Belonging – a word that comes from the old English word “gelang”, meaning “at hand” or “together with” - is a fundamental human need. And yet it's not a word commonly used in the context of business.
Humans find reward in seeking out a positive sense of belonging from our social interactions and, conversely, when we don’t attain it - when we feel left out - our threat response system in the amygdala part of our brain is triggered and we experience strong, negative emotions.
Finding ‘people like us’ is critical in all aspects of life. When I think back across my life so far I’ve had some notable engagements with belonging – positive and negative: the constancy of a best friend over forty years, the loss of an unconditionally supportive parent, the lifelong physical and emotional bonds of being part of a rugby team, the feeling of being a stranger in my own business after taking parental leave, the loneliness of self-employment, and the joy of co-creating a brand new family as a parent. Belonging is, at best, life affirming and, at worst, hugely damaging.
The science behind belonging
A few years ago psychologists and neuroscientists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary unearthed the “belongingness hypothesis” which states that people have a basic psychological need to feel closely connected to others, and that caring bonds from close relationships are a major part of human behaviour.
And we're seemingly addicted to it: we form attachments to people we hardly know, we avoid breaking bonds with those who abuse us, and we sometimes even believe our fates are intertwined with others.
The good news is that positive belonging is good for our health: studies show that happily married couples are expected to live longer than single individuals, and close relationships boost our immune systems. Conversely, when couples separate through things like work-related distance, military duty, or even prison, they report more loneliness.
Belonging at work
Finding a sense of belonging in the workplace is just as fundamental a need, especially if we want to thrive in our jobs.
When we form bonds with colleagues, and create a sense of being ‘in it’ together, it can be very powerful. Having worked in media agencies, I know, by example, that a pitch team fuelled by oxytocin and positive adrenalin can often be a winning team.
It can be harder to form these bonds in work, though. We don’t always have time to build rapport and trust, even though we spend hundreds of hours sitting so close to colleagues. And insecurity and mistrust creeps in, especially in highly competitive environments – often competition among talent is more rife within the four walls of an organisation than externally, in the broader market.
After a while, it is easy to conclude the we don’t belong, that the commitment to making it work on the part of the employer isn’t there. Consider how many posts are abandoned, in part, by not believing that we belong, that the business didn’t care for, or need, us enough? We rationalize it in more practical and logical terms: a crap boss, insufficient resources, not enough investment in training, not given enough challenge or new opportunities, or not paid as much as colleagues.
And so it goes: that we move away from, and towards a new, workplace that we hope will provide us with a happier and more rewarding sense of belonging.
What’s more: trying to find belonging in the workplace requires a huge amount of energy that many of us simply cannot muster. We instinctively and subconsciously spend our working days trying to sniff out and mitigate threats to our belonging: prejudice, barriers and negative stereotyping. It’s a stressful pursuit. Social psychologists have reported higher levels of anxiety and physiological stress, and reduced capacity of working memory, when people feel that they are negatively stereotyped, for example.
A sense of not belonging can be draining and the upset hugely distracting - it detracts from activities that would otherwise bring us reward, like social interaction, learning or practical achievement.
Why does a sense of belonging matter in business?
So if belonging at work is elusive, and the pursuit of it exhausting, why bother?
(Well, let’s face it, some of us don’t – some of us really struggle to attempt even the smallest of social connection at work. The lost ones.)
Because feeling like we belong has a positive impact on our levels of achievement. Studies such as one by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have found that workers and students who had a greater sense of belonging were more inclined to have a higher level of engagement (in the classroom or workplace), and tended to have high levels of performance.