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Belonging: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How To Nurture It

By Emily Bissel

Key Points:

  • Belonging is a fundamental human need that dates back to our earliest ancestors
  • A sense of belonging is key to accessing our skills and realizing our full potential
  • Lack of belonging greatly affects workers’ happiness, well-being and productivity
  • As individuals and organizations, we can have a real impact when we value and prioritize belonging

The basis of belonging

As humans, we all crave a sense of belonging. We can trace the need for belonging back to our prehistoric ancestors, to whom group life was essential for safety and survival. Back then, people lived in small communities where hunting and gathering were shared responsibilities. To increase the chances of survival, natural selection tended to favor those who showed pro-social behaviors. As a consequence, over time our need for belonging became hardwired into who we are as a species.

Belonging is so fundamental to human flourishing that it ranks third on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, right after our physical needs (e.g., air, water, food and shelter) and our needs for safety and security. Maslow’s research showed that individuals are often unable to pursue cognitive and aesthetic needs until they have satisfied their basic need for belonging.

Maslow's Hierarchy Belonging

Similarly, in 1995, psychologists Baumeister and Leary identified belonging as a universal human need, ingrained in our motivation as a species and stemming from our ancestral roots. Their research showed that belonging has multiple effects on our emotional and cognitive processes, so much so that a lack of it was linked to ill effects on health and well-being. A lack of belonging has also been linked to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety and even suicide.

 

Belonging is in our biology

From the moment we are born, we desire connection with our primary caregivers. For young babies, this connection comes mostly from touch and skin-to-skin contact. But as we grow and develop, other forms of connection become increasingly important, such as eye contact and vocal communication. 

Research has shown that early physical connection stimulates a specific part of a newborn’s brain that leads to emotional, neurological and social development. These sensations tell the newborn that the outside world is safe. In other words, these early bonds we establish with our caregivers are pivotal in setting us up for the relationships we form with others throughout our lives.

The powerful role of oxytocin, “the herding hormone,” in social bonding further underscores how belonging is in our biology. Oxytocin facilitates human bonding and has significant effects on our relationships, prompting feelings of love and protection, as well as empathy and trust. Bonding hormones like oxytocin make us feel good and motivate us to seek out and nurture social connections.

 

But what exactly is belonging?

The need for belonging is universal. Belonging enables us to feel confident showing up as our authentic selves while empowering us to access our full range of skills, abilities and potential. We feel a sense of belonging when we feel connected to others, and when we feel that our presence and contributions are valued. And it can come from anywhere — from friends and family, coworkers, members of a community and even through social media. But how is belonging defined by experts?

According to Cornell University, the definition of belonging is “the feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a member of a certain group.” 

Psychologist Carl Rogers described belonging like this:

 “Belonging is defined as a unique and subjective experience that relates to a yearning for connection to others.”

But it's not only psychologists that have offered up definitions of belonging. Throughout history, poets, writers, religious leaders, politicians, activists, social-media personalities, and even astrophysicists have tried to put into words what it means to belong and seek connection with others — perhaps one of the most defining characteristics of what it means to be human.

Below we’ve listed some more descriptions of belonging that we quite like here at Inclusivv. But while belonging is a universal and deeply human phenomenon, it can also be singular and quite personal. How would you describe belonging?

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” — Herman Melville

 

“Is solace anywhere more comforting than in the arms of a sister?” — Alice Walker

 

“He who masters the power formed by a group of people working together has within his grasp one of the greatest powers known to man.” — Idowu Koyenikan

 

“The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us, and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.” — Goethe

 

“Those who have a strong sense of love and belonging have the courage to be imperfect.” — Brené Brown, PhD, MSW 

 

Belonging at work

As of 2021, the average full-time worker in the United States worked 42.1 hours a week — more than a third of most people’s waking hours. And because we spend so much of our lives at work, our sense of belonging at work has far-reaching consequences on our general sense of well-being. And yet, 80% of workers state that they have felt or feel lonely at work.

This is terrible for workers, but it’s also bad for business, resulting in millions of dollars in lost productivity, high employee turnover, and increased sick days. And while many have pointed the finger at the post-Covid rise in virtual and hybrid work arrangements as the culprit, the solution isn’t so simple as getting everyone back into the office. 

After all, remote work has many upsides for parents, caregivers and employees who hold marginalized identities, especially those working for companies where they are already seen or treated as outliers. For parents and caretakers (the majority of whom are women), remote work can allow them to better juggle work with their caretaking obligations. For workers of color, it can be a welcome reprieve from the exhaustion of having to code-switch and being on the receiving end of micro- and macro-aggressions. For workers with disabilities, remote work can help them bypass the barriers posed by commuting and avoid stigma by making some disabilities less noticeable. These examples are only scratching the surface. And let’s not forget introverts and people who are simply more productive in a quieter environment. 

The truth is, although remote work can pose unique challenges to a company’s culture, lack of belonging comes from a lack of inclusion — of feeling like you’re not wanted or accepted for who you are, as you are. Quite simply, without belonging, it’s hard to keep your people.

“The primary reason people join and stay in a company or organization is not that they want to earn more money and reach a high level of status (although they enjoy both), but because they want to belong. The deepest intrinsic desire they wish to fulfill at work is to feel included, accepted, appreciated, and valued by a social group that, in their eyes, is worth belonging to” (Fortune).

