How do we find belonging at work?

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May 25th, 2016

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catch meBelonging touches what is core to our human experience, as social beings, about where, and sometimes how, we find ourselves in relation to others, and perhaps what we can create together as a result.

When we’re muttering about ‘management’ or talking down about ‘the team’ we distance ourselves from the people that make up these collectives. Our choice of language is more than convenient short-hand; it draws a line, demarking a space for ‘us’ that is separate to ‘them’. In doing so we are toying with inclusion and exclusion, constructing an even stronger perceived connection between ‘them’ whilst denying the shared membership and interrelatedness that exists between us all. That is, perhaps, until ‘we’ve’ been nominated for an award or competitors are undercutting ‘us’ when all of a sudden we all belong together.

So when it comes to seeking belonging in our organisations, do we home in on the closest available unit, the most attractive one, the one that seems most likely to need and accept us, and therefore keep us safe? Our desire to belong motivates our actions and yet sometimes the way we act keeps us apart. What’s going on?

Peter Block (2009) provides a useful perspective on belonging, reminding us of (at least) three dimensions, all of which are useful to consider within organisations:

  • There’s membership – to be related to and be part of something
  • There’s also ownership – to be acting as a creator and co-owner
  • Finally, he suggests, there is our ‘longing to be’ – enabling our need for meaning and authenticity.

I’ve been talking recently to colleagues about their experiences of belonging (or not!) at work. They’ve talked in terms of being safe to be me in a place where I experience care and compassion from those around me. (Check out my colleague Adrian’s blog compassion means business for more on what this might look like.)

Talking about what makes it ‘safe’ – which is not the same as comfortable or easy – we’ve touched on people experiencing themselves and others as:

  • being real and authentic; not having a façade
  • feeling included; colleagues being accepting of difference; not being judged
  • being listened to and being valued, appreciated and respected as a person, not just a role

It’s a chicken and egg scenario: experiencing belonging both deepens through, and contributes to, openness and friendship, a sense of familiarity, interest in and care for each other, where needs can be named and met. Consistency around these behaviours is also important (and difficult to achieve!) as they creates a container within which difference, uncertainty, anxiety, conflict etc can be held.

Whilst my conversations and reading suggest that peoples’ need to belong at work varies, there is general agreement that an absence or low level of belongingness has detrimental effects. Research from neuroscience e.g. Lieberman, Eisenberger, 2008, suggests that the social pain of not belonging affects the brain in much the same way as experiencing physical pain. This stress response is clearly not the best state for an engaged and productive workforce, and a longer term absence of belonging, like any other basic need, has a potentially serious detrimental impact on mental and physical health.

So, where we experience ‘social pain’ and our sense of belonging is threatened we might instinctively draw up those lines between ‘them’ and ‘us’, and with loyalties challenged, disengagement might tip into negative behaviours, or wilful deviance (Lee & Allen, 2002), as we start to act against ‘them’.

On the other hand, is there a possibility of belonging too much at work? My conversations have suggested that experiencing belonging in organisations has an optimum level, different for each of us, and that too much might lead to complacency – if it is taken for granted – or burn out – if it is taken too fully to heart. Belonging, then, is also dynamic and delicate. It can be experienced at multiple levels of our organisational systems; we might ascribe ourselves membership to the organisation as a whole, a local team or belong in just a few key relationships. One things is clear, overlooking the importance of belonging to our work contexts might gloss over its potency but it will not limit its effects.

If we can get our levels of belonging ‘just right’ we will be closer to that sweet spot of balancing boundary and safety with freedom and risk. When the interpersonal dimension of organisations combines healthy relatedness and a shared identity with individuality there is huge scope to benefit from the resulting engagement and creativity.

References

Block, P. (2009) Community: the structure of belonging.
Lieberman, M & Eisenberger, N (2008) Pains and Pleasures of Social Life NeuroLeadership.
Lee, K & Allen, N (2002) Organizational Citizenship Behavior and Workplace Deviance: The Role of Affect and Cognitions Journal of Applied Psychology