How do you define belonging in the workplace?

Belonging, fundamentally, is a sense in which someone feels included and accepted for their ‘true’ self. In the workplace, this is about employees being able to make open and honest contributions both professionally and socially – and feeling heard and valued for those contributions. It’s a big part of the employee engagement puzzle, too.

But a sense of belonging isn’t just a nice to have. It’s a fundamental need in terms of people being able to reach their full potential. Look at it through the lens of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.1 The first four levels of need are all about deficiency – a lack of something. People become less motivated as these needs are met.

But there’s a level above these, called ‘growth needs’. These stem from a desire to grow as a person, and reach a level of self-actualization, to become ‘the best that you can be’. When a sense of belonging is understood as a growth need, it follows that when it’s met, a person’s motivation will increase.

People from different demographics experience work and the workplace differently. Being part of a team may provide a sense of purpose, and supply the regular needs of a labor/work relationship. But there’s more to work than that, and the focus is increasingly on issues of wellbeing and mental health as drivers of profitability and business success.

According to Deloitte, belonging is a sense of comfort, connection, and contribution. It encompasses many routes to self-actualization, including issues of identity, social connection and acceptance. Employees want to feel valued for who they are, to be confident that they’re being treated fairly, that they matter, and that they’re respected by colleagues and leaders.

Workers with a strong sense of belonging have meaningful relationships within the rest of the workforce. They feel that they identify with, and are important to, the organization’s goals, and that their strengths are appreciated.

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Diversity, inclusion and belonging in the workplace

Diversity, inclusion and belonging in the workplace

Increasingly, DE&I is seen by businesses as crucial for a successful and fulfilled workforce – and the bottom-line benefits that come with that. But where the concept of belonging goes further is in terms of its power to motivate people through their own consciousness.

The CBI describes belonging as the ‘missing ingredient’ of diversity and inclusion. It suggests that while organizations have done much to build workforces which accept diversity and foster inclusivity, a sense of belonging is ultimately the real evidence that the workplace is truly inclusive and diverse.

Where DE&I policies require organizations and employees to recognize diversity and treat others fairly, creating a sense of belonging understands each person’s need to feel like they’re a part of the team. For leaders, this process is less about structure and statistics, and more about seeking out different perspectives and encouraging diversity of thought and opinion.

What do employees feel about belonging in the workplace?

What do employees feel about belonging in the workplace?

In the wake of COVID and the huge changes in the way we work, leaders are beginning to see a stronger connection between belonging and performance. Hybrid and remote working, while bringing many benefits, has put the issue of isolation and exclusion into the spotlight. Employers are now recognizing that effort is needed to help people feel like they belong, especially when it comes to fostering a culture of belonging in the hybrid workplace, where people won’t always be sharing a physical space with their colleagues.

A recent LinkedIn survey showed that diversity and inclusion are valuable, but they’re not enough to maximize performance if belonging isn’t part of the strategy to guarantee psychological safety and employee engagement.2 People were asked what they felt would give them a sense of belonging. The top answer – given by 59% of those surveyed – was that they wanted to be recognized for their accomplishments. And 51% said they wanted a chance to express their opinions freely.

Half wanted to feel that their contributions were valued in meetings, half said they wanted to feel comfortable being themselves at work. And over 40% saying that they wanted their company to be transparent about developments, and to feel that the team/company valued them as individuals.

Diversity and inclusion measures go some way towards these goals. But it’s clear that organizations need to go deeper into the psychological responses of their employees if they want to reap the performance and engagement benefits belonging can bring.

It won’t necessarily be easy. Research by Deloitte has identified a ‘readiness gap’ where 79% of organizations say they believe fostering a sense of belonging in the workplace is important for their success in the coming year, but only 13% are ready to act on it.

The value of belonging at work

The value of belonging at work

When coaching experts BetterUp surveyed 1,789 full-time US employees and carried out experiments with more than 3,000 participants, it found that a high sense of belonging increased job performance by as much as 56%.3 And that’s not all. It also reduced staff turnover risk by 50% and sick days by 75%. From the employee perspective, raises doubled, and promotions were up by almost 20%. And in terms of positive feedback, there was a 167% increase in those who said that they would recommend their company to others.

On the flipside, feelings of exclusion and isolation can have significant negative impacts. The research also found clear evidence that exclusion leads to self-sabotage and can be damaging for teams and business projects, leading to financial loss. Excluded people worked less hard, even when it meant sacrificing financial reward. Feeling excluded caused people to put in less effort.

The findings echo a report from the New Economics Foundation4 which looked at the impact of loneliness and isolation across the UK in terms of business cost. It considered:

  • A wide range of health issues which lead to sickness absences from work and can be directly or indirectly attributed to loneliness.

  • How productivity is connected to wellbeing, and how feelings of exclusion and loneliness lead to employees being less motivated and less productive.

  • How staff turnover is inevitably increased where people feel unhappy or undervalued.

And the cost of all this to businesses? £2.5 billion per year in the UK, according to the study, showing a clear link between wellbeing, belonging and business success.

How can leaders foster belonging in the workplace?

How can leaders foster belonging in the workplace?

It’s clear that the issue of belonging needs to have a place in the HR and operational strategies of a successful business. There are many ways for leaders to help develop a successful belonging culture and create a workforce in which everyone feels fully accepted for who they are and what they can contribute.

Bring everyone on board

Make it clear that belonging is an issue in which everyone is involved and encourage everyone to contribute. Make policies and decisions open and transparent. Investigate new and innovative ways to foster belonging.

Intervene when exclusion happens

Model the behavior you want to see. Share stories openly, including both positive and negative experiences and ask people to feedback on progress.

Eliminate the ‘outsider’

Communicate genuine support for a belonging culture, making sure all voices are heard.

Acknowledge differences

Celebrate unique characteristics in employees’ backgrounds and performance.

Encourage people to speak out

Create an environment where people can express how they feel without fear of criticism or negative consequences.

Highlight underrepresented groups

And make sure that differences are appreciated and valued openly.

Offer the right benefits

Tailor benefits to individuals – think flexible scheduling, emotional wellness programs and personalized tokens of appreciation.

Encourage mentorship

Use mentorship to build professional alliances between diverse individuals to encourage inclusion and exposure to different perspectives.

Encourage team bonding

Encouraging people to get together outside of work – whether virtually or in person – can help build and cement relationships.

Ask for input from everyone

Always be on the lookout for people who seem reluctant to join in, or whose level of input wanes.

Make decision-making transparent

Be clear about who makes decisions and what they’re based on. Make sure everyone has access to those decisions and the people who make them.

Engineer empathy

Create a culture where everyone is open to considering the feelings and wellbeing of others as a matter of course. This can involve bringing in outside experts to talk to staff about issues like mental health and loneliness. Encourage initiatives to share different perspectives.

Build diversity into future planning

Plan specifically for differences and new influences, skills, experiences and contributions.

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1 "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs" McLeod , 2022.
2 "Employees Share What Gives Them a Sense of Belonging at Work" via LinkedIn
3 "The Value of Belonging at Work: Investing in Workplace Inclusion" Kellerman.
4 "The cost of loneliness to UK employers" Michaelson, Jeffrey, Abdallah, 2017.
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