Do you feel like an outsider at work?
As a solo immigrant, for the longest time I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere in the US. I spent 10+ years in corporate America trying to fit into many spaces. I put some of my values in a box because I couldn’t be myself.
Many times I felt invisible and overlooked. People didn’t think I was smart enough because of my accent, and the lack of acknowledgment by my peers made me feel like my presence didn’t matter. I felt like I was on a team just to check a diversity box.
Many people feel like I did—that they can’t speak up at work or show up as themselves. They feel invisible and do everything to fit in. They feel alone, and isolated, and lack human connection at work. They crave a workplace where they feel others embrace who they are without judgment.
What is belonging?
Belonging is the feeling of being accepted within a group or community setting. People who have a sense of belonging don’t feel they need to change how they look, speak, or act to feel they belong. They feel secure, connected, and supported by those around them. They feel seen, heard, and safe to speak up, share feedback, and interact.
People may define the feeling of belonging based on their background, upbringing, and culture. When people feel the acceptance to be themselves within a group, they often share that sense of belonging with others.
Belonging at work
When people think about their job, they want to feel like they are a part of something meaningful. People work hard to provide for their families and advance in their careers, and if they work 40+ hours a week, they may spend more time with their coworkers than with their loved ones.
A sense of belonging drives happiness and instills joy at work. It enables people to feel a part of the company’s mission, vision, and values.
Belonging is a human need, and employees want to feel a sense of connectedness with each other and their work. They want an environment that makes them feel comfortable being themselves. They want to feel safe, supported, seen, and heard by their managers and colleagues. Belonging can improve employee morale, self-worth, productivity, tenure, and engagement.
The difference between belonging and inclusion
Inclusion is the doorway to belonging. Companies often make efforts to bring in more diverse people to the workplace. Sometimes companies try to celebrate holidays from different cultures to make everyone feel included, but that’s not the same as belonging. If a work environment isn’t a safe place for people to share ideas, and opinions, and see their expertise implemented, celebrating a holiday from their culture won’t give them a sense of belonging.
Inclusion is not about hiring people from diverse backgrounds and adding them to the team. If people are included in a project, task, program, or event, but their manager doesn’t provide a safe space for them to speak up or show up as themselves, they won’t feel a sense of belonging. They may even try to suppress who they are and try to fit in.
How the lack of belonging affects workplaces
Belonging goes beyond statements on a website or the company’s office walls. Many companies have DEIA & B (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Accessibility, and Belonging) agendas. In my view, belonging is more important than all the other letters. You can create a workplace with Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility, but what people seek the most is a sense of Belonging.
The lack of belonging can create high turnover and breed toxic cultures. It can reduce innovation and growth, increase mental health issues and absenteeism, and affect performance and employee self-worth.
When an employee doesn’t feel a sense of belonging at work, they won’t perform to their full potential, and share feedback, experiences, or ideas. They will be afraid to make mistakes or speak up for fear of retaliation or punishment.
On one of my recent LinkedIn polls, 100+ participants chose ‘lack of purpose’ as their biggest work environment struggles. The second most chosen option was working in a toxic work environment, followed by heavy workloads.
What's your biggest work environment struggle right now? Poll results.
Based on the poll description, lack of purpose meant:
You don’t feel connected with your job.
You don’t use the skills you enjoy at work.
You feel like you are on the wrong team.
You don’t have meaningful relationships with your manager or coworkers.
Belonging can help employees feel connected with their work, improve work relationships, feel like a part of the team, foster healthy work environments, and seek growth and development.
How can managers help foster belonging?
Often, the C-level suite is willing to improve the company's efforts about belonging, but they can’t do anything without the help of managers.
Here’s how managers can help cultivate a sense of belonging:
Share stories with employees and show vulnerability so employees can relate to them.
Build trust and transparency about processes and decisions.
Coach employees when they make mistakes with compassion, build trust among employees, and create transparency about processes and decisions.
Be open-minded and learn from employees from different backgrounds. Everyone has something to contribute.
Ask each employee how they like to receive recognition and how they feel appreciated.
Schedule regular check-in meetings with employees and listen to what they have to share.
Encourage open conversations about belonging and how the team can foster belonging together.
Provide support, and encourage small talk unrelated to work: how was your week? Did you do something fun? Excited about your upcoming vacation?
Challenge employees to take on new tasks and grow their careers, and encourage people to learn and take risks.
Act as a mentor, provide career development opportunities, and help employees succeed.
Companies can empower new managers with training to help them foster a sense of belonging within their teams. Managers must learn to accept people’s differences and understand that not everyone operates in the same way.
What can you do to foster a sense of belonging for others?
Not everyone feels belonging in the same way, and what may give one person a sense of belonging may be different for someone else. It’s important to have an open dialogue about belonging and understand that creating a sense of belonging is an ongoing process, not a one-time feeling.
Here are some suggestions:
Make people feel welcome from day one.
Check in from time to time and see how new hires are doing.
Ask about people’s learning preferences and what they need in order to succeed at work.
Share who you are, what you do, and what you like to do outside work.
Take people out to lunch or have a coffee chat for a relaxing conversation.
Cultivate belonging with colleagues beyond meetings:
Ask people: How was your weekend? How are you today? Be real with your answer.
Be curious about learning from people from different backgrounds.
Practice active listening, then ask questions and show interest.
Provide genuine compliments and congratulate people for their wins.
Show support when things go smoothly and even more when things get tough.
Allow others to speak up in meetings or presentations and consider their ideas.
Show interest in learning from your colleagues.
Check in with your colleagues whenever possible. You never know what people are going through.
Employees don't want to feel like a number or just a photo on the other side of the screen. You don’t need to be best friends with your coworkers, but you can be respectful, cordial, and supportive of each other.
Cultivating a sense of belonging is an ongoing conversation. Managers are at the forefront of cultivating belonging in the workplace, but it’s a collective team effort. Employees can help foster a work environment that makes people feel like they belong. Each person has a role to help others feel a sense of belonging in the workplace.