5 Steps to Build Belonging

 Ensuring that employees feel they ‘belong’ has gained increased attention in recent years. The Covid-19 pandemic added an extra layer of focus and, intuitively, increased the complexity of supporting ‘belonging’ at work as so many of us worked from home. This has been particularly challenging for Early Career Talent (ECT), making an already difficult transition even more so. And as working patterns evolve in the blended context of 2022, supporting a sense of belonging across hybrid teams has never been more important.

This blog looks briefly at what we mean by ‘belonging’, and why it’s so critically important for organisations and their people, before turning to share actionable tips and tools that you can deploy in your organisations to enhance the sense of belonging for your ECT (and beyond!).

What is belonging?

Described in the Cambridge Dictionary as ‘to feel happy or comfortable in a situation’, belonging has long been recognised as one of our core psychological needs. From ‘love and belonging’ in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to ‘Connectedness’ in Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory and the 1,330,000 Google-Scholar results returned by searching ‘psychology’ and ‘belonging’, the importance of belonging for a range of outcomes is well established.

Why does it matter?

As with D&I, the business case for promoting belonging in organisations is overwhelming; and because it benefits both people and the bottom line, its pursuit is the definition of a no-brainer for organisations.

Research by Better Up (2020) shows that when employees feel they belong, performance increases by 56% while the extent to which they promote their organisation rises by 167%. Conversely, a feeling of belonging is negatively correlated with less desirable metrics: we see a decrease for instance of 50% in staff turnover and a 75% reduction in sick days taken.

These results are supported by self-report data from a large global study by Cognizant which found people believed belonging would significantly increase their motivation, commitment, pride, emotional and physical wellbeing, and overall engagement (2020).

For individuals, Better Up found that those who feel they belong can expect to enjoy 2x the number of raises and 8x the number of promotions compared to those who did not feel they belonged.

Further for the individual, feeling a lack of belonging (social exclusion) has been shown by neuroscientists to activate similar circuits in our brain to physical pain (e.g; Kross et al, 2011). In essence, when we feel social pain, our brains process that as it would bodily pain.

Scientists believe (Eisenberger & Liberman, 2004) that the social pain system in our brain may have piggybacked onto the physical pain system for the very reason that whilst avoiding physical pain may be primary in ensuring our survival (hence the primacy of the physical pain system) avoiding social exclusion (e.g., from caregivers and peers) was also essential for our evolutionary survival.

The need to belong appears to be hardwired, and thus it is not surprising to find that employees say having a sense of belonging is hugely important to them. In a study of 11,000 employees, Cognizant & Microsoft (2020) found that 91.6% of respondents agreed that belonging at work was important, and 62% went so far as to state that feeling valued was more important than their salary!

What can we do to support our ECT’s sense of belonging?

 

Promoting a culture where people feel they belong cannot be addressed with a silver bullet; it needs to be cultivated (Cognizant 2020) and requires everyone to be committed and involved.

DBL are in the business of promoting behaviour change, so here are some tangible evidence-based strategies that you can deploy immediately in your organisations to improve the belonging of your ECT, their managers, your peers and even yourself. The more people in your organisation deploy these tactics, the greater the pendulum swing will be towards a utopia of belonging for the many, not just the few.

C – U – R – V – E

My favourite behavioural science principle is ‘if you want someone to do something, make it easy’. For this reason, I am a big fan of mnemonics. CURVE is an acronym for 5 strategies to increase belonging within your organisation, and to change the CURVE away from the isolation and lack of connection triggered by Covid towards one of belonging and connectedness.

Be CURIOUS:

One of the most important ways to help someone to feel they belong is to ensure they feel seen, heard and valued. It is impossible to do this without having an interest and curiosity in who they are, where they have come from and where they are going. It’s human nature to sometimes assume we understand more than we do about others. The following are concrete changes you can make to ensure you are being Curious and building belonging:

  • Replace statements with questions and stay in the moment so that you are actively hearing their answer.

  • Listen without judgement, demonstrate empathy (see R below!) and never get bored.

