Why Does Belonging Matter? 2040’s Ideas and Innovations Newsletter, Issue 136

Kevin Novak
10 min readNov 23, 2023

Issue 136, November 23, 2023

The most fundamental motivation among the human species is to belong. Belonging is implicit in sharing trust, affinity and caring about someone or something bigger than yourself. Renown philosopher Dan Dennett in a TED talk in 2006 encouraged everyone to dedicate and devote themselves to something more important than themselves to find meaning and purpose in their lives. We’ll let you draw your own conclusions whether the audience of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors were paying attention. We would add here that the point of communication is not the exchange of information but rather the exchange of understanding. And understanding is what makes belonging matter.

Today, belonging has taken on some sinister overtones. The virtue of belonging and dedication to a cause has morphed into political, social, and cultural factions subject to criticism and often ridicule. The root needs for belonging have not changed, but the institutionalism of belonging has created an imbalance and uneasy co-existence in the current cultural conversation.

So, we’re taking the high road here. belonging is one of the most powerful operating principles of any organizational culture. Even the outliers and iconoclasts in an organization need to know they belong; they all have a role and a contribution to make to the greater community. We are taking the opportunity in our Thanksgiving newsletter to republish our thoughts on belonging as a reminder of its basic role in a healthy organization, community, family, and society.

How Is Belonging?

Belonging seems both fundamental and sentimental. But without it, the center will not hold, and organizations can splinter and implode. So, with today’s highly volatile interpretation of diversity, inclusion, and gender norms, how does belonging work? The challenge is not to have a lot of separate affinity groups, operating with their own independent ideologies at odds with each other. The goal needs to focus on creating an ecosystem with a sense of belonging for everyone.

Consider the silos found in most if not all organizations. Responsibility and purview over a product, service, operational focus, or process aligns sets of individuals to their own shared purpose, where each member of a team, department or business unit understands the terminology, the roles each person plays along with the mechanics of executing and delivering. These silos crate a sense of belonging to fit in, determine how they can contribute and conceptualize and define their professional net worth.

But there’s a problem here. Leaders often promote a silo-based sense of belonging as it contributes to the expected bottom-line results. But what they often do not realize is the impact the siloed belonging has on the larger organizational system. Teams, departments, and business units that operate in isolation may be successful for achieving their individual goals, but at the expense of other parts of the organizational system. Belonging is great, but when it operates independently an organization’s strategies, shared purpose, market orientation and most importantly its North Star can be compromised.

True belonging is created holistically, making it clear how everyone fits into a larger whole. A systemic approach reinforces how each individual understands how they belong, why they belong and the role they play. It may seem easier to operate with silos, but the outcome diminishes a shared experience, which in turn begets belonging. Our advice is: Don’t take the easy road, it will trip you up in the long run.

What Is Belonging

To be expected, many organizational experts have an opinion about belonging.

  • Tony Bond, chief diversity and innovation officer of Great Place to Work says, “Belonging in the workplace is an employee’s sense that their uniqueness is accepted and even treasured by their organization and colleagues. Belonging is an accumulation of day-to-day experiences that enables a person to feel safe and bring their full, unique self to work. Belonging is not simply that employees feel appreciated for the work they do or the role they play in the organization — belonging runs deeper.”
  • According to research by think tank Coqual, a sense of belonging at work is rooted in four elements: being seen for your unique contributions; connected to your coworkers; supported in your daily work and career development; and proud of your organization’s values and purpose.
  • “Belonging is a close cousin to many related experiences: mattering, identification, and social connection. The unifying thread across these themes is that they all revolve around the sense of being accepted and included by those around you,” as stated in the Harvard Business Review
  • Deloitte defines a worker’s sense of belonging as “how organizations can foster diverse, equitable, and inclusive communities for the worker and how they feel like a member of the broader world. This impacts how an employee shows up and feels comfortable being themselves — and how they contribute to an organizations’ common goals.”

Note that in our opinion belonging within the overall organizational system needs to be balanced with belonging to a team, department, or business unit. In both cases what results logically and emotionally is a strong sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves.

Deconstructing Belonging

However you define it, post-pandemic and during this transition from remote to hybrid work, belonging has surfaced as a key concern to motivate and retain the workforce … and a monumental challenge for managers. At 2040, we work with clients to find their own strategy to deliver a sense of belonging. And we have found that the number-one barrier to making this happen is unconscious and conscious bias on the part of leaders who do not understand or hear what their workers say or who lack the insight of how important organizational culture is to their goals and strategies.

So, the first step is for management and the organization at large to understand what belonging means in context of who the organization is, how it is oriented to the market and what its role is in the larger marketplace system. We have often surfaced the necessity to recognize the roles we play, what roles are expected of us and how situations and the environment influence the expectations others have of us, resulting in a pragmatism to shift roles when necessary. Our various roles are important in determining our own self value/identity and how we can continuously measure our contributions. And each role is part of an interconnected ecosystem that fosters belonging.

Belonging is related to leading with courage, a topic we have covered in the past. Our practice is to help catalyze individuals to become open to upstream and downstream constructive criticism, noting that each individual should have the opportunity to communicate freely, even if what is communicated is challenging, or an idea doesn’t match the “party line.” Open communication, given and received with respect, contributes to the organizational sense of belonging.

Data is also key to getting a firm grasp of the problems preventing a culture from instilling a sense of organizational belonging. Data also identifies the opportunities that may be present to make iterative or major improvements. An organization’s culture and its sense of belonging may seem like abstract concepts. Leaders may struggle with how to understand it and how to identify its influences. Using data, whether that be from performance management systems, employee surveys, employee retention and recruitment reports or even anecdotal data from supervisors and managers, can help improve the touchpoints of belonging and provide leadership with the context they need to make improvements.

