Why a sense of belonging at work is so important

Why a sense of belonging at work is so important

Why do we want to feel like we belong?

Human beings are hard wired to want to belong and connect with other human beings.  We are social animals, belonging is how we survive and thrive, and this primal need very much drives our behaviour.   We have all experienced that dreadful feeling of not belonging – feeling like the odd one out, uncomfortable within a group that we want to be a part of or even feeling excluded.  This can leave us feeling anxious or push us instinctively into ‘fight or flight’ mode – neither conducive to a productive or happy experience.

Conversely, when we are in a place or with people where we feel we belong, we are at our most relaxed and happy.

Why is a sense of belonging a good thing for business?

The importance of a sense of belonging at work is not a new concept.  In 1943, the psychologist Maslow rated ‘Belonging’ third in the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ and progressive employers have been actively integrating versions of his motivational theory into the their values and approaches ever since.  

The most successful businesses have always had a great sense of belonging amongst employees and will actively foster a positive environment where employees feel engaged, included and respected.   A sense of belonging encourages greater productivity, lower sickness and absence rates and higher staff retention.  Relaxed and happy employees will always be more flexible, willing to help each other out and look forward to the next challenge.

In our fast moving business world – where attracting and retaining talent is a battle and creativity and the ability to adapt quickly to an ever changing business context are business imperatives – a diverse workforce is accepted as a means to competitive advantage.  But you can not easily retain a diverse workforce without an inclusive culture, and so a sense of belonging is also  recognised as key.

How can businesses achieve a sense of belonging amongst employees?

  1. Leaders to lead by example.  Traditional leadership has tended to encourage a more command and control, exclusive approach to leadership and it can be hard for leaders to shed years of conditioning in their approach to leading a business.  However, if inclusion is not present at the top, diversity – and all the proven benefits of achieving a more diverse work force to agility, creativity and decision making – may not be sustainable.  People will simply not want to stay.

Aside from simply treating others as they would they like to be treated themselves (it’s not actually rocket science!), all leaders can learn to demonstrate the following inclusive behaviours:

  • Avoid stereotyping employees.  Taking the time to get to know and understand the people around them, will help a leader to value employees’ unique differences whilst accepting them too as part of the team.  Following this up with statements and inclusion initiatives that demonstrate that the leader and the organisation welcome and value difference, will help employees to feel that they can be themselves and work at their best.
  • Challenge exclusive behaviour.  Sometimes an inclusive leader will need to actively challenge others’ exclusive behaviour – and they should see this as an important part of their role.  This could range from delivering personal feedback to an individual about their potentially negative impact on others that they may have just witnessed to changing the way the organisation performs a certain aspect of its business to ensure that it is more inclusive (see point 2 below).
  • Transparent communication.  Make sure you communicate clearly and broadly across the organisation.  It’s tempting for leaders to hold information close, because they simply ‘don’t have time’ or see a business need to share.  However, the more a leader shares information within their organisation the better informed and aligned to business goals employees will be.  And the greater the mutual trust too.
  • Collaborate broadly.  Involve a diverse range of people in strategy, decision-making and organisational projects.  We all have our go-to people that we trust as sounding boards and deliverers, but when this risks being seen as favouritism, not only do you limit your options in terms of arriving at the best possible outcome for the business, you can easily demoralise and demotivate others.  This doesn’t mean you can’t involve your trusted sounding boards,  but enrich the outcome by including others in the process too.
  • Be curious.  Leaders will benefit hugely from actively learning from the wealth of knowledge and experience that exists across their organisations.  They are also modelling behaviour to employees that it’s a good thing to ask questions (and breaking the mould of traditional leadership and hierarchy).

When Greg Dyke was first announced as Director General of the BBC, he spent five months visiting the BBC’s major locations.   Instead of delivering a presentation, he gathered together all of the employees at each location and instead asked two simple questions: “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for you?” And then, after listening carefully to their responses, “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for our viewers and listeners?”

The BBC’s employees respected their new boss for taking the time to ask questions and listen and Dyke used their responses to inform his thinking about the changes needed to solve problems facing the BBC and to identify what to work on first. After officially taking the reins, he gave a speech to the staff that reflected what he had learned and showed employees that he had been truly interested in what they said.

2. Make inclusive behaviour a part of your organisation’s DNA.  Inclusive behaviour should run through every aspect of your organisation.  One of the simplest ways to do this is to include objectives in your performance management processes that actively measure and value inclusive behaviour, ie it’t not just what you do, but how you do it that is really important.  It’s all very well meeting sales targets, for example, but if you trample on others or ignore valuable contributions in the process then the long term harm to the business will out weight the benefits of the sales.  This should apply to all employees from the very top down.

You should include inclusive capabilities, such as collaboration and curiosity, in your job advertisements and job specs, whilst at the same time ensuring that your recruiters and processes are inclusive in their approach.  For example, it is still the case (despite disability discrimination legislation) that some organisations include the use of ‘intelligence’ or competency tests that immediately reduce the chances of success for candidates with dyslexia.  Quite often a dyslexic candidate may be able to ask for adjustments to be made on the grounds of their disability, and the organisation will duly respond – but highlighting difference in such an uncomfortable way is hardly morale inducing.  Unconscious bias training for managers and recruiters will  also go a long way to ensuring fairer recruitment and performance management processes.

Another simple support for an inclusive culture, is to ask your HR departments or recruitment agencies to remove the names, ages and educational backgrounds from CVs before forwarding them to recruiting managers (there’s a terrifying amount of research to show that so many of us are influenced (whether we know it or not) by a person’s name, age or school!

3. Ensure that every employee, whatever their position, has a clear purpose.  Without understanding how what we do matters and makes a difference to the business and each other, work is pretty meaningless.   Without meaning, work is likely to be a joyless experience and will often create a sense of isolation.  We end up counting the hours until home-time or, even worse, seeking excuses not to be there at all.

4. Encourage a sense of togetherness.  Helping employees at work to feel like they belong isn’t about making work a social club and it’s definitely not about forcing people to spend more time together.   We’re all different and we’re not all going to want to become best buddies! That said, encouraging a sense of team and togetherness whilst respecting our differences – coming together to get the job done – is achievable. Providing opportunities for employees to get to know each other better both inside work, such as team away days and ‘bake offs’, and outside of work, through fun, optional activities such as ‘beach cleans’ (a growing team bonding activity in Jersey!), and meals out together (I love the example of Nando’s ‘family meal’ in point 5 below), undoubtedly goes a long way to building mutual trust and friendship.

Team activities that actively exclude some employees should, of course, be avoided at all costs!   Senior male employees making important business decisions on the golf course is a well known cliche, but it still goes on!  Even worse, entertaining clients at a ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ is still a business practice for some (women may be allowed in by invitation, but it is hardly likely to make female colleagues feel included or comfortable…)!

5. Make sure that people feel really valued for their contribution.  And this is not all about financial awards.  Creating a sense, regardless of role level, that each employee is an important part of a special place, is a big part of feeling valued.  Nandos, the international restaurant chain, is not well known for its high salaries, but it is well known for creating a really positive work environment.  The company has five values, the last of which reads “and most of all, family.”.  To realise this value, employees gather for dinner together on Sundays and holidays, often bringing their “other families” to meet each other.

It may sound like a cliche, but managers publicly recognising a job well done and simply taking the time to say thank you makes a huge difference.

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