Most of us will be able to recall the warm pleasure of times in our lives when we have felt accepted and included – the grounded sense of self-assurance, comfort, and safety that comes from being part of a ‘tribe’. Many of us too will have experienced the cold pain of feeling excluded and the self-doubting critical inner voice that so often accompanies it. Both of these experiences are powerful and visceral.
The reason we feel them so acutely is that the drive to belong, how it feels to be included, is a fundamental and adaptive human need that supports our survival as a species through the protection and nurture afforded by membership of social groups. Indeed, to encourage appropriate social behavior our brains have evolved so that the experience of belonging stimulates dopamine, our reward chemical to motivate us to do more of what feels good[i],[ii]. Sadly, however, in order to discourage us from behaviors that threaten our inclusion, exclusion and not belonging trigger the same neural circuits as physical pain, which is why exclusion ‘hurts’[iii].
As such a fundamental motivator, our sense of belonging has a significant impact on how we feel, how we think, and how we behave. And as work has become increasingly significant providing much of the social support that used to be gained from families and community, not to mention a sense of identity, validation, and self-worth, having a sense of belonging and inclusion at work is also critical to our well-being and behavior.
My research discovered, however, that when it comes to a feeling of not belonging and exclusion at work, it’s not just about a lack of social connection and quality relationships, but it is also triggered by a feeling of not adding value, that we are not contributing to our teams and organizations, and are not valued for what we do. It also triggered by a lack of commonality and shared characteristics and as such, those from diverse groups whether that be gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or disability, are particularly at risk of a sense of not belonging in the workplace[iv].
This feeling of not belonging, that we are not included in the workplace can impact our very sense of who we are, undermining our self-esteem, our self-efficacy, and the clarity of our identity. Sadly, attempts to resolve this sense of not belonging often only exacerbate it. By trying to fit in, presenting a version of ourselves we believe is acceptable, or protecting ourselves by withdrawing, we often undermine our sense of identity even further. We then admonish ourselves for acting inauthentically and may fulfill our own fears by detaching from our teams. Quite apart from the personal impact on our sense of self-worth, these coping strategies also have significant implications for our performance at work, impacting our willingness to communicate, to contribute, engage, and collaborate.
So, what can we do, as colleagues, leaders, and HR and L&D professionals, to both, support those experiencing a sense of not belonging in the workplace, and avoid it emerging in the first place?