Real Leaders

Our Belongingness Crisis: How We Organize Ourselves at Work

Mid adult female dancer jumping while dancing on striped road against sky

What do you think is the primary driver of people at work? The conventional wisdom is that it’s either their hopes for the trappings of promotion—more money, status, vacation time, maybe a parking spot—or their need for self-efficacy, creativity, and self-actualization.

I’ve asked this and other related questions to over six hundred people in a wide range of companies and organizations ranging from Fortune 100 companies, police departments, and psychology clinics to small businesses and nonprofits.

The interviews I’ve conducted have led me to a surprising revelation about our deepest motivations at work. The people I’ve spoken with in-depth about what wakes them up in the morning and propels them into an office, hospital, art studio, or sports arena do not show any of the above as the primary drivers of their intrinsic motivation.

Not So Fast

What, then, is the ultimate motivation for most people at work? Just as a vast trove of psychological research converges on our social relationships as the most critical ingredient of our long-term well-being, the primary motivations of the hundreds of people I’ve interviewed are social. 

The primary reason people join and stay in a company or organization is not that they want to earn more money and possess a high status (although they enjoy both) but because they wish to belong. Their deepest intrinsic desire they want to fulfill at work is to feel included, accepted, appreciated, and valued by a social group that, in their eyes, is worth belonging to.

An operations manager in a retail company described what it feels like not to experience this belongingness. “I felt alone because my boss had favoritism and spent much time outside the office with the sales manager. This caused unfair treatment and made me feel excluded.”

What does such treatment at work lead to at home? A sales associate in a biotech company told me how the failure of leaders to help her feel like she belongs and is appreciated could affect life outside of the office: 

It’s that isolation. It’s excruciating – that loneliness, that feeling of not belonging … It’s affecting every part of my life. It is because I go home and I’m like…I don’t do anything … I sit there, sad and depressed, and my kids will try to say, “Mom, let’s go here. Let’s do this.” And I say, ‘No, you guys go. Here’s some money, and I’ll be here.’

The need to belong plumbs the depth of our composition as human beings. A recent study found that a lack of belonging (in other words, ostracism), like for this sales associate, disables essential elements of psychological functioning, including a sense of meaningfulness in life

Believe it or not, even feeling rejected by a social group one despises—in another study, participants were manipulated into believing the KKK was ostracizing them—can be hurtful.

The Real Way We Organize Ourselves at Work

Researching and teaching leadership for over thirty years has led me to believe that the organizational chart that best reifies how organizations truly operate contains the CEO in a circle in the middle. Inches away in all directions are other circles—the people the CEO most trusts. Fanning outwards into other circles are the people they trust. 

Leaders play a critical role in helping people experience this sense of belonging. The security of the people you lead hinges on this feeling of being central to and valued by the social network that is the organization. 

Bring It Home

How can you foster this feeling of belongingness in the people you manage or lead? Here are three strategies that, based on my research, are worth giving a shot.

Scale kindness. The simple act of being kind and empathetic toward people is the first step. A lack of genuine caring is like air—you don’t notice it when it’s there every day, yet when it’s gone, it’s all you see.

A software engineer (yes, they have feelings, too) shared with me, “What reduced my feeling of belonging was [the senior leaders] not saying hello to you. Not making eye contact with you or having any small talk or discussions. The only communication you had was something that was demanding, like ‘I need this or ‘You need to do this.’ 

Facilitate opportunities for social connection. While enabling your team members to feel like they belong begins with common courtesy, that’s not where it ends. Bring them together in meaningful ways, whether brainstorming for a new project, hiking together, playing softball, or having a picnic. 

Bring people back to the office as soon and safely as you can. Now that social distancing measures are softening, it’s time to safely—and resolutely—rebuild the social connections people need to feel they are necessary—and belong—in your organization.

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