The word ‘belonging’ may sound like a fluffy word that has no place in business but research shows it is directly correlated to performance outcomes and can give your team a competitive edge.
What is belonging and why does it matter?
The term ‘belonging’ is essentially about the human emotional need to affiliate with and be accepted by members of a group. Fundamentally human beings' behaviour in groups has not evolved much over the last 60,000 years. The purpose of a group historically was to take care of each other in an environment of trust and safety. We are biologically hardwired to need a sense of belonging and feeling of safety, and we expect our leaders to look after our best interests. In the past this meant that the group leader would take care of us and organise us well to ensure everyone was coordinated and aligned. These are the same needs we have in the workplace today.
Feeling excluded has a similar effect on the brain as physical pain. This has an obvious negative impact on ability to focus and perform highly at work.
When we feel we belong somewhere, we feel cared about and part of the group. We can relax, breathe, express ourselves and be ourselves. We feel enough psychological safety to ask questions and put ideas out there, knowing we won’t be judged and rejected. This is key for building an innovative work environment, avoiding groupthink and maximising the benefits of diverse perspectives employees bring. It’s not about ‘fitting in’ but having the confidence to speak up and be your authentic self, contributing to the team's goals rather than worrying about protecting yourself.
What impact does belonging actually have?
Studies have linked workplace belonging with an increase in job performance and employee net promoter score (willingness to recommend the company to others) as well as a decrease in turnover risk and sick days. Conversely, a single incident that leads someone to feel excluded can lead to an immediate decline in an individual’s performance at work.
A 2019 study by BetterUp found that workplace belonging can lead to an estimated 56% increase in job performance, a 50% reduction in turnover risk, and a 75% decrease in employee sick days. The study found that a single incidence of “micro-exclusion” can lead to an immediate 25% decline in an individual’s performance on a team project.
Employees with higher workplace belonging also showed a 167% increase in their employer promoter score (their willingness to recommend their company to others).
Hays Salary Guide report - when analysing key influences for employees intending to stay with their current organisation in the next 12 months a sense of belonging was key with employees 2.49 times more likely to stay when they felt a sense of belonging.
Building a culture of belonging
Sprout’s foundational building blocks for an engaged, high performance team are 1) Having a sense of purpose and motivating vision aligned to your overall goals 2) Building a culture that drives the behaviours you need to make the vision come to reality. Central to this is creating a feeling of belonging.
Owen Eastwood is a performance consultant who wrote an amazing book called Belonging - in it he describes how 70% of behaviour is determined by the environment you’re in. This shows the importance in leaders spending time thinking about their environment and making sure it’s encouraging the kinds of behaviours they need for their business to succeed. So ask yourself, how is my work environment creating a sense of belonging?
The values and behavioural norms that you define and live by are what will make or break the culture. Leaving it to chance doesn’t work - culture will form regardless of whether we design for it deliberately or not. The best time to define the culture you want in your business is as you’re starting to grow. What kind of culture does your business need to succeed?
3 practical ways to foster a sense of belonging
1# Design an onboarding experience that builds a sense of belonging early. Find ways to help new starters feel connected with their colleagues, leaders and the bigger picture organisational purpose and vision. Give people trust and validation that they were hired for a reason - they are believed in and great at what they do. That's why they are here, they don't need to prove anything (it is with that trust and safety that they’ll be able to give their best).
2# Have regular 1 on 1 conversations between leaders and direct reports to check how they’re going and any support they need
3# Encourage a culture where people can be themselves in a high trust environment. Involve your team in building this culture, taking a human-centred approach, listening to your people and what matters to them. Asking people for their ideas and perspectives is one of the most impactful ways to make people feel valued.