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Does your current workplace provide you with a sense of belonging?

This matters because belonging has been shown to be very important in determining how committed you are to your work, your level of discretionary effort and how long you will stay in that role.

We form groups primarily to stay safe. From an evolutionary perspective, it made sense to be part of a tribe. It reduced our risk of being picked off by a predator, allowed us to share knowledge and ideas that increased our collective intelligence, and made hunting for food hopefully more successful.

While your hunt for a decent lunch may be less physically demanding today, spending time in a tribe with those we consider like us helps to build loyalty, trust and mutual respect.

Our need to belong is very strong. When you have it, it feels empowering. It provides you with greater confidence to step up and reveal your true authentic self (along with those minor imperfections). It’s that vulnerability of acknowledging that we don’t always have all the answers, that sometimes we need help, that we have a new idea we’d like to share or just want to call on a colleague for a favour.

Jake Herway from Gallup calls these type of interactions at work “meaningful moments” and notes how vulnerability can either build or break a culture.

For example, if Gary has a great idea for a new product to share with his team, how that idea is received and dealt with can either lead towards greater social cohesion if the idea is taken up and acted on or reduce it if he is left feeling belittled, ridiculed or ignored.

The problem for Australia and elsewhere has been the prevalence of the Tall Poppy Syndrome, which can lead to reluctance to speak out, because of the fear of being cut down. This can hold a work culture to ransom, stymieing innovation, resilience and adaptability.

Brené Brown reminds us that trying to fit in or seeking the approval of others can result in us presenting the less authentic version of ourselves, which is why sharing common beliefs and values is so important in the workplace environment.

She reminds us that:
“True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

Being vulnerable can feel uncomfortable, and if your self-esteem or confidence is low, might lead you to choose to stay silent or conform to the group order, to avoid the social pain of exclusion.

Professor John Cacioppo author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection revealed how social isolation disrupts our world-view, behaviour and physiology. Social isolation and loneliness have been shown to lead to a loss of motivation, contribution and poorer physical and mental health.

The recognition of how belonging is so important to our emotional wellbeing is why some workplaces and tertiary institutions such as Stanford now offer programs designed to enhance collegiality and community.

Does yours?

Nurturing Belonging

Being part of a tribe and feeling accepted will always be a work in progress for all areas of our lives.

Friendship cliques at school remain super-glued tight until one day one person is outed. The pain of social exclusion hurts as much as any physical pain because they share common neural pathways.

When workplaces and educational institutions talk about inclusivity, what they’re really talking about is creating a culture of belonging that invites everyone to part of, regardless of the diversity of background, ethnicity or gender.

Belonging is an active process

Just because you passed the audition to be accepted into a group, doesn’t mean you can sit back, relax and forget all about it. Your social brain is continually scanning and interpreting all the clues it receives to determine your level of safety in any given situation and will trigger the fight, flight or freeze response if it considers you are in a place of danger.

That’s why consistency in our behaviours is so important. Sure anyone can have a bad hair day and be off form but those we see as inconsistent; nice one moment, horrid the next that leaves with a sense of uncertainty of whether we want to be accepted into that particular group at all.

Start with acceptance

Acceptance of yourself, with all your imperfections and eccentricities, can help you to feel better about yourself because you’re not having to try to impress others, by making out you’re someone that you’re not.

Accepting others, especially those you see as different from yourself, opens you up to being able to better understand different perspectives and worldviews and to validate those points of difference you don’t agree with.

Being able to agree to disagree on particular topics keeps everyone talking, lowering the risk of negotiations completely breaking down and keeping the prospect of a compromise open.

Empower others

Reaching out to find common interests and goals is a great start and if they are not immediately obvious, try digging a little deeper. By continuing to seek to connect in some way, it becomes easier to reduce the impact of bias and judgement.

Keeping an open mind and being an active listener helps you to help another person to feel heard and accepted.

Use a variety of channels

If belonging is a bit thin on the ground at work, look for other ways to bolster your acceptance rate into other groups outside work.

Social media has provided a fabulous array of different channels to achieve this. Whether you’re on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, sharing you and being accepted has never been easier.

Engagement is about belonging

Feeling motivated to do great work starts with a sense of belonging and feeling part of a community or culture that cares.

A recent LinkedIn survey revealed four key factors to achieve this.

  1. Recognition of your unique efforts and accomplishments. This was by far THE most important factor cited by 59% of those surveyed.
  2. Knowing your efforts and contributions are valued.
    50% of those surveyed rated this as crucial – starting with active listening and respect.
  3. A safe platform to speak up.
  4. 51% of those surveyed revealed how knowing they can voice an opinion mattered to them. This is very helpful for more open and honest conversations.
  5. Bringing your best (and real) self to work.
    50% reported the need to be treated as an individual. This humanises the workplace and fosters greater contribution and collegiality.

Do you enjoy a sense of belonging at work?

What can you do to foster a greater sense of social cohesion and acceptance at work?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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