How to Engage Employees with a Culture of Belonging

They span the entire globe, yet they still cheer, yell, cry and celebrate at the same time. They gather together to share stories, experiences, community, meals and often pints. They wear the same jerseys with a sense of unity that allows them to quickly identify one another as part of the same tribe.

While this can be said about fans of many sports around the world, none more so than football (or soccer, as we call it on this side of the pond). And one of the largest and most passionate clubs is Manchester United F.C. In addition to its nearly 100 million followers on social media, the club has an estimated 659 million fans worldwide. To put that in perspective, that means that on match day, nearly one-tenth of the world’s population is pulling for the Red Devils to win.

This phenomenon isn’t reserved for sports. From social clubs to religious organizations to peer groups and family, we’re hardwired with a need to connect with others and belong to something bigger than ourselves. And while the evidence of this can be seen and experienced in our everyday lives, too often we don’t feel that same level of connection and belonging to our jobs, teams or organizations.

Our Need to Belong

Belongingness is the human emotional need to be an accepted member of a group, highlighted by a relationship that is greater than simple acquaintance or familiarity. It points to our need to be truly known and understood. As a primary driver of human nature, it often guides our thoughts and actions.

In fact, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, this motivation to be connected to and accepted by social groups is our single greatest need after our physical and safety requirements are met.

While this need to belong begins in our early childhood development, it only continues to grow over the course of our lives, especially as our social and societal networks become more complex — and can have dramatic effects on our well-being. In fact, a UCLA study found that our brains experience both social pain and pleasure in much the same way as physical pain and pleasure. While social pain may not be as easy to spot as physical pain (say, a broken leg), if this need goes unmet it affects an employee’s engagement and productivity, which carries a huge cost for employers.

Finding Purpose

In Braving the Wilderness, bestselling author Brené Brown defines belonging as “the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us.” Purpose allows you to connect that individual need with an organizational need in a unique and compelling way.

For a business, purpose is like a stake in the ground declaring why you exist and why you do what you do. It goes beyond the product you make or the service you provide and is the motivational force that drives what you do with meaning.

Most people want to trade their hours and effort on the job for something larger than just financial gains or professional accolades. When you can articulate this purpose with clarity, you can use it as a rallying cry to not only engage and inspire your people but give them that something larger they are longing to be a part of.

According to a PwC study, employees feel that purpose also provides meaning in their day-to-day work, fuels a strong sense of community and energizes them by knowing the company’s impact – all key ingredients in creating a culture people want to belong to.

Defining Convictions

Social norms are a powerful component of groups. These are the accepted behaviors that group members should expect from one another, and they form the foundation of the group’s culture. If you come into a group and share these common behaviors, it’s easier to fit into the group and feel like you’re connected. You know what to expect, and this forms a stronger sense of safety and security, both prerequisites to fulfill the need to belong.

Identifying the key convictions and behaviors is a great place for an organization to start. At Building Champions, we define convictions as the non-negotiable values and beliefs that you’re willing to make sacrifices for. Some companies think values and convictions are interchangeable, but we believe they’re different. You can value something but not be willing to sacrifice for it. Your convictions, on the other hand, are so key that not only are willing to fight for them, you’ll hold on to them even if they become a competitive disadvantage.

These convictions — coupled with specific behaviors you’ll see when living them out — form the foundation of your culture. They outline how team members are expected to behave and what they can expect from each other.

For those who share this connection, trust and community can easily blossom. For those who don’t, one of two things commonly happens. Either people are drawn to this culture and modify their behavior (aspirational), or they don’t connect with it and look for that sense of belonging somewhere else (informational). By having these convictions and behaviors clearly defined and articulated, you can set the course and allow others to choose whether they want to join you on that journey. Long term, this will ensure you have the right, most engaged people on your team.

The Cost is High

The average American worker will spend a third of his or her life at work, more than 90,000 hours over a lifetime. This need to belong isn’t something we can just turn off when we head into the office. And if employees don’t feel connected to their work and company, it’s hard to see how they can feel engaged.

According to a Gallup report, unhappy and disengaged workers cost U.S. employers between $450 and $550 billion in lost productivity in 2013. Given inflation and the fact the engagement scores have not climbed much, that number can only be higher today.

By tapping into the need to belong and combining it with a strong sense of purpose and convictions, leaders can change this script. They can create cultures that attract top talent. Cultures that fuel a sense of connection and belonging, both to each other and to a greater meaning.

And not only will that have an economic benefit through improved engagement, it will also fulfill a larger need all of us have — to belong to something special.

Create Your Business Vision

One key way to engage employees and build a culture of belonging is to create a Business Vision.

By clearly articulating a compelling vision for what you as an organization belong to, who you are becoming and what you’re going to build, you can show your employees why each role matters and invite them into something bigger than themselves.

When you create your Business Vision using our newly revamped tool, you’ll gain:

  • Increased leadership potential
  • Improved decision-making clarity
  • Greater organizational unity
  • Enhanced business performance

Click here to get your tool so you can start creating your Business Vision today. 


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