Transforming Longing into Belonging

Transforming Longing into Belonging: The Most Impactful Way to Bring Out the Best in Everyone at Work

“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.”
– Maya Angelou

Oh, how we all long to belong.

We yearn to be a part of something.

And it’s completely normal: belonging is one of our most basic needs.

Something inside of us craves a connection with the outside world, to validate that we are a part of it, to let others know we are worthy of being seen, heard and, yes, acknowledged.

I just completed a whirlwind week-long tour of client workshops in five different countries between North America and Europe. Every other time, such a rhythm would have exhausted me physically and mentally.

But not this one.

Why?

Because in each city where I landed, I felt home.

Yes, it helps that I have two passports, children of a third nationality and lots of time working in each of these cities.

But what was even more nurturing than geographical familiarity was the sense of belonging I felt with dear friends with whom I was able to spend quality time in each place.

It’s this depth of connection – this gift of really “seeing” and “hearing” each other – I get to experience with colleagues, my closest friends, and many clients (who often turn into friends) that make my job not feel at all like work.

“You can’t build a society purely on interests, you need a sense of belonging.”
– Valery Giscard D’Estaing

This inner need to belong has shown itself boldly in the workplace, where over-worked, frenzied and worn-out employees want to feel that they are a part of something meaningful. The top leaders I work with are grappling with how to navigate the higher-than-ever rates of depression, absenteeism and attrition befalling their teams and organizations.

The answer lies in helping their people to feel a part of something – to belong to a bigger cause.

As I wrote about recently, this means cultivating a greater sense of meaning in the workplace, yes. But it also means helping people first belong to themselves and then with each other so that they can derive meaning from that meaning.

Before even getting to the place I described above of feeling cozy with the people around me in several different countries, I first had to get to a place of belonging to myself. Having undergone a traumatic childhood which hard-wired me to feel “Not part of” no matter whom I was around, I can tell you this was not an easy task. But it was well worth the effort.

Ever been in a room full of people and still feel lonely? That’s what I’m talking about here. Feeling like we truly belong means interacting with people we jive with, yes. But first and foremost, it means jiving with ourselves. Astute leaders aim to cultivate this for their people.

Show Them the Money – or a Sense of Belonging?

Nearly three quarters of employees feel their sense of purpose is defined by their employment, according to research by McKinsey. Unfortunately, companies oftentimes don’t provide an environment that communicates a sense of community and caring, which leads to employees feeling bankrupt in belonging.

And that emptiness has repercussions. Having just completed writing my master’s thesis about the unhealthy coping mechanisms many of us adopt when we feel we don’t belong, I can say with confidence that not experiencing a sense of belonging is at the root of our acting out with unhealthy coping mechanisms.

This means that, until we condition ourselves otherwise, many of us get lost in addictions, re-enacting past traumas and generally wreaking havoc in our present lives – including at work.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
– Mother Teresa

McKinsey & Company’s research discovered that most employees don’t leave their current jobs in search of a bigger paycheck.

Rather, 54% of workers left because their ideas and contributions weren’t appreciated and 51% didn’t feel as if they belonged at their workplace.

And for those employees that remain in a workplace where they do not feel that they are valued, imposters are born. They create a persona to “look like they matter,” according to Ron Carucci. “Looking smart, put together, competent, and “good” to others becomes the need they pander to when the genuine need isn’t satisfied.”

That, Carucci says, breeds insecurity and falseness. Not to mention a waste of energy and time that could have been put to more productive use.

Or, employees simply punch-in and punch-out in an empty cycle of unfulfillment. This, according to my research, unfortunately becomes the case when we don’t do the inner work to process our resentments and trauma so we can belong to ourselves and take on more fulfilling roles – where meaning and belonging with others comes more naturally to us.

When Longing to Belong Becomes “Covering Up”

That sense of longing to belong can be at the forefront of “covering,” according to Rhodes Perry, author of Belonging at Work.

When our inner selves tell us we don’t belong, we purposely hide particular aspects of ourselves that may cause us to be seen as outsiders.

Covering up sacrifices our authenticity
a foundational element to true belonging and to Bolder Leadership.

In a particular culture, certain traits are valued. And if an employee has attributes that aren’t perceived valuable by that culture, they are unable to be their true selves. They cover up, pretending to be something or someone they’re not – and creating a vicious cycle of falseness around them.

A Deloitte study revealed that 61% of employees hide an aspect of themselves at the workplace. For marginalized groups, the percentages are even higher.

Covering up squashes individuality and expression of ideas – and it naturally inhibits authenticity, creativity and stronger impact.

Why Build a Belonging Workplace Culture?

“True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
– Brene Brown

When workers feel that sense of belonging, companies benefit.

Engagement Multiplier writer Sarah Skerika notes an HBR article that cited a sense of belonging at work creates a:

  • 50% decrease in turnover risk
  • 56% increase in job performance
  • 75% reduction in sick days

How Can Leaders Create That Sense of Belonging?

Writing in HBR, Julia Taylor Kennedy and Pooja Jain-Link offered a measurable definition that notes we feel a sense of belonging at work when we:

  • Are recognized for our contributions
  • Feel a connection with our coworkers
  • Experience a supportive culture
  • Take pride in the company’s values and purpose
  • Derive meaning from the work we do and the relationships we build there

Ways to Cultivate a Sense of Belonging in the Workplace

The authors suggested simple ways to cultivate a sense of belonging that go a long way in making employees feel appreciated.

Consider the following strategies:

When a project is brought to a successful conclusion, make sure to acknowledge each team member for their specific efforts. It’s all about creating a workplace where employees feel they are valued: where they know that they and their contributions matter, and they truly feel as if they have meaning at the company.

Another strategy? Let go. Great leaders in organizations today are those who know that letting go fosters innovation, collaboration, and a sense of -belonging – being a valued member of a team.

These are all simple steps. Yet, as leaders – and their employees – are stretched thin because they are expected to perform 24/7+ in their work efforts, it can seem that a focus on belonging in the workplace has taken a back seat.

We are each overwhelmed digitally…emotionally…physically…as we try to navigate a “new normal” that seems anything but.

Let us strive to never ignore the true, human value that each person offers in the workplace – and beyond.

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