On the other hand, the power of a positive sense of belonging in the workplace is remarkable. Belonging has been shown to lead to:

  • 56% increase in job performance
  • 50% reduction in turnover risk
  • 167% increase in employer net promoter score (NPS) 
  • 2x more employee raises
  • 18x more employee promotions
  • 75% decrease in sick days

Source: Deloitte

In summary, belonging is essential to the well-being of workers, and it’s one of the most effective ways to unlock people’s full potential.

 

How to be a champion of belonging

So what can you do to foster a culture of belonging? 

Here are 3 tips that are useful to everyone in any situation, whether with family, friends, colleagues or your community. We have also included 3 tips specifically for leaders within organizations. We hope you find them helpful!

  1. Use inclusive language. Many of us grew up hearing the saying, “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” But this couldn’t be further from the truth. While words don’t wound us physically, they wield tremendous power, and the words and phrases we use every day can have a huge impact on another person's sense of belonging. While we will all mess up and make mistakes, the people in your life will truly appreciate your efforts to start using inclusive language and build belonging, one conversation at a time! To put this into practice, here’s a helpful resource from Deloitte.
  2. Facilitate connection. Whether you’re an introvert who prefers small gatherings or an extrovert who thrives in a crowd, you can be a champion for belonging by bringing people together. Whether you do so by organizing group gatherings outside the usual setting or by encouraging honest and courageous dialogue, proactively plan and encourage activities that create opportunities for genuine connection.
  3. Help nurture psychological safety. The term “psychological safety,” first coined by scholar and Harvard professor Amy Edmondson in 1999, refers to “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.” When friends or colleagues know they can express who they are and be accepted for it (i.e., feel that they belong), it helps them speak up and contribute better ideas. Read about how Google learned to foster psychological safety in their teams with their Project Aristotle.
Additional Tips For Leaders:
  1. Listen. The best way to know whether your team, organization or community has a belonging issue is to ask the group members themselves — but it’s not as simple as it might sound. It isn’t enough for leaders to simply ask point-blank, especially if employees or members don’t feel psychologically safe enough to share honest feedback. Whether you do so via anonymous surveys or bring in a confidential third party, it’s vital that you actually put in the work to ask with genuine curiosity — and then commit to taking action based on what you learn.
  2. Walk the walk. Are the people making key decisions for your organization representative of your employees? If your company boasts diversity in your workforce but that diversity isn’t reflected in your leadership, chances are there are valuable perspectives you’re leaving out of the discussion. It’s about more than just hiring more diversely, including at the leadership level. It’s about inviting those perspectives in and listening to what they have to say rather than expecting them to adhere to the status quo.
  3. Dedicate space for everyone. Allowing people to organize Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and offering support for these kinds of initiatives can also contribute to an increased sense of community and belonging. ERGs provide a space for purpose and identity that extends beyond the workplace.

*Bonus

Talk the talk. According to the World Economic Forum, "Shared dialogue is one of the best tools we have for creating inclusion. By giving everyone a voice, we build belonging while fostering empathy and social cohesion." Creating the space for people to engage in meaningful dialogue is a powerful way to foster belonging in your team, community or organization. We know an organization who can help with that... :)

 

How to calculate the ROI for belonging within your organization

Too often we hear that belonging is just too “fluffy” and hard to evaluate or measure. Of course, we’re dealing with feelings, so it is a bit softer to report on, rather than more objective measures like activities. 

But we have to remember that we are emotional beings who sometimes think. And our emotions drive our behavior and our actions in the workplace. So we’re better off acknowledging that feelings matter, and finding ways to frequently gauge emotional well-being within our organizations. It’s the only way we’re going to know before an exit interview that something is off — and still have time to fix it. 

OK, so you get it, but how do you convince your boss that this whole “belonging” thing is worth the effort? 

Let’s look at the numbers. 

According to research, and this article by HBR, “The Value of Belonging at Work,” the average added value per employee per year who feels like they belong is $5,200. This is due to higher job performance, lower turnover risk and fewer sick days

Right now in the U.S., the average sense of belonging within a company hovers around 51%. Yikes. 

So let’s take a 300-employee company as an example. If we multiply 51% x 300, we get 153 employees who feel like they belong. That means you have 147 who don’t feel they belong, and that’s costing you about $764,400 per year due to lower job performance and higher turnover risk. (147 x $5,200 per employee per year). Following along? 

That’s a huge opportunity cost. 

Let’s say you set a goal to increase your overall employee sense of belonging by +10% within the next year, which is doable. How would you calculate the value of that change? 

Instead of 51%, you’d aim for 61%, and you’d add 30 employees to the high sense of belonging, reducing your risk by about $156,000 per year for your company, and creating a happier work environment for your employees. 

Inclusivv has a track record of helping companies move the needle on their employee sense of belonging. And for just $60 per employee per year, for a 300 person company, that would be an investment of just $18,000 with a +10% change in belonging, that’s a 9x return on investment!

 

A final word on belonging

Belonging is more than just a fad or the newest buzzword in the DEI space. It is a deeply ingrained and deeply human need that is essential to our health and well-being. As people who exist in communities and workplaces where our actions affect others, we can have a real impact when we value and prioritize belonging.

Learn how Inclusivv can help you build belonging in your community or organization. Book a consult today.

Tags: Workplace, DEI, Well-Being, Belonging

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