The need to belong, to have a sense that we are accepted, valued, and included has played a fundamental role in the survival of our species. Back on the Savannah, establishing and maintaining relationships secured our inclusion in social groups, groups that offered protection, nurture, and support. In fact, the pain experienced through interpersonal loss and rejection is so vital to our existence that it triggers the same neural circuits as physical pain, which is why we feel a sense of exclusion so acutely.
As work has become increasingly significant in modern life, providing much of the social support that used to be gained from families and community, as well as a sense of identity, validation, self-worth, and a sense of belonging and inclusion at work is critical to our well-being, our behavior, and performance in the workplace.
Feeling that we do not belong, 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. This feeling can lead us to withdraw, to disengage, or conform, with significant implications for organizations.
My research Sense of Not Belonging at Work discovered, 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 is also triggered by diversity, from an absence of shared characteristics and feeling different from colleagues, which can arise through differences in ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or simply social or professional background.
It is vital to our sense of belonging therefore, that organizations ensure that those from diverse groups, be that demographically or cognitively determined, are able to feel included at work. However, the power and impact of inclusion go well beyond diversity. Everyone in the workforce, no matter the gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, have the right and the psychological need to feel included, to feel heard, to feel valued, and to feel they belong. This will support the development of a positive sense of self, as well as their valuable contribution to their workplace.
There is great deal leaders and organizations can do to support this sense of belonging and inclusion for their employees. But critical to this is developing a culture of psychological safety, where employees feel included, valued, and safe to contribute. The culture should prioritize inclusivity. Here, leadership behaviors can have a significant impact - such as inviting and acting upon ideas and contributions from everyone in the team, and by encouraging a mindset of openness, curiosity, and inclusivity to different experiences and demographics. Such an environment will encourage employees to speak up about how they are feeling and to hear how others are feeling. And perhaps to help them realize that they are not really so different from everyone else, promoting the development of a positive sense of self.
Dr. Lee Waller is a Leadership Faculty at Hult International Business School where she equips leaders to foster a culture of learning and psychological safety, supporting the development of a sense of belonging, and developing inclusive leadership behaviors.