There is no question that a sense of belonging in an organization can lead to numerous good outcomes. For example, we know that a strong sense of belonging is associated with reduced employee turnover and absenteeism, increased innovation and higher customer spending. These findings should not come as a surprise, because we have known for a long time now the beneficial effects of making people feel they belong in an organization.
The Challenges of Creating Belongingness in Today’s Workplace
What’s new in today’s fast-changing world is how more difficult it has become to achieve this sense of belonging. There are many reasons why; for example, we now live in the “gig economy,” where one in three workers is not a full-time employee but subcontracted labor. It is difficult enough to make employees feel like they belong; how can you do so for non-employees?
In addition, employees, particularly millennials, are switching employers with increasing frequency now. How do you make employees who stay with you for less than two years feel part of your tribe? Add to the mix the COVID–19 pandemic, with the large number of people working from home without much interaction with colleagues, and the task of making people feel part of your tribe becomes “mission impossible.”
The Importance of Purpose
How, then, can we develop this sense of belonging in the organization? Nothing unites disparate team members more effectively than a shared and compelling sense of purpose — one that they all believe in and one for which they will go to any length to achieve.
We have a lot of examples demonstrating the power of an inspiring purpose and need look no further than President John F. Kennedy’s vision to “put a man on the moon by the end of the decade” to appreciate this point. Companies are, of course, aware of the importance of a shared purpose, and most have developed statements of purpose to galvanize their people. Almost all of them sound good but are useless.
What the leaders of these companies fail to appreciate is that what makes a purpose effective is not how good it sounds or the beautiful words they use for it. Instead, what makes a purpose effective is whether employees have bought into it, both at a rational and an emotional level. For anybody to buy into anything, somebody must sell it to them. It is only when the organization spends time and effort selling its purpose to its people and succeeds in winning emotional commitment for it that the purpose becomes powerful.
This idea raises two questions: Firstly, how many organizations actually go through the difficult process of selling — as opposed to simply communicating — their purpose? Secondly, of those companies that do, how many succeed in winning people’s hearts for their purpose? The answers are “very few” and “almost none,” respectively. Winning hearts is difficult (just reflect on how long it took you to win the heart of your husband, wife or partner). Even worse, people think that they can win hearts through inspirational speeches and PowerPoint presentations. If you are as inspirational as Martin Luther King Jr., you may get away with it. But the vast majority of people are not inspirational orators, so we need to use strategies and tactics that go beyond speeches and presentations if we are to succeed in selling our purpose. The evidence is that few do. As a result, most organizational purposes fail to unite people behind a common objective.
Creating a Culture of Inclusiveness and Belonging
There is a second strategy that organizations can use to make people feel part of their tribe. A LinkedIn survey asked people, “What will make you feel like you belong at the company you work for?” The most popular answers included factors such as:
- “Being recognized for my accomplishments.”
- “Feeling comfortable with being myself at work.”
- “Having opportunities to express my opinions freely.”
- “Feeling that my contributions in team meetings are valued.”
- “Feeling like my company cares about me as a person.”
These statements are all characteristics of what academics call a culture of inclusiveness and belonging. It sounds like a tall order, but the truth is that most of us have already created such a culture. Look no further than the culture you created in your home. If we asked our children to score us on the five attributes identified in the LinkedIn survey, most of us would receive a good score.
The question, therefore, is, “If we have succeeded in creating a culture of inclusiveness and belonging at home, what stops us from doing the same thing at work?” The answer is, “Nothing.” In fact, the tactics that we used to create our family culture will work equally well at our company. It is our day-to-day behaviors that help create norms and beliefs at home, and it is our day-to-day behaviors that will help create norms and beliefs at work.
Using a compelling sense of purpose and creating a culture of inclusiveness and belonging may not be new insights for most leaders. They knew about these strategies already, but the issue is not knowledge. Most people know what they need to do, but they often do not do it — or, if they do it, they do it the wrong way. The difference between success and failure is translating our knowledge into action and then doing things the correct way.