Exploring the feeling of belonging at work

Farhanah Iqbal, our Senior Inclusion and Diversity Consultant, discusses what it means to have a sense of belonging and why it is so important.

Continue reading to find out more.

What does belonging mean?

As humans we have a deep evolutionary need to belong, it’s a positive sociological function of a cohesive society.

A sense of belonging to a group in some form or another is something we all desire — at home, at work, and in our greater community. It comes down to social connection, which is one of our most basic needs.

Why a sense of belonging is important

When that need isn’t met, it can actually cause us to feel pain — physically and psychologically — the same way it would if other basic needs (like water, food, and shelter) were unfulfilled; our internal processors in our brain register social pain in the same way as they register physical pain and in the same brain regions too.

It is no wonder then that the words and connotations associated with not belonging are sadness, unfriendliness, unhappy, discontentment, cheerlessness. Not an environment anybody wants to be in.

Conversely, when we have that sense of belonging and feel a sense of inclusion, it can help to create a more meaningful life. It allows us to feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

That’s why, for some, belonging and attachment to co-workers is a better motivator than money for employees deciding whether to leave or stay at their current job

Considering for most working professionals, the majority of our waking hours are working hours; the need for the feeling of belonging at work and having a sense of belonging in a community is fundamentally hardwired into us.

Why the “belonging definition” isn’t accurate  

To fit in or not to fit in… is that the question? Historically when we think about the concept of belonging, people and organisations have been guided by the understanding of it being a case of assimilating and becoming absorbed into the larger group dynamic. This is the commonly held idea of being “the right fit”. But this dilutes a person’s individuality and their unique identity. It becomes more about focusing on commonality.

Our experience of the sense of belonging

So, why is focusing solely on commonality problematic?

What we know here at Inclusive Employers is that common beliefs and attitudes can often be wrong when it comes to inclusion and diversity. Unchallenged status quo can often lead to stagnant cultures and left unchecked, leads to exclusion. One of our core behaviours here is to Be Brave.

Being brave means being both courageous and vulnerable. To be able to do this, we need to champion our differences and celebrate our uniqueness. Belonging gained for following the crowd is not true belonging, rather it is performative self-abandonment.

Achieving a true sense of belonging comes from bringing all of who you are to the table and flourishing as a result of this.

How to create a sense of belonging in the workplace to promote inclusion

When employees feel a sense of belonging, their wellbeing is positively impacted, and they are able to be more productive and build strong connections with their colleagues, their leaders and their organisation’s overall mission.

Here are some ways to create a sense of belonging in the workplace:

Create a psychologically safe environment

Connections with others that have trust, empathy, inclusivity, respect, consistency, and considered communication are foundations for experiencing safety.

To set the tone for the team, leaders can model vulnerability and authenticity. That can be as simple as talking about what went wrong in their own initiatives and what they learned for next time.

It can also mean being open and honest when they’re struggling with something. By showing our own human flaws, we empower others to take calculated risks without fear of failure.

Check in with people

Go beyond the surveys. Whilst surveys and polls are a great tool they don’t typically allow you to capture anything beyond what someone is feeling in that particular moment.

When used, these tools should ask for input that can inform strategic initiatives and identify trends. Surveys and polls should always be used in conjunction with regular spaces of authentic connection where people check in beyond tasks of the day-to-day e.g. 1-2-1s.

Creating this safe and open space increases empathy and connection and leads to an inclusive culture where everybody wants to see each other succeed.

Who’s voice is being heard?

Be mindful of dominant voices in conversations and actively bring in those who may not have the same confidence to express themselves as openly.

Many factors can contribute to some voices being quieter; things like confidence levels, accents, personality types, and bad experiences can all impact how much people feel able to have their voices heard.

It’s important to actively give these people the floor and remind them that their authentic voices and ideas are powerful and valued by the organisation.

Champion and celebrate identity

Encourage and champion people to show up as their true selves, authentic and safe in their sexual orientation, gender identity, faith, culture, age, and all things that make them who they are.

This directly links to them being able to show up in their work contributions and have their insight and input valued.

The central thing to remember is that this is about going beyond the “tick-box”. It’s inherently a continuous and active journey.

If we think of diversity being the fact, equity being the choice, inclusion being the action, then belonging becomes the outcome. It’s about creating workplace cultures that aren’t solid homogenous boxes, but rather a rich and vibrant tapestry.

Here at Inclusive Employers, we offer consultancy to our members and non-members. If you’re interested in a consultancy partnership to help with the feeling of belonging, or something else, get in touch today.