Create a Sense of Belonging
Originally published: 06.01.16 by Christine Comaford
Consider the power of belonging. Adolescents will change their speech, dress and behavior to "fit in" with their peer groups. Adults, too, gain much of their identity from the neighborhoods in which they live, the churches they attend and the political parties with which they align. Yes, belonging to "the tribe" is a human need we never grow out of — yet most leaders neglect it in the workplace.
Many companies have fostered cultures of exile. No one is purposely making people feel they don't belong, but they're also not proactively making them feel they do — and that's ahuge, huge mistake.
Belonging, along with safety and mattering, is a basic human drive. After food-water-shelter needs have been met, we must feel that we're safe, that we matter, and that we belong. If not, we can't seek self-actualization —meaning we can't perform, innovate, collaborate, or do any of the other things it takes to survive in our global economy.
Exile is a deep-rooted, very primal fear. The way our critter brain sees it is: "If I'm not part of the tribe, then I must not matter and I'm surely not safe. A lion is going to eat me. My only goal right now is survival so I am going to do and say whatever will keep me safe."
When employees feel this way, they hide out, procrastinate, or say what the boss wants to hear instead of what they need to hear. Such behaviors are devastating for business. When they occur chronically, not only will your company be unable to move forward and grow, it may flounder and fail.
People will never speak up and say they feel they don't belong. It's too scary. It's up to you as the leader to diagnose the problem and take steps to fix it. Here are several red flags that indicate you may be fostering a culture of exile.
Certain people get preferential treatment. Maybe there are different sets of rules for different employees: "exempt" people and "non-exempt" people (many companies harbor "untouchables," people who were hired and most likely over-promoted because they are related to — or friends with — someone in power). Or maybe the CEO always plays golf with Drew and Tom, but not Greg and Alan.
Preferential treatment is a leadership behavior and it's extremely damaging. It's a major culprit in making people feel exiled.
Sure, we all "click" with certain people more readily than we do with others. That's only natural. But if you notice some employees seem to be regularly excluding others — maybe members of a certain department socialize after work but one or two people are not invited — take it seriously. Those who are left out know it … and it doesn't feel good.
It's amazing how little difference there can be between high school dynamics and workplace dynamics. And while leaders can't (and shouldn't) interfere with friendships between employees, they can set an example of inclusion.
They can have frank discussions on the hurtfulness of making someone feel exiled. They can hold fun workplace events and celebrations to strengthen bonds between all coworkers.
It's worth making an effort to help everyone feel they belong. Generally leaders do set the tone, so when you focus on belonging, everyone will.
At some companies there's a stark division — maybe even a chasm — between the executive suite and the hourly workers. The white-collar guys are on a higher floor with nicer furniture, while the blue-collar guys are lucky if the bathroom is maintained. To many people, this may seem like the natural order of things but this attitude is precisely the problem.
Is it really a good idea for the physical workplace to say, "We're in the gated community while you're in the trailer park?" Leaders may not think of it that way but those under them do.
What belonging really means is everyone is equal and marching forward together. We really need to do all we can to work toward this goal, and getting rid of some of the symbols of divisiveness would be a good start.
Entrenched silos lead to information withholding and turf wars. Of course, departments are, by definition, different from each other. Still, they needn't be alienated from each other. It's possible for departments to be "different" in a healthy way while still marching forward together.
It's okay for groups to have their own identity, yet they must still be able to link arms and help each other toward that end goal. That's the beauty of reassuring they belong to the company overall, they don't have to close ranks and play power games. They can share and collaborate because now it's safe to do so — we're all in this together.
No Development Path
True belonging is knowing you're not just a cog in the machine. It's knowing employers care about your future and want you to live up to your potential. It's knowing "I might just be a technician right now but I could be a service manager one day — and the company is willing to help me get there."
You should implement Individual Development Plans for every employee at every level.
When people see their individual development plan, they think, "Okay, the company's purpose is this, my part is this and we're all going into this glorious future together."
It tells them they're safe and you're planning on them being here for a long time. They belong. You bothered to lay out this plan just for them, and they clearly know what they need to do to grow here. They're part of the tribe, and you're putting energy into figuring out how they can be part of the tribe in a bigger way.
Making employees feel that strong sense of belonging can send performance into hyperdrive. When people feel they truly belong, they will open up their minds and do everything in their power to make sure the tribe is successful.
You absolutely cannot inspire this kind of presence, this deep involvement, in employees with coercion or bribery or even logic. It happens on a primal, subterranean level, and when it does, the transformation is amazing to witness.
Christine Comaford is a global thought leader who helps mid-sized and Fortune 1000 companies navigate growth and change, an expert in human behavior and applied neuroscience, and the bestselling author of Rules for Renegades. Visit christinecomaford.com for additional information.