How to Cultivate Belonging at Work
Belonging is a fundamental human need; it’s even a foundational element in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In every sphere of our lives, we seek connection with and acceptance from one another. Social scientist Brené Brown wrote, “… belonging is an irreducible need of all people.” In fact, when asked who we are, we often reply by describing our relationships with the people and places that are important to us: our families, friends, communities, countries – and employers.
We all want to be part of something greater than ourselves and to feel a purposeful connection to the things that fill our days — including, and especially, work. Research shows that leaders are the single biggest contributor to how employees experience work, accounting for 70% of the variance in team engagement. So how can leaders set the tone and create a culture of belonging in their own workplace?
Belonging is a Priority
We experience belonging at work when our unique contributions are acknowledged, when we feel connected to our coworkers and supported in our work and career development, and when we experience a sense of purpose within the context of our role and our company at large.
More than 19 million people have quit their jobs since April 2021, according to McKinsey’s Great Attrition survey, and when asked to provide feedback on the contributing factors, employees were far more likely to mention relational factors. More than half of employees who left their job in the past six months did not feel valued by their manager (52%), or they lacked a sense of belonging (51%).
When we feel disconnected (lacking a sense of belonging), we often experience loneliness, less collaboration, fewer workplace friendships, less social interaction, and a general feeling that we’re missing out on critical business information. On the flip side, when we experience high levels of belonging, we have a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, a 75% reduction in sick days, and a 167% increase in employer promoter score.
The Four Pillars of Belonging
There has been a positive focus on self-care and general wellbeing since the pandemic, but the role of social wellbeing in our overall health and wellness, especially as it pertains to work, has been less scrutinized. Potential Project’s Mind at Work study reveals that those who are socially connected at work are 14% more satisfied with their job. Conversely those who experience little social connection are twice as likely to report absenteeism. Employee satisfaction jumps nearly 50% when a worker develops a close relationship on the job. “Social wellbeing is the sharing, developing, and sustaining of meaningful relationships with others,” says Jenna Sinclair of Better Up. “This allows you to feel authentic and valued and provides a sense of connectedness and belonging.”
But what contributes to social wellbeing and helps to create and foster a sense of belonging? There are four primary elements of belonging:
- Being Acknowledged. When you and your efforts are acknowledged at work, you feel recognized, rewarded, and respected by your colleagues.
- Feeling Connected. Human connection leads to better health and happiness, even more so than external rewards like money, fame, and social standing. When you feel connected at work, you experience positive, authentic social interactions with others, and higher levels of performance.
- Feeling Supported. When you feel supported at work, your peers and leaders enable you to get your work done and live a full life, in and out of the office.
- Having Purpose. When you feel purpose-driven at work, you experience lower levels of stress and higher levels of control. Feeling a strong sense of purpose at work creates a strong sense of alignment with the mission, vision, values of the organization.
Barriers to a Culture of Belonging
If belonging is so critical, what gets in the way? Busyness is often at the top of the list. There is a saying we reference often, "busyness kills the heart," and this is especially true for leaders. You'd be hard-pressed to find a leader who isn't often overbooked, overwhelmed, or spread too thin. And when you're under that kind of pressure, there is little space to truly see and support others.
Our normal human tendency towards empathy versus compassion can also get in the way of building a culture of belonging. With empathy, we tend to join in others’ suffering, especially those that are close to us. While our instinct is to support and protect our in group, we can perceive those we are not close to us as part of an out group. Leaders who can show empathy and then compassion are able to support others in an inclusive way. Compassionate leaders work to lift themselves above any unconscious biases to value all people in the organization.
Finally, our tendency towards comfort over courage can mean that we avoid doing the hard things that provide support for others, like giving difficult but honest feedback or calling out unacceptable behavior in the organization. Leaders need to find the courage to tackle those hard things. This might mean giving candid feedback, even if it’s uncomfortable, or calling out bad situations, even if there are repercussions. By employing courageous behavior, you’re showing your people that their feelings of belonging are a priority.
How to Cultivate Belonging at Work
As a leader, it’s your job to lead by example and to create the foundation for a workplace environment that gives employees a true sense of connection and purpose. Show up authentically, embrace vulnerability, and have the confidence to be your true self at work. If you can lead by example, your teams and peers will follow. Here are four more concrete tips to get you headed in the right direction:
1.) Communicate with presence
Presence is about helping your colleagues to feel seen, heard, and connected. In all of your interactions at work, make a point to be present in the moment.
2.) Give honest, supportive and positive feedback
Helping your people to feel valued for their unique contributions boosts feelings of belonging and gives them a tangible connection to the business and its successes.
3.) Make it a point to build a variety of connections
Find opportunities to connect with people in different teams or indifferent parts of the organization. Make an effort to maintain a feeling of inclusivity for all.
4.) Make time for meaningful conversations with each other
Whether structured (setting aside time at the beginning of a meeting to check in human-to-human) or unstructured (time deliberately left open to unfold as it will), make sure there is ample space in-person or virtually to connect as your true selves.
Now is a good time to press pause and consider what you need to do within your organization to encourage, create, and sustain a sense of belonging for all employees. Spend some time thinking about how you can create opportunities for these patterns to take root and to create a space where your people feel like they truly belong.