The Costs of Not Belonging

Why is research important? Not belonging has significant costs for an organization. As HBR reports, “Social belonging is a fundamental human need, hardwired into our DNA. And yet, 40% of people say that they feel isolated at work, and the result has been lower organizational commitment and engagement. U.S. organizations spend nearly $8 billion each year on diversity and inclusion trainings that miss the mark because they neglect the need to feel included.” Rigorous institutional programs that address DEI as a strictly structural and operational problem to solve miss the mark in addressing the issues with empathy and compassion — essential skillsets required to foster belonging.

The numbers are clear: Accenture reports that only one in six people feels highly connected to their organization and the people they work for and with. Only one in five people feels comfortable sharing problems or raising conflicts with colleagues. And only one in four say that leaders are responsive to their needs, communicate regularly and feels that team members are treated equally. As we have reported, the Edelman study found that 6 out of 10 people choose to work for an employer who shares their values and beliefs. Belonging finds the common-ground touchpoints that all workers can relate to.

The Upside of Belonging

Deloitte states that belonging is not only good for workers but for business too. Belonging can lead to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% reduction in turnover risk, a 167% increase in employer net promoter score, two times more employee raises, 18 times more employee promotions, and a 75% decrease in sick days. That’s impressive! Accenture states that when people feel highly connected to each other, their leaders and their work, their organizations stand to gain a 7.4% revenue growth boost per year. For a 10,000-person organization, this would result in annual savings of more than $52M.

Belonging and Next Gens

Certainly, belonging is important to workers of all ages, but it is a flash point for next gens. Operating with a five-generation workforce presents challenges in managing different values, technical astuteness and even experience levels. It’s not always easy to create that sense of belonging across the diverse sets of individuals. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore it. Since Gen Z will make up the majority of the U.S. workforce by 2032, their demands will become critical mass, and belonging in the workplace is table stakes. As reported in Quartz, Dan Manian, CEO of Donut and Essence Wagstaff states “Younger employees prioritize working for organizations that match their values, foster their growth, and promote connections with colleagues. Overall, a sense of belonging, both in and outside work, will be the most significant benefit that recruiters can offer new talent.” In this light, think about the next gens in your own organization. What your organization stands for is as important as what you do. Manian adds, “Your organization doesn’t have to be non-profit or mission-based to be driven by purpose. Values can live in how work gets done, the benefits you offer, or how you speak up about specific causes.” The takeaway is creating an inclusive environment of belonging for Gen Z and beyond.

We know that millennials initiated social justice and inclusive workplace demands. Now roughly 80% of Gen Zers want to work for an employer that aligns with their beliefs, according to Manian. And that rationale makes sense; since they spend so much of their time at work, “they want to bring their whole self to work, including their values and personal identities,” he adds. Belonging for next gens can be supported by mentoring, training and job growth. In fact, 74% of millenials and Gen Zers are planning to leave their current organizations due to a lack of development opportunities, according to Manian. He adds, “The office used to be the standard place to meet your first friends in adulthood, but remote work and empty offices can make it difficult to forge new bonds. After the shift to WFH, 52% of employees report craving more connections at work. Unfortunately, Gen Z is feeling the brunt of this, having onboarded virtually and missed out on the heyday of office happy hours, coffee chats, and celebrations. In fact, workers who report lower levels of connection at work have a 313% stronger intention to quit.”

Interventions

Research, strategy, and mindset are key; interventions are quite another. How do you actually embark on improving belonging so that workers feel seen, connected, supported, and proud?

Deloitte cites three underlying workforce needs. “Comfort — individuals feel comfortable at work, including being treated fairly and respected by their colleagues and leaders; connection — individuals feel that they have meaningful relationships with coworkers and teams and are connected to the organization’s goals; and contribution — Individuals feel that they contribute to meaningful outcomes — understanding how their strengths help to achieve common goals.” Leadership must be transparent, empathetic and trustworthy for belonging to authentic. And keep in mind that belonging is not anchored in space and place. We work in an omni-connected ecosystem, which makes belonging a network, not a function of a physical environment.

CoEqual has some attainable strategic suggestions. Senior leaders must embody the organization’s values and act as role models. There must be accountability for violations of company policy, regardless of seniority or performance. Managers need to provide regular, honest feedback to improve the work of employees and respond to employee concerns. Peers must respect their colleagues’ commitments outside of work and respect each other’s work-life balance.

And everyone needs to practice gratitude!

Great Results

Belonging breeds passion, inspiration, drive, and positive team mental health. Bond’s research reveals that when employees experience belonging in the workplace they are:

  • 3 times more likely to feel people look forward to coming to work
  • 3 times more likely to say their workplace is fun
  • 9 times more likely to believe people are treated fairly regardless of their race
  • 5 times more likely to want to stay at their company a long time

Belonging is irrefutable.

The Brave March Forward

At 2040 we connect people to a shared purpose, aid in facilitating market orientation and help define an organization’s North Star. The more that people understand how the work they do is aligned with the organization’s greater purpose (beyond boosting the bottom line), the more fulfilled and driven they will be. People become even more engaged when they belong. Helping workers achieve their aspirations is a clear signal to them that the work they do has meaning. So, measure what matters, listen, practice empathy and gratitude and celebrate the halo effects of belonging.

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Kevin Novak

4X webby winner, CEO and Chief Strategy Officer @2040 Digital (www.2040digital.com), IADAS Member, Speaker, Author, Science Nut