05th September 2022
A Leaders Guide to Building a Sense of Belonging in the Workplace
When organizations look for ways to recruit and retain top industry talent, they will often rely on competitive pay and perks as their primary draw.
But is it material incentivization that employees really want? And if not, what is the primary driver of people at work?
To find out, Associate Professor of Leadership, Anthony Silard asked this question to 600 people from a wide range of organizations. Anthony says:
‘The primary reason people join and stay in a company or organization is not that they want to earn more money and reach a high level of status (although they enjoy both), but because they want to belong.’
Therefore, when competing for top talent, it is the organizations with an embedded culture of belonging – not those with the highest pay and quirkiest perks – that will prevail.
From the article:
The interviews I’ve conducted have led me to a surprising revelation about our deepest motivations at work. The people I’ve had in-depth conversations with about what wakes them up in the morning and propels them into an office, hospital, art studio, or sports arena do not show any of the above as the primary drivers of their intrinsic motivation.
Instead, just as a vast trove of psychological research converges on our social relationships as the most critical ingredient of our long-term well-being, the primary motivations of the hundreds of people I’ve interviewed are social.
The primary reason people join and stay in a company or organization is not that they want to earn more money and reach a high level of status (although they enjoy both), but because they want to belong. The deepest intrinsic desire they wish to fulfill at work is to feel included, accepted, appreciated, and valued by a social group that, in their eyes, is worth belonging to.
An operations manager in a retail company described what it feels like not to experience this belongingness. “I felt alone because my boss had favoritism and spent a lot of time outside of the office with the sales manager. This caused unfair treatment and made me feel excluded,” he said.
What does such treatment at work lead to at home? A sales associate in a biotech company told me how the failure of leaders to help her feel like she belongs and is appreciated can affect life outside of the office:
“It’s that isolation. It’s very painful–that loneliness, that feeling of not belonging … It’s affecting every part of my life. It really is because I go home and I’m like…I don’t do anything … I just kind of sit there, sad and depressed and my kids will try to be like, “Mom, let’s go here. Let’s do this.” And I say, ‘No, you guys go. Here’s some money and I’ll be here.’”
The need to belong runs deep in our composition as human beings. A recent study found that feeling a lack of belonging (in other words, ostracism), like for this sales associate, disables important elements of psychological functioning, including a sense of meaningfulness in life. Believe it or not, even feeling rejected by a group one despises can be hurtful.
Bring it home
Researching and teaching leadership for over thirty years has led me to believe that the organizational chart that best reflects how organizations truly operate contains the CEO in a circle in the middle. Inches away in all directions are other circles—the people the CEO most trusts. Fanning outwards into other circles are the people they trust.
Leaders play a critical role in helping people experience this sense of belonging. The security of the people you lead hinges on this feeling of being central to–and valued by–the social network that is the organization.
How can you foster this feeling of belongingness in the people you manage or lead? Here are three strategies that, based on my research you may want to try out:
The simple act of being kind and empathetic toward people is the first step. A lack of genuine caring is like air—you don’t notice it when it’s there every day, yet when it’s gone it’s all you notice.
As a software engineer (yes, they have feelings too) shared with me, “What reduced my feeling of belonging was [the senior leaders] not really saying hello to you. Not really making eye contact with you or having any type of small talk or discussions. The only communication you had was something that was demanding, like ‘I need this’ or ‘You need to do this.’”
Facilitate opportunities for social connection
While enabling your team members to feel like they belong begins with common courtesy, that’s not where it ends. Bring them together in meaningful ways, whether brainstorming for a new project, hiking together, or playing softball and having a picnic.
As soon and as safely as you can, bring people back to the office
Now that social distancing measures are softening, it’s time to safely—and resolutely—rebuild the social connections people need to feel they are needed—and belong—in your organization.
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