Building a Sense of Belonging in the Workplace

The absence of belonging is costly and corrosive to both individuals and organizations. An overall sentiment of belonging is a result of day-to-day experiences that allow you to feel psychologically safe, valued and like an “insider” amidst the culture. Belonging is measurable. If you’re not qualitatively and quantitatively assessing belonging in your workplace, your DEI efforts are missing the mark while running blind.

“True belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

(Dr. Brené Brown, Atlas of The Heart)

In her latest book, researcher Brown categorizes belonging as an irreducible human need for us as a social species. She goes further to illustrate “Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.”

In other words, when we have to meet social norms to be accepted or invited in, we cannot experience belonging. Belonging is a space expansive enough for our whole and authentic self, which asks us to forsake nothing of who we are. 

The absence of belonging is costly and corrosive to both individuals and organizations - as The Great Resignation has demonstrated. But belonging is also increasingly at the heart of businesses that thrive.

What is Belonging and Why is it Important?

Only when we are seen and heard and welcome for who we are, wanted because of our authentic selves, we experience belonging. Belonging does not come from being tolerated, or from a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ ethos. We might go as far to say it’s not exactly an indifferent acceptance either. It’s an appreciation for who you uniquely are.

Survey research has shown that high belonging results in 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days - which is an annual savings of $52M for an organization with 10,000 people. Employees with high belonging receive twice as many raises, 18 times more promotions and are 167% more likely to recommend their place of work.

Research reveals that employees who experience belong are three times more likely to feel people anticipate them coming to work, three times more likely to enjoy the work environment, five times more likely to stay around and nine times more likely to believe their company exhibits fairness to all. Companies where diverse employees experience belonging have even grown their revenue three times faster than less inclusive organizations.

Yet 40% of people feel isolated at work. Exclusion, not being seen or welcome or valued for who you are, creates an experience akin to physical pain. When we do not have belonging, we try to fit in. This includes adopting the energetic and emotionally costly strategy of “covering” - which Rhodes Perry, author of Belonging at Work, says happens whenever we try to downplay, hold back or conceal aspects of ourselves that may cause us to be perceived as outsiders. 

“Fitting in” is basically an adaptive response to not expecting or experiencing belonging in the dominant culture, a social strategy which divides us from ourselves. Research has shown 61% of people cover some aspect of who they are at work - but only 45% of heterosexual white men do, while 83% of LGBTQ+ identifying people do. 

Exclusion erodes the coherence of a team towards group goals. Through a a collaborative virtual ball-toss game that included some participants and relatively excluded others (they were not passed the ball nearly as much), experiment-based research found a direct relationship between exclusion and team effort. After experiencing exclusion, “excluded members” worked less hard at a task than “included members” if the benefit would be shared by the team. They worked equally hard if they alone would benefit. Feeling excluded caused people to hold back their best efforts from the team: it beget apathy.

Not feeling a sense of belonging is one of the top three reasons for leaving a job, but it doesn’t even register in the top ten reasons that employers consider for why attrition happens.

Evaluating the Level of Belonging in the Workplace

Did you know that extroverts and parents feel more workplace belonging than introverts and non-parents? An overall sentiment of belonging is a result of day-to-day experiences that allow you to feel psychologically safe, valued and like an “insider” amidst the culture. Belonging is measurable. If you’re not qualitatively and quantitatively assessing belonging in your workplace, your DEI efforts are missing the mark while running blind.

For example, Coqual has defined belonging through four elements: 1) being seen, respected and rewarded for your unique contributions; 2) connected to your coworkers through positive, authentic interaction; 3) supported in your daily work and career development; and 4) proud of your organization’s values and purpose and aligned to them. Retention, engagement, loyalty and recommending your organization all increase as these sentiments do.

The factors that contribute to creating belonging are measurable and quantifiable. Is my voice heard? Am I trusted and respected? Does my perspective count and is it valued? Do I have meaningful relationships and are people looking out for me? Does my manager check in on me? Does my team, my managers and my organization embrace differences? Do I feel we are “in it together” or do I feel like an outsider? Do I feel safe, even invited, to bring my ideas forward and to offer my opinion, even when I disagree with others?

At Pulsely, we assess belonging through various angles to see how individuals of different groups experience more or less belonging in your culture and how that correlates to performance indicators that impact your bottom line. When measuring employee perceptions, we include belonging as one of the 7 Pillars of Inclusion, plus we measure major contributors and indicators of belonging - such as team psychological safety and managerial relationships

When measuring the Inclusion Competencies of your workforce, we assess factors such as cultural intelligence, learning from others and willingness to adapt. This helps to identify what inhibits belonging in your culture and how competent your managers are in facilitating belonging.

Building a Sense of Belonging

The good news is belonging can be cultivated. The aforementioned experiment-based research found the harmful impact of exclusion is reparable. Interventions such as gaining perspective from others who had gone through exclusion, imagining coaching someone through exclusion and thinking of strategies for a more inclusive dynamic activated more team-oriented motivation and efforts for the excluded participants. So did having an ally that simply offered equal treatment.

Here are some of the basics that any culture will need to expand belonging.

  • Belonging begins with expectation. Begin setting the tone before your new recruits walk through the door and make sure to let each individual know they are welcome in your virtual and physical space. Use inclusive language as well as the language of belonging, such as “our” new team member.
  • Leadership is a visible benchmark for the dominant cultural norm -  observing leadership, who has been left out of the “we” of your company culture? Can your leaders objectively self-reflect on that, too - and begin to role model the change through more visibly inclusive leadership and inclusive leadership behaviors?
  • Investigate the unspoken norms of your company culture with radical honesty - what does it really take to be seen as professional, to be seen as a good cultural fit, to be seen as a natural leader or rising star? Regardless of DEI rhetoric, what do our outcomes show we value? What pressures to fit in would be present here - to rise into leadership? Who is left out? Who is let into only certain spaces? And then if we take out “one and done” tokenistic representation?  
  • Reduce “outsiderness” by building a company culture that doesn’t just accept but embraces differences, including valuing individuality and looking for the growth opportunity in welcoming perspectives that are cultural additions, not just cultural matches.
  • Make your purpose, mission and values what unites you and make all else secondary to that. Bring everyone into the vision, regardless of position and location of work. Do not only make your workforce aware, but appreciate each employee for the work they do as an important part of the vision.
  • Offer work-life integration solutions such as flexible working and benefits such as emotional wellness programs that apply or extend to all demographic groups, and consider how current efforts create “insiderness” and “outsiderness” in ways you have overlooked until now
  • Train managers to be custodians of belonging through coaching - including  providing honest and regular expectations and feedback, managing to individual styles, building trust, releasing control and trusting their reports, checking in on work-life management and overall well-being, acknowledging contributions and empowering all voices in any room. 
  • Foster a collaborative learning culture of win-win more so than a competitive performance culture of win-lose. Encourage social bonds amongst diverse individuals to break down othering and stereotypes (team structure, office design, mutual mentoring, formal sponsorship) and cultivate a norm of allyship.  
  • Make the value of belonging transparent and open. Listen to your employees through DEI data. Encourage the sharing of stories and let them know their stories have been heard. Ask leaders to share openly and transparently on their own stories to inspire others. Invite suggestions and open discourse around belonging. Thinking about ways to make things better already alters a feeling of being part of the team. 

Perhaps the highest-level growth that life requires of us is to be who we truly are. Be a workplace that supports those who aspire to self-actualization.

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