COVID-19 has done a rough number on the workplace since its appearance on the global stage. While the early months of the pandemic saw a spike in productivity as employees worked long hours from home, things soon took a turn for the worse. Lockdown, long hours, isolation and Zoom/Teams fatigue led to stress and low morale. Covid-related illness, separations from, and deaths in many families have exacerbated these conditions. While athletes like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have articulated the impact of these stressors on their health, many employees keep silent about their overall mental state. Job losses in hardly hit industries increased stress levels, and so did wearing multiple hats as worker-parent-teacher-and-caregiver.
If you live in the US, tension and polarization around the murder of George Floyd and the outcome of November 2020 elections seeped into workplaces. This resulted in increased anxiety, even as some employers tried to respond through diversity and inclusion initiatives, extended remote working arrangements, and additional mental health days. All the same, employee productivity has taken a hit, and with it, overall employee engagement. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, a whopping 66% of US employees feel disengaged at work. Globally, that rises to 85%. Without much surprise then, came the “Great Resignation” with many employees exiting the workplace. So, what can employers do to stem this tide and improve engagement?
“I define personal disengagement as the uncoupling of selves from work roles; in this engagement, people withdraw and defend themselves physically, cognitively, or emotionally during role performance….” This quote by the Academy of Management’s William Kahn captures for me, why belongingness is an antidote to disengagement. An employee who feels a sense of belonging has little need to uncouple from work, or be physically, cognitively or emotionally defensive when performing their job. That’s why employers who are serious about increasing employee engagement must focus on creating workplace communities where employees feel a sense of belonging.
There are two key reasons why employers should invest in belongingness as an antidote to disengagement. The first reason is that belongingness ranks third in Abraham Maslow’s five hierarchy of human needs. This need to belong is not limited to personal or social circles, but extends to work. The second reason belongingness matters is that, according to several studies, in the average 79-year lifespan, most of us will spend upwards of 116,000 hours working – and that’s not counting overtime. This means that we will work more during our waking hours than any other activity. In fact, the only thing we will do more than work is sleep.
Given these, it is critical that we meet part of our need to belong in the space where we spend most of our waking hours. Research by Qualtrics demonstrates that 91% of employees who feel a sense of belonging at work are also engaged. This high correlation between a sense of belonging and workplace engagement, positively impacts the business. But what are the benefits of belongingness?
Let’s begin with the definition of sense of belongingness. According to Corne, employees with a high sense of belonging:
It is a near universal truth now that most employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers. Perhaps the singular most important thing that employers can do to enhance belonging at work is to hire or promote leaders who are inclusive and provide the psychological safety necessary for their team members to contribute at a high level, to bring their authentic selves to work and to be rewarded and recognized for their contributions. In other words, so much of the remaining suggestions on this list depend on first line managers and leaders who model inclusive behaviors. Inclusive leaders are not a nice-to-have, but play a critical role in fostering belongingness at work.
Whether you call it diversity and inclusion (D&I) or some other combination of words and acronyms, the point is to have a program that a.) taps into a diverse workforce; b.) teaches and inspires employees to be inclusive; c.) creates psychological safety and d.) ensures equitable treatment. These are the bedrocks for enhancing a sense of belonging.
Sometimes, well-intentioned D&I or DEI programs fail or struggle to gain traction because their outcomes are unclear or not measurable. But if you anchor your organization’s D&I program in belongingness, you have a clear and measurable outcome. Belongingness can be assessed by assessing employee engagement given the very high correlation between the two.
It does not suffice to make belongingness a measurable outcome. Actually measure it. Leverage the same or similar questions you use to measure employee engagement. But also ask questions about psychological safety, how they want to be included, how they could include others, and yes, do ask employees if they, in fact, feel like they belong in that office, department, business unit or organization. Pay attention to high performers or other engaged employees who say they do not belong – they might signal other challenges like discrimination, harassment or retaliation in the background.
In recent years, the phrase “my tribe” has surged in US parlance. When people talk about finding their tribe, they’re seeking belonging. While there can be real and perceived negative connotations to the notion of one’s tribe, in the workplace context, it can be a tremendous rallying cry that galvanizes employees around the organization’s values, goals and mission. Actually telling employees in a townhall setting for example that: “You belong here,” can be very powerful in countering perceptions or beliefs that they do not belong. Given how many direct and indirect ways so many employees are told they do not belong, I wish more leaders would tell them they do belong and follow up those words with actions that demonstrate inclusive behaviors.
