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?
Five steps to foster inclusion in the workplace
Step 1: Awareness
Be aware that employees who may be in a minority demographic, who lack quality relationships, or who have experienced a failure in the workplace, may all be at risk of experiencing a sense of not belonging. Behaviors such as withdrawal or conformity may be signs of people who are struggling and need support from their managers or colleagues.
Step 2: Support the development of relationships
Encourage the development of empathetic and genuine relationships in the team. Look out for those who have strong interpersonal skills when recruiting and prioritize this in development programs. Support employees in establishing social networks through informal ‘off-task’ activities or social events. Relationships built in this way can give people a safe space where they can support each other or voice concerns about how they may be feeling.
Step 3: Make people feel valued
Make sure employees are clear about the expectations and requirements of their job, are trained in the necessary skills to do it well, and have some level of autonomy over their role. Our research showed that if people feel they lack control and are unable to do anything to address their sense of not belonging, they are more likely to withdraw or disengage than to find ways to add value.
Step 4: Foster an inclusive culture of psychological safety
A psychologically safe culture is one where employees feel safe to contribute and comfortable expressing their concerns and vulnerabilities, as well as their diversity. This means they feel comfortable to contribute and add value, can speak out and get support if they feel excluded, and are more able to be themselves in the workplace. The behavior of leaders, and particularly the extent to which they role model a mindset of openness, curiosity, and genuine inclusivity, is the most significant factor in developing this psychological safety and ensuring employees feel included in the workplace.
Step 5: Challenge negative assumptions and beliefs
Employees can often feel a personal responsibility for feeling that they do not belong – interpreting it as weakness, deficiency, or incompetence. Helping employees to identify these negative assumptions, challenge their beliefs, and find evidence to support alternative and more appropriate interpretations will help them to both determine more constructive ways of coping and help them to establish a more positive sense of self at work.
Dr Lee Waller’s latest report explores the true impact the sense of not belonging can have on the workplace. Download the report to learn more
[i] Berridge KC, Robinson TE, Aldridge JW (February 2009). "Dissecting components of reward: 'liking', 'wanting', and learning". Current Opinion in Pharmacology. 9 (1): 65–73. doi:10.1016/j.coph.2008.12.014. PMC 2756052. PMID 19162544
[ii] Carter, C. S. (1998). Neuroendocrine perspectives on social attachment and love. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 23(8), 779-818.
[iii] Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290-292.
[iv] Waller, L. (2020). Sense of not belonging at work. A Hult Ashridge Research Report [ADD LINK]