Feeling welcomed into organisations is one of the major steps to feeling belonging, so make sure that everybody involved in integrating ECT into your organisation understands the importance of staying curious about each person you hire and avoiding stereotypical thinking.

UNDERSTAND bias:

Much has been made of and said about unconscious bias (both in favour and against). The simple fact is that humans have biases that are hardwired into our being. What you can do is seek to understand these biases and how they might show up in yourself and others to the detriment of belonging. Two tangible ways you can do this to support ECT include:

  • Help ECT and their managers, mentors and beyond to understand the ways in which our biases can hinder our ability to make everyone feel that they belong. Biases such as confirmation bias and stereotyping are commonplace and natural. Give employees permission not to be perfect, but to learn to recognise imperfection when it arises and to circumnavigate it, e.g., by staying curious rather than succumbing to confirmation bias or stereotyping.

  • Empower (see E!) ECT and those working with them to explore how to use bias for good. For instance, the mere-exposure effect tells us that people tend to like people more that are familiar to them. If you find you or others are struggling to relate to some of your ECT, that may be the perfect time to double down and foster more opportunities to spend more time with them (in person or virtually). Which brings us onto:

RELATE deliberately:

Relationships don’t happen by accident. They require intention and investment. More so in these days of remote and hybrid work. Two ways in which you can ensure that your ECT and their supporters are more deliberate about how they relate to each other include:

  • Creating moments of connection deliberately: Watercooler moments do not happen by chance in hybrid contexts. They need to be engineered. For your ECT think about scaffolding their onboarding and beyond with engineered meetings – between peers, with managers, senior leaders, mentors and beyond. During the pandemic, software company Buffer introduced all-employee teatimes, virtual lunches and pair-calls to mitigate the impact of remote working. Many of the tactics we’ve deployed to deliberately create moments of connection in the last two years will now need to be re-engineered for a hybrid context in 2022.

  • Showing empathy:  Frequency of connection is one thing, but the quality is every bit as, if not more, important. Being curious and vulnerable are two ways to build empathy, as are making sure you pay attention through active listening and going beyond words to interpret body language. It’s worth thinking about supporting those who will have most interaction with your ECT to ensure they know how to build high quality connections through empathy; this builds trust and enhances belonging.

Promote VULNERABILITY:

Trust is a huge component of belonging. People feel they belong when they feel they can trust those around them. A culture of appropriate vulnerability supports psychological safety, essential for trust and belonging to thrive:

  • Encourage people to be vulnerable: One of the benefits from the pandemic is that the lines between work and home have blurred. As a result, we have seen behind the curtain of many of our colleagues’ lives and recognised that we are all human and have alarms, dogs, children, washing machines that make noises at inopportune moments. Being (appropriately) vulnerable about experiences empowers others to feel comfortable sharing their own highs and lows. In being able to ‘bring their whole self’ to work, ECT will truly feel they are able to belong.

  • Create an environment where others feel safe to be vulnerable: from sharing brave innovative ideas to feeling able to speak up if they feel someone, or they themselves, are being side-lined. It’s crucial that ECT feel this from the beginning, so weave opportunities for them to fail safely, to share brave ideas, and to be applauded early on.

EMPOWER:

Finally, feeling empowered and autonomous is another core psychological need (Ryan & Deci, 2000), yet people can often feel out of control and disempowered when it comes to impacting their own sense of belonging and to supporting others. To counter these feelings of disempowerment, two tips for improving belonging in your ECT include:

  • Deliberately help ECT to understand their autonomy when it comes to their own sense of belonging within your organisation. E.g., research shows that by giving others support and the benefit of the doubt, they are more likely to do the same in return to you – a true example of ‘do as I do’.

  • Help managers and supporters of ECT to understand how to feel empowered in supporting others’ belonging by sharing the CURVE tips above and empowering them to feel that it is their role to build belonging for ECT, and well within their grasp.

 

Wishing you every success in changing the CURVE towards one of belonging for your ECT in this and the coming years.


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Alice Hooper-Scott

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