“Speak up” has gained a negative reputation in many companies because of a singular or presumed focus on the reporting of complaints. Reporting of wrongdoings is an important part of protecting the company’s reputation, and complying with legal and regulatory requirements. However, part of an employee’s sense of belonging is affected by whether the employee feels seen, heard and listened to – and not only when they have complaints. So, define “speak up” to include contributing ideas, challenging authority, asking questions, and even failing forward. This will help provide a degree of psychological safety which is absolutely critical to fostering a community of belonging.
With expectations and requirements for privacy, confidentiality and sometimes legal privilege, it is not always possible to share outcomes of reviews or investigations with employees. Nevertheless, prompt responsiveness, thoroughness and a degree of transparency go a long way in making employees feel heard. In my years as an employment lawyer and investigator, I found this to be 80% of the resolution. Most employees who speak up are actually doing what the company asks of them and in so doing, are being good stewards of the company’s resources and reputation. It takes courage to speak up and that courage, when rewarded with responsiveness, thoroughness and a reasonable degree of transparency, goes a long way in increasing an employee’s sense of belonging. Lack of responsiveness, and worse, retaliation are antithetical to a community that provides psychological safety to employees.
In the wake of the summer 2020 protests for racial justice and equality in the US, many companies were jerked awake and rushed to put out statement after statement in support of fairness, diversity, inclusion and equity in the workplace hoping to heal old wounds, appear
progressive or as a genuine opportunity to examine workplace culture. The best analogy I can think of is that of an estranged family that is suddenly rallied together by a death in the family. Do estranged family members suddenly feel a sense of belonging because a beloved grandparent passed away? I doubt it. While crises are sometimes a rallying cry for change, it takes a long time to create, shape or transform culture. That is why companies should talk about culture, and by extension, belonging with frequency and regularity. You want employees to know that they are supported and will be rewarded in the same conversation in which you’re asking them to exceed their key performance indicators. All too often, the latter happens without the former.
As previously mentioned, research shows that employees who feel a high sense of belonging report twice as many promotions, more salary increases and recognition than those who do not. Whether the reward is in cash or in kind, organizations and their leaders do well to acknowledge employees who are performing well, exceeding expectations or taking on tasks beyond their scope. However, it is also important to recognize and celebrate employees with improved performance, or who acknowledge a mistake or failure. Both are motivating and the latter is likely to further enhance their sense of belonging.
Employers committed to any of the above should see it through with proper planning. For more information on belongingness and how to improve employee engagement by fostering a community where employees feel a sense of belonging, visit www.belongingiq.com or email us at email@example.com
Abam Mambo is a lawyer, writer and emergent thought leader on workplace culture. Her nearly 15-year career includes 10 years experience in US employment law, and a combined five years as a senior corporate compliance officer, workplace and anti-bribery investigator in Asia and Africa. A former employment litigator, Abam has investigated and negotiated settlements in single and class action race, gender and sexual harassment complaints in court and before federal and state equal employment opportunity commissions. She has also advised C-suite executives, Human Resources and management on fair employment and equitable practices, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and proactive remediation of workplace inequities.
A powerful advocate for belongingness and improved employee engagement, she speaks widely on Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, Speak Up Culture and Inclusive Leadership. Some organizations she’s addressed include The World Health Organization, GlaxoSmithKline, GW Pharmaceuticals, Transparency International, etc.
A versatile leader in her own right, Abam has led corporate teams in North America, Africa, Asia and Australia. Named a Rising Star by the National Employment Law Council for her outstanding contributions to employment law, she helps organizations increase employee engagement by raising their “belonging quotient” or BQ – her uniquely designed approach to boosting employee engagement, enhancing performance and strengthening diversity, equity and inclusion.
Board-trained, by the International Office of Directors, she’s currently serving on the board of Brave Venture Labs, an HR tech startup.
Abam holds a law degree from the University of Michigan Law School where she was a contributing editor for the Michigan Law Review. She holds a Bachelor of Arts, summa cum laude. For more details, visit www.abammambo.com or www.belongingiq.com Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org