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Belonging Is Essential to the Future of Work

September 18, 2020 Leadership
mary slaughter
By Mary Slaughter

Today, most of us are experiencing first-hand the effects of isolation, distance and perhaps loneliness. Yes, the global pandemic is a major contributor but it's not the only culprit. The rise of digitization, smart phones and remote working arrangements have factored into our environmental landscape, forcing us to redefine how we connect with one another. Not a technology connection, but a profound, person-to-person connection.

Humans are biologically wired to connect with one another. Our brains crave socialization, releasing chemicals such oxytocin and dopamine that amplify our emotions when we interact with others. We’ve long known that the absence of connection with others can create a sense of isolation, which our brains literally interpret as pain.

Social pain — being disconnected, isolated and lacking a sense of belonging — triggers a threat state in our brains. Once that happens, our cognitive abilities decrease, the quality of decision-making deteriorates and our ability to demonstrate pro-social behaviors with one another declines. Simply said, feeling like you don’t belong is just plain bad for us all.

Ingroups and Outgroups at Work

There’s a field of research related to a sense of belonging known as ingroup/outgroup. Being part of an ingroup means you perceive a shared identity and in return, they consider you “one of them.” Outgroup is essentially the opposite — you don’t feel a shared identity and often perceive a lack of shared interests.

This social and psychological phenomenon is foundational to corporate culture and there are clear actions we each can take to foster a sense of belonging within our own organizations. How would you answer these questions for yourself?

  • To whom do you turn for advice?
  • Who makes it onto your calendar, even on the busiest of days?
  • With whom do you choose to spend your free time?
  • How would others describe the relationships you’ve nurtured at work?
  • Who would you hire to join your team?
  • Who makes you the most comfortable at work?

Gravitating toward similarity comes naturally to our brains. Not only do we like people who are similar to us, on a non-conscious level our brains actually prefer people who are similar. Recognizing others as being similar is not just comforting, it’s psychologically rewarding.

The dilemma is that our brain’s automatic and evolutionary response does not always serve us well. Seeking similarity is a form of natural bias — a decision-making shortcut — that doesn’t consider other logical factors.

Related Article: How Companies Can Bake Diversity and Inclusion Into their DNA

Empathy Is the Key to Belonging

Over the last two decades, corporate HR budgets have included millions of dollars dedicated to diagnosing employee engagement. Regardless of the instrument, there are typically a set of common questions designed to measure how individuals express their sense of belonging:

  • Do I feel heard?
  • Am I able to contribute?
  • Do I feel valued?

To understand and more importantly foster belonging, the best place to start is with empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s emotions as well as to imagine what they might be thinking or feeling. Design thinking begins with empathy, grounded in the belief that no product, process or service can be optimal without a sincere appreciation of the person who will experience it.

The need for belonging applies to us all. To highlight how belonging plays out at work, let’s consider the most obvious example — the new hire. New joiners are the starkest example of starting in an outgroup while striving to be part of an ingroup. And to make it harder, most organizations place the responsibility on the new joiner to maneuver their way from outgroup to ingroup, with little to no reciprocal responsibility placed on existing ingroup members to actually let them in.

headshot of Dr. Valerie Purdie-Greenaway, Associate Professor of Psychology, Columbia University

Identity-based belonging matters, said Dr. Valerie Purdie-Greenaway, associate professor of psychology at Columbia University. "Some groups may implicitly (without being aware) question whether they belong and 'fit in' in work environments where there have been historic stereotypes or current implicit bias towards their group. These concerns about identity-based belonging stem from the environment and the history of treatment towards 'group members like me.'  Race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual identity, age, abled-bodiedness, accent, political orientation can spark worries about identity-based belonging. Importantly, this more specific kind of belonging causes the same psychological boost or burden caused by a universal sense of belonging. Diverse employees thrive and concerns about identity-based belonging subside when leaders lean in to well-designed and clear diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism practices."

7 Techniques to Move From Outgroup to Ingroup

Here are some practical techniques that enable a new hire to move from outgroup to ingroup, from frustration to engagement, from isolation to belonging:

Assign a sponsor. Select someone with job relevance who can help them make meaningful connections. Note this is rarely HR. The sponsor should be measured and recognized for their contribution to the new hire’s success.

Make explicit the implicit. Be overt about tacit, organizational knowledge — bootcamps, coaches, resources, essential websites, playbook of key terms and processes. Making a new hire search for relevant information is not only inefficient but highly frustrating. It makes them question your commitment to them.

Create a meaningful relationship map. This is not a check-the-box compliance list or one that is motivated by politics but a robust list of colleagues that can and will contribute to a new hire’s success.

Schedule empathy check-ins. These conversations should focus on their experiences and emotions. This is not a feel-good, cheerleading conversation. The goal is to reinforce the good, uncover the gaps and course correct the onboarding plan to enable success. If you don’t ask, you’re just ignoring problems that will only worsen, leaving the new hire to feel like they don’t belong.

Quickly give them visible work. Call attention to their strengths. Let others know they matter. Recognize early contributions. If you experience a new hire frequently advocating to be “let in,” that’s a sure sign that they are feeling excluded.

Connect them to influence. Organization charts reflect authority and structure but that’s not always the same as influence. Being ignorant of the unwritten rules makes new hires feel and appear like they are part of the outgroup.

Give them a safe haven. Ideally, pick someone outside of their workgroup who can be neutral and hold information in confidence. Having a trusted ally demonstrates your commitment to them and provides the psychological safety that is essential to onboarding.

Regardless of the length of your tenure, you can always choose to broaden your ingroup. One of the best ways to build a sense of belonging in the workplace is to tackle a shared problem with people whom you do not know well. The opportunity to struggle together can create a shared identity with people you did not previously know.

Actively use empathy to imagine the experiences others might be having. Seek similarities with those whom at this moment you see as outgroup. You might be surprised by your common ground, not to mention how much you both share the need to belong.

The views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.

About the Author

Mary Slaughter is managing director, People Advisory Services at EY. She is both a seasoned corporate executive and an experienced human capital consultant.

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