to dispel.

In more than 25 years as a diversity and inclusion strategist, I've found that everyone wants to feel part of something greater than themselves. People thrive when they feel part of a community at work. As a leader, you create that community.

According to research by Dr. Peggie Rothe, development director of Leesman, a UK-based workplace research firm, "If we feel a sense of belonging in a group, then we perform a lot better as a team."

Conversely, feeling like we don't belong negatively impacts our productivity and the way we work with a team.

One of my clients, Charles, shared his experience at a healthcare organization in the state of Washington.

"Not only was I the only man in the department with 30 women, but I'm a 6-2 African-American from New York," he said. "Everyone else was either white or Filipino, and it was a small town. I was hesitant to make any suggestions at first. I felt uncomfortable and kept second-guessing myself. I spent too much time worrying about how to fit in and what other people were thinking of me.

"After about a week, three of the women noticed my discomfort and invited me to a 'welcome Charles' lunch. I always remembered how I felt and what those women did to make me comfortable. Since I've been director, I've made it a practice take the time to welcome new people, integrate them into the team and have them feel like they belong."

Individual change and growth can occur when we put ourselves in situations with people who are different than us and are willing to be uncomfortable. Stagnation, narrow-mindedness and mediocrity occur when we cling to old ways of being comfortable and surround ourselves with people who are just like us.

In a global marketplace, leaders need to know how to create environments where everyone has a sense of belonging. They're not afraid to speak up, take risks or make a mistake.

Hiring and promoting people who are most like us because we think it will be expedient and make our work easier will result in inbred, recycled ideas. Here are three essential actions to demonstrate inclusive leadership and promote a culture of belonging:

1. Think of what you can say and do to make people feel individually included.

Remember a time when you felt like you didn't belong and how it impacted your thoughts, actions and emotions. Realize that there are people in your organization who may be feeling that way now.

Take time to ask people who are different from you for their ideas to increase the success of your organization and for their feedback on what you can improve.

2. Let go of "shoulds."

What does this mean? Ideas like new people "should" be experienced enough to just fit in; they "should" just know how to do their job; I "shouldn't" have to extend special treatment to anyone.

Creating a workplace community of belonging or inclusion is not special treatment. Be aware that it is always a little awkward being the new person.

If someone is different in some way than the majority of the organization or team where people already know each other, they will not only appreciate the extra time you take to welcome them, but it will also shorten the time it takes to ramp up in the organization.

3. Educate your team/organization.

Emphasize the importance of creating a culture of belonging, and implement processes that promote and sustain it. It's in everyone's interest.

If we feel like an outsider, like we don't belong, then we spend too much time trying to "fit in" and not be seen. Instead of letting our brilliance shine so we can develop breakthrough products and services, our genius remains hidden and eventually dies out.