• Managing people

Creating a Sense of Belonging

Hult Ashridge’s Lee Waller on why some employees feel a sense of not belonging at work and how to create a culture of belonging

Wednesday 29 April 2020


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We all need to feel a sense of belonging. We know this intuitively, and research confirms that any thwarting of this fundamental human need has powerful psychological consequences—impacting both our personal lives and how we perform at work.

Now, at a time when many people are working from home, it is more than ever important that everyone in your team feels they belong. Those who have developed good relationships, who are comfortable being themselves around others at work, and who feel accepted by their colleagues, will continue to work effectively even remotely—but for some employees, remote working may exacerbate any existing feeling of difference and isolation.

For many of us a large portion of the day is spent at work and our jobs can make a huge impact on our quality of life―not least by providing us with a feeling of self-worth, and a sense of belonging. While it is well established that organizations benefit from diversity―cognitive, gender and ethnic―in a diverse workforce, in sometimes complex working environments, the potential for some to feel they do not belong is likely to be amplified. Consequently, both for the good of the individual and for the health of the organization it is critical to understand the role that the organization plays in fostering and maintaining a sense of belonging, or not belonging, in its employees.

Central to my findings was the importance of developing a culture of psychologically safety, where employees feel included, valued, and safe to contribute.

Through my recent research at Hult Ashridge Executive Education, I revealed some of the emotional, cognitive and behavioural processes involved when people feel a sense of not belonging, as well as some of the organizational cultural factors―hierarchical, political, lack in trust, and psychological safety―that can intensify the problem. I found that a sense of not belonging at work is not just about relationships. It is also about feeling ‘different’ to others, lacking commonality with colleagues and feeling that a person is not adding value, and that it can have a significant impact on our sense of self.

How to support those with a sense of not belonging

My research considers different situations that engender a sense of not belonging―the emotions, thought processes and behaviours involved―and reveals some strategies that can be employed to resolve the experience. In particular I can suggest a set of three steps to help identify and support sufferers:

1. Being aware

It is important to take the time to get to know each member of your team individually. That way it should be relatively easy to spot signs, such as withdrawal or disengagement, that suggest an employee feels they do not belong and may need support. Being aware enables managers to help employees feel appreciated both for their contribution and for who they are.

2. Helpful factors

Improving workplace practices such as these can help sufferers:

  • Making sure job roles and expectations are clearly defined.
  • Managers should be trained in the skills required to be able to help sufferers―making them feel their presence and contribution is valued.
  • Allowing employees more autonomy in the way they work can also give individuals a sense of control over their ability to belong.
  • Employee development that emphasises the interpersonal skills that underpin empathetic and genuine relationships, is important.
  • Encourage the development of social networks that help people bond and provide a safe space where they can express their concerns and provide mutual support.

3. Organizational Culture

Central to my findings was the importance of developing a culture of psychologically safety, where employees feel included, valued, and safe to contribute. The culture should prioritise inclusivity. This is an area where leadership behaviour can have a significant impact―inviting and acting upon ideas and contributions from everyone in the team, and by encouraging a mindset of openness, curiosity and inclusivity to different experiences and demographics. Such an environment will also encourage employees to speak up about how they are feeling and to hear how others are feeling―and perhaps to realise they are not really so different from everyone else, promoting the development of a positive sense of self.

Hult Ashridge Executive Education helps organizations around the world improve their leadership talent, strategic thinking and organizational culture.

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