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The importance of belonging at work

13 Jan 2020 By Dr Lee Waller

Employees who feel they don’t fit in can lack self-esteem and become distant or withdrawn. Dr Lee Waller explains how employers can support them

If a member of your team consistently avoids team lunches and work get-togethers, or regularly appears distant, detached or withdrawn, they could be experiencing a sense of not belonging at work. Behaviours such as these, along with trying to conform and not presenting your authentic self at work, are strategies often employed as a means of self-protection by those who feel they don’t fit in.

The behaviours are driven by a fundamental human need that goes back to the beginning of time – the need to belong to social groups that offered protection, nurture and support and ensured we survived as a species. In fact, scientific studies have found that a sense of belonging is so critical to our survival that the pain experienced through rejection triggers the same neural circuits as physical pain.

Recent research from Hult Ashridge Executive Education has found, however, 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 we are not adding value in our roles and in our teams. When these factors collide in organisational cultures, which are hierarchical, political, and lacking in trust and psychological safety, they can become magnified and people struggle to know how to deal with them.

As work is often fundamental to how we define ourselves, a sense of not belonging at work can have an impact on our very sense of who we are. It undermines our self-esteem, makes us feel less effective and productive at work and can even make us call our very identity into question.

Often, people who feel they don’t fit in blame themselves. They think they must be weak or deficient in some way or that there is something fundamentally wrong with their personality or capabilities. A common response is to try and counter these feelings by trying harder to fit in, presenting themselves in a way they feel may be more acceptable, or in some cases avoiding situations they know they will find difficult.

This becomes a perpetuating cycle. Our attempts to try and belong only serve to undermine our self-esteem even further. We beat ourselves up for not having the courage to be authentic, blame ourselves for not being resilient enough to deal with the issue – and, as a result, distance ourselves even further from our colleagues.

How to support those with a sense of not belonging

If, as a manager, you suspect people in your team are struggling with a sense of not belonging, there are three key steps you can take.

The first step is awareness. Conformity, withdrawal or disengagement might all be signs that an employee feels that they don’t belong. Similarly, individuals who have not established quality relationships, who may be in a minority demographic or who have experienced a failure in the workplace may also be affected. Take the time to get to know your team on an individual level, so that you can identify employees who may need support.

The second step is looking at what helpful factors might be lacking in your organisation. Do employees receive development in the important interpersonal skills that underpin empathetic and genuine relationships? Are there social networks that help people bond and provide a safe space where employees can support each other and express their concerns? Do managers know how to help employees feel understood and appreciated both for their contribution and for who they are? Clarifying expectations and requirements of roles and making sure staff are fully trained in the skills they need will also help people feel they are able to perform effectively and can make a valuable contribution. Less hierarchical structures and more autonomy in the way people go about their jobs can also give individuals a sense of control over their ability to belong, which our research suggests encourages constructive approaches to resolving the experience rather than withdrawal or disengagement.

The third step involves the development of a psychologically safe culture, where employees feel safe to contribute, feel included and valuable. This will encourage people to speak out and get support if they feel excluded, and will lead to them feeling more able to be themselves in the workplace. Leader behaviour has a significant role to play, particularly the extent to which leaders are inclusive – by inviting and acting upon ideas and contributions, for example, and by encouraging a mindset of openness, curiosity and inclusivity to different experiences and demographics.

This inclusivity also encourages employees to speak up about how they are feeling, which may help them realise they are not alone in their experience, and are not really so different from everyone else.

Dr Lee Waller is a member of the leadership faculty at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School

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