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Longing to Belong

Longing to Belong

Mar 5, 2019 9:13:35 AM

When it comes to your work environment – or any environment for that matter – it makes sense that you would want to belong where you are. On some level, we know we already do – or someone thinks we do – but we aren’t always entirely sure.

You may have heard of Imposter Syndrome. Many high achievers experience self-doubt, worrying that their success was luck over skill.  Many people wonder when others will realize they are not qualified or talented enough for their role. In other words, they can feel like a fraud.

Why do we need to feel like we belong? Belonging provides purpose, self-worth, social control, validation of beliefs and values and group affiliation. Feelings of comfort come from these things. You feel safe and that your efforts are worthwhile. All of this adds up to achieving positive mental health. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all are all seeking to be happy, pretty much all of the time.

This human need is something we are born with, and it never leaves us. Connection is essential for survival, both literally and figuratively. Here is an interesting TedX talk about how natural the need to belong really is.

What happens when we feel that we don’t belong? We may feel isolated and anxious. We might avoid interaction, unable to get through tough times, and we don’t do things that might actually feel good. Studies of rejection have shown that ignoring the need to belong can bring about drastic results, including an increase in aggression and self-destructive acts (think of the loner in high school), and decreases not only in helpfulness and cooperation, but self-control and intelligent thought.

At some point, all of us struggle with identity, feelings of fitting in or belonging in a certain place or among certain people. It is, after all, a basic human need. It also may seem like a tall order to feel valued, needed, accepted, and meaningfully connected to a social network.

When you are in a leadership position, you have the ability to affect change and help employees feel a sense of belonging at work. You can start by reinforcing that each employee is welcome and valued. They have a place here. Actively notice the value and part each person plays in the organization’s success. Encourage a social atmosphere where people are free to participate in groups and be creative. When employees don’t believe they are part of the “in-group” it can lead to self-doubt which can negatively impact personal effectiveness.

Employees are motivated by different things. Some feel that they are contributing when they achieve success on a project or bring in revenue to the company, while others really need that pat on the back.

Social norms dictate that people act not just out of their own needs and desires, but to include and respect the needs of others. Every society has them, but they may be expressed differently. When the threat of being ostracized from the group is known, it can be so disturbing that they conform to the group and its particular norms, rather than go against it in any way for fear of being cast out.

There is also a hierarchy of belonging, if you will, that is used in the presence of a conflict of interests between social groups. We commonly refer to this as loyalty. Some may follow the pattern of family first, then work colleagues, then the larger company, then country. The net is cast wider and wider. Obviously, for many, there may be many more groups than that. Due to the limits of time and energy, most people have around three to five major “affiliations”. Other groups are secondary and they will participate with them when they have spare time.

This paper goes into the intricacies behind the science of belonging if you’re interested in a highly intellectual look at what makes us human beings tick.

There are many ways to belong, and many ways to disconnect. In order to ensure survival, safety and happiness, it is vital to feel connected and to help others do the same. It is crucial that each of us has an awareness of when we don’t feel a sense of belonging, and to use our curiosity to identify why, and then proactively do our part to find our place. We all have an important role to play, and it is up to each of us to play it with passion, and that comes with belonging.

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Deb Siverson

Deb Siverson is the owner and founder of Xponents. She completed her Masters in Organizational Leadership from University of Colorado-Boulder. Deb is the author of the book, "The Cycle of Transformation: igniting organizational change through the leader coach."

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