How to build a sense of belonging in the workplace

Nurturing a sense of belonging in the workplace is essential for productive workplace culture. (Photo via Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts, Flickr)

What are we really talking about when we say “employee engagement”? A workforce that shares a sense of belonging in the workplace, for starters.
This is the new evolution of engagement: really drilling down to core concepts to better understand business jargon.
“Engagement is, as I like to joke, a six-dollar word that consultants say when people like what they do and want to come to work everyday,” executive coach and educator John Baldoni writes in a Forbes column on developing engagement.
When an employee has a sense of belonging in the workplace, it “connotes ownership,” Baldoni writes.
“You belong therefore you own. Not property but something more meaningful. You own responsibility. You have a sense of autonomy that enables you to act for the good of the organization. Not because you have to, but because you want to.”
The IBM/Globoforce “Employee Engagement Index” measures belonging first among the “five key tenets” of a positive employee experience. It defines sense of belonging in the workplace as “feeling part of a team, group or organization.”

The Psychology Behind Belonging

“The need to belong is often overlooked in the workplace,” according to Switch and Shift’s Lisa Kelley. Yet belonging “can literally feel like a life or death matter.”
She explains:

“For our ancestors, belonging to a group that shared the workload and helped protect each other was essential for survival. As a result our brains are hardwired to motivate us toward connection and belonging. In fact, recent research in neuroscience has indicated that social needs are managed using the same neural networks as used for primary survival needs such as food and water.”

If we’re hardwired to develop the social bonds that feed a sense of belonging, why are so many American workers disengaged from their jobs?
The problem is twofold, according to Kelley. First, employers don’t do enough to facilitate connection. Second, they implement programs, systems and structures that “have a tendency to alienate and cause divisiveness.”
When that sense of belonging is lacking in a workplace, employees feel threatened in a way that is akin to physical pain.
The result? “Anxiety, avoidance of tasks and uncooperative or even undermining behavior,” Kelley writes. In other words, classic signs of employee disengagement.
The need to belong doesn’t just evaporate, however. Employees who haven’t developed a sense of belonging through a strong identification with an organization will seek out that feeling in other, toxic ways:

  • Collective cynicism
  • Gossiping
  • Cliques
  • Information hoarding
  • Silo thinking

“Many of these behaviors are rooted in an employee’s drive to create their own sense of belonging, generally by excluding others,” Kelley writes.

3 Ways to Ensure Sense of Belonging in the Workplace

Fair pay and the right tools to finish the job are often considered the “basics” for employees. Add developing and nurturing employees’ sense of belonging — it’s absolutely essential to creating a productive workplace culture. Employees who feel like they belong will stay in their jobs longer, collaborate better and go the extra mile on projects.
Here’s how to help nurture employees’ innate need for belonging in a positive, productive way:
1. Explain why the work is meaningful
All jobs have a purpose that connects to genuine human needs, even if it’s not immediately apparent. For example: a janitor isn’t just cleaning up messes, she’s creating a safe and livable environment for others.
Everyone in management at your organization needs to be well-versed in communicating this connection to employees. Work is never just work. The more managers can help employees see the positive outcomes of their work, the better.
2. Thank employees
Once the work’s meaning is clear, let employees know how grateful you are for their work. Show gratitude individually and to teams.
It helps employees feel included, it motivates excellent performance in the future and it gives them an emotional reason to stay with your company.
3. Celebrate together
There is a wrong way to throw a workplace party: the managers buy everyone pizzas and then retreat to their offices. What does that kind of “party” communicate about the organization? Nobody cares, and you’re on your own.
Instead, celebrate together. Invite all departments. Encourage management to say a few words about the company’s big-picture accomplishments and future plans, as well as thank the whole staff for their efforts toward achieving them.
Employees take their cues from management, so managers who share in that sense of belonging will respond in kind.

FREE Resources for Building Workplace Belonging

We all need inspiration to create a sense of belonging in the workplace. Here at gThankYou we love helping companies connect, engage with and celebrate employees.
Here are two free eBooks that will inspire and provide actionable tools to help you build a culture of appreciation and connectedness. Download them and start making a difference today!

1.  “Day-to-Day Employee Celebration Calendar” provides the tools and inspiration to build a culture of appreciation every day of the year. It includes mini-case studies, key stats and focus features on engagement trends, plus a calendar of celebrations and holidays for engaging with employees.
Be inspired! Download yours today, absolutely free.
“In life, one has a choice to take one of two paths: to wait for some special day — or to celebrate each special day.” -Rasheed Ogunlaru, coach and author

2.  “Transform Your Workplace with Gratitude” unlocks the secrets to recruiting and retaining a superior workforce, increasing profits and having more fun at work.
Learn more about the science of workplace gratitude, why gratitude is so powerful in the workplace and simple techniques to improve any organization — starting now!

 Building employee gratitude and a vibrant workplace culture

Here’s to a happier workplace!

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