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We Need To Talk About Belonging At Work

Updated: Jul 24, 2023


vector art of people moving between buildings


Belonging at work is more than just another buzz-phrase, it could possibly be our best response to The Great Reshuffle.

We’ve all been experiencing the effects of the rapid pace of life and work for years, but lately, we’re also confronted with challenges that create division, frustration, and fear. Look at the news and you see political instability, civil unrest, an ongoing pandemic, and, most recently, a national crisis that makes everyday activities feel potentially high risk.

This fear and division infiltrate every aspect of our lives. We become more guarded, unsure of how our stance on any given topic will be received. As a result, we’re more cautious in our interactions. Take a look around and you’ll notice our hesitancy to connect with one another. But we innately long for connection. We want to experience it in our neighborhoods, our offices, and in random encounters at the store. We’d like it everywhere. That feeling we get when we connect points to one of our basic needs: belonging.

We go about seeking out belonging by naming what we do and who we are. We live our lives by labels, from our interests and relationships to our careers and religious beliefs, in an effort to create a starting point for acceptance within a group. We hope that by sharing our labels with others, we are planting a seed that blooms into a sense of connection and eventually into belonging. But what happens when you’re hesitant to even go to the market let alone share your labels?

Well, Just What is Belonging, Really?

On one level we all understand what belonging is. We know it when we feel it and when we know when it’s missing, but most of us have a hard time defining it, and an even harder time describing how we go about creating belonging in our lives and for others. We’ve all been in a room filled with people where we have some sense of connection yet still felt that sinking “I don’t belong” feeling.

Belonging is not about popularity, being an extrovert, or being agreeable. It’s more than a surface-level commonality, being at the same place at the same time, or sharing a task. Belonging is something you feel deep within.

 

"Belonging is about consistently feeling seen and heard. . . being recognized . . . and supported."

 

Connection is about being seen and heard. Belonging is about consistently feeling seen and heard. It’s moving beyond connection to include support and reciprocal respect. It means being recognized for your contributions and supported through your struggles, and wanting to do the same for those around you.

But How Important Is Belonging at Work?

The short answer? It’s ridiculously important. Especially now.

Since belonging is a basic human need, we thrive once it’s been met, allowing us to unlock new meaning and potential in life’s experiences. When we fall short of meeting our basic needs, we stagnate. We suffer. We feel hurt and harmed. I know that might sound a bit dramatic, but a lack of social connection and a sense of belonging impacts our physical and mental health.


Let me ask you to try something. Take a moment and imagine belonging did not exist in your workplace. What would your workforce be without any connection or belonging? What would happen to your workplace culture and productivity? Your employees’ performance? Your bottom line, or the ability to achieve your mission?

Without cultivating a sense of belonging, feelings of hurt and harm fester. Cynicism grows and becomes widespread as burnout becomes prevalent. If left to linger, people look elsewhere for opportunities. It’s a downward spiral.

Now imagine for a moment, the opposite. If you were to turn up the volume on belonging within your organization, what would you see? How would your employees behave and what impact would that have on your bottom line or your mission?


Belonging increases our self-esteem, empathy, trust, and cooperation. In the workplace, this can lead to increases in motivation, enjoyment, and collaboration. In turn, innovation, resilience and productivity will rise. As opposed to the downward spiral mentioned above, connection and belonging create an upward spiral. Belonging increases and workplace satisfaction picks up. The flow of the workforce exodus slows. But it doesn’t happen on its own. We all play a part.

What This Means for Workplace Leaders.

While everyone in the workplace has to engage in creating shared belonging, it has to start with executives. From there, it will flow through the organization. Whether you’re an executive, manager, or informal workplace leader, you hold an imperative piece of the belonging puzzle.

At this point, you might be asking, “shouldn't employees be bringing their best to the job because they believe in what we’re doing and they are being paid? Isn’t this interpersonal stuff really up to each individual?” In years past, this could have been the case. However, in today’s round-the-clock work and a world rife with division, creating a strong sense of connection and fostering widespread belonging is imperative to attract and retain the people who will be vested in the success of your business.

And here’s the good news, relative to other workplace initiatives, cultivating belonging shouldn’t be too challenging. It’s innate to us as humans. However, it will take commitment, attention, and intentional, sustained action that starts with you.

 

". . . cultivating belonging shouldn't be too challenging. It's innate to us. . . "

 

I understand that creating engagement and supporting belonging throughout your organization takes time. I think that more than time, it takes commitment. Regardless, considering the positive impact on you, your colleagues, and the business, it's worth the effort.

Moving Forward: The Great Reshuffle was forged during the pandemic, a time when we were forced into new ways of living, learning, and working. It tested our ability to recover and rebound. It also provided clarity about what we will and won’t tolerate on the job, lackluster culture, and missing connections. Belonging in the workplace can no longer remain on the backburner.


For simple steps you can take to increase connection and belonging in both the virtual and physical workplace look for my June 14, 2022 post.


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