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Editorial Team
30 Oct 2019



Strategies to nurture belonging at the workplace

belonging in the workplace

Antipathy can hurt your employees’ body and your organizations’ spine

Could Harry Potter have gained the same phenomenal success if he didn’t belong to the cryptic world of wizards? In this article, we fixate our spotlight on this vague yet vital word belonging, a word that media has incredibly cashed on and continues to do so forevermore. It has been the quintessentially irony of our race that no matter how far we climb up the ladders of science and technology, our basics remain rooted in few inherent human needs. From Gladiator to Game of Thrones to the controversial 13 reasons why both the audience and the protagonist have yearned to belong: to something, to anything that makes them feel greater than themselves. The audience had felt the extreme need to belong to these incongruous protagonists and have time and again flaunted its loyalty by wrapping itself up in those superhero clothes and chanting their radical thoughts. Protagonists have fought for it and died for it. In extreme cases, they have even killed for it. Which brings us to a question - Why belonging is so important? And what exactly is it?

Why is this important?

Evolutionary psychology says the need to belong is hardwired in our DNA and anything less than actual belonging hurts us, bad. How bad? Cognitive psychology expounds the pain of social rejection and reveals it is accompanied by the same “neural and physiological patterns” as physical pain. To the extent that Dewall CN et al. in their 2011 study, prescribed Acetaminophen to alleviate it.

For organizations, this missing thread translates into a lack of performance and productivity and incontestably into missed potential and opportunities.

Of the copious studies that root belonging as an important aspect for human wellbeing and workplace as the prime station where they expect to get it, we list two striking ones here. More than 1/3rd of the respondents in the EY’s 2019 Belonging Barometer survey said they get the greatest sense of belonging in their workplace. The same study says 34% of respondents across all ages and geographies feel a sense of belonging in their workplace. This number is way steeper than belonging to the physical neighborhood (36%) and the place of worship (17%).

BetterUp, a leadership development startup, in their 2019 report compiled for 10,000 employee samples tried to decode the impact of belonging at workplaces and found that belonging boosts:

Performance and profits:

Employees with a sense of belonging perform 56% better and gain USD 52 million. They earn twice as many hikes and are 18 times more likely to get promoted. Conversely, excluded people are 25% less productive. Center for Innovation in their 2019 study says employees with a sense of belonging work to their fullest potential and contribute 3.5 times.

Employee retention:

Excluded employees are 50% more likely to leave. These turnovers cost USD 10 million per 10,000 employees.


Included employees take 75% fewer sick leaves. BetterUp says the total cost of sick leaves tallies up to USD 2.5 million per 10,000 workers.

Hiring and retention:

Engaged employees are 167% more likely to recommend their connections. A 2018 survey by  Culture Amp and Paradigm rated belonging factors as top drivers of employee engagement.

When employees feel they belong, it gives them meaning, vigor, satisfaction and mental stability and translates into better organizational performance and profits.

Can belonging be cultivated? Yes. And here’s how it can be done:

Decoding the Delphic:

Exclusion can have different meanings for different people. While most see it as some form of passive rejection from their colleagues: their greeting ignored, colleague checking phone while talking to them, shutting the conversation when they try to join in or not inviting them to group lunches, for few others, majorly women and LGBT communities, this could also imply bullying and harassment. 54% of respondents see, exclusion as a form of bullying.

In the broadest terms belonging can be attributed to three major drivers:

  • Trust and respect: 63% of baby boomers, 56% Gen Xers and 53% millennials feel a sense of belonging when they are trusted and respected.
  • Freedom to express: 39% of respondents feel a sense of belonging when they feel free to express their voice and opinions.
  • Recognition: 34% say they get a feeling of belonging when their unique contributions are valued.

Strategies to Reinforce Belonging at the Workplace:

Most of us spend a greater part of our lives at work and we must get that sense of belonging to contribute our best. EY’s Belonging Barometer, in its study of 1,000 US professionals found that 40% don’t feel they belong in their workplace. Considering the above numbers this also means we are losing big time in utilizing the talent that we have. The good news is; this can be improved. In the book Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith has talked about high-quality interactions that revolve around “regard and care”. Intertwining these in their interactions, leaders can create a work environment that will encourage employees to contribute their best. Here’s how leaders can fill this gap:

  • Check on your employees: 39% of employees say they feel a greater sense of belonging when their workmates and supervisors check on them.
  • Avoid face time and add a personal touch to your interactions. Customize them. Engage with employees in a way they feel comfortable. Few are comfortable with face to face interactions, few others with chats and few may not be comfortable with engagement at all.
  • Listen to understand and not to punish or judge.
  • Begin with positive intent. Even when you have been disagreeing with the colleague and do not like her personality for some reason. Keep aside the halo and horn tendency to pre-judge.
  • Expose vulnerabilities: Ask for feedback from juniors. Encourage their views and show trust in them.
  • Act consistent and accountable
  • Ask questions like how they are doing? How you can support them? How their projects have been progressing?
  • Take Surveys and track belonging and inclusion.
  • Reinforce social bonds through team structures and group problem-solving
  • Trust your employees’ intentions and expertise

If exclusion has happened:

Talk to the excluded team member and ask

  • how they would support or say to another member who had been left out?
  • what inputs they have to change the situation so that it becomes more fair and inclusive?
  • would they like to go through written accounts of others who too had been excluded at some time in their career?

A Parting Peak at The Leaders’ Playing field:

Though diversity and inclusion have been much talked about, the actual progress toward these goals is a tremendous letdown. Diversity training that eats up around USD 8 billion YOY has done little to improve the inclusion of women and minorities. The 2019 research by BetterUp also shows that in some cases these initiatives brought negative effects. Looking ahead of training is the need of the hour and the above approaches can work wonders. While at the periphery, creating a sense of belonging may look like a tedious task, the benefits of doing so far exceed the efforts. Engaged employees, retained clients and increased financial returns - All in one pill. Could we ask for more?

Before we part here’s a sneak peek in the leader’s playing field:

BetterUP extensively hires remote workers and experimented with experience-sharing in its own premises by making all workers work remotely during remote weeks. IDEO holds enterviews (enter interviews) for new hires. People who interviewed new hires tell the new hires what excites them about the new joinees. Google’s new employees who get a warm welcome from their managers are more productive 9 months later. Buffer, a social media management company, couples new hires with an old employee who helps them navigate the organizational culture.

What is your belonging magic mantra? It’s time you have one!

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