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The Great Resignation is a crisis of belonging. Here’s the real way we organize ourselves at work

August 25, 2022, 1:47 PM UTC
Employees work at an office in San Francisco
Research shows that feeling a lack of belonging disables important elements of psychological functioning, including a sense of meaningfulness in life.
David Paul Morris - Bloomberg - Getty Images

What do you think is the primary driver of people at work? The conventional wisdom is that it’s either their hopes for the trappings of promotion—more money, status, vacation time, maybe a special parking spot–or their need for self-efficacy, creativity, and self-actualization.

I’ve asked this and other related questions to more than 600 people in a wide range of organizations ranging from Fortune 100 companies, police departments, and psychology clinics to small businesses and nonprofits.

The interviews I’ve conducted have led me to a surprising revelation about our deepest motivations at work. The people I’ve had in-depth conversations with about what wakes them up in the morning and propels them into an office, hospital, art studio, or sports arena do not show any of the above as the primary drivers of their intrinsic motivation.

Instead, just as a vast trove of psychological research converges on our social relationships as the most critical ingredient of our long-term well-being, the primary motivations of the hundreds of people I’ve interviewed are social.

The primary reason people join and stay in a company or organization is not that they want to earn more money and reach a high level of status (although they enjoy both), but because they want to belong. The deepest intrinsic desire they wish to fulfill at work is to feel included, accepted, appreciated, and valued by a social group that, in their eyes, is worth belonging to.

An operations manager in a retail company described what it feels like not to experience this belongingness. “I felt alone because my boss had favoritism and spent a lot of time outside of the office with the sales manager. This caused unfair treatment and made me feel excluded,” he said.

What does such treatment at work lead to at home? A sales associate in a biotech company told me how the failure of leaders to help her feel like she belongs and is appreciated can affect life outside of the office:

“It’s that isolation. It’s very painful–that loneliness, that feeling of not belonging … It’s affecting every part of my life. It really is because I go home and I’m like…I don’t do anything … I just kind of sit there, sad and depressed and my kids will try to be like, “Mom, let’s go here. Let’s do this.” And I say, ‘No, you guys go. Here’s some money and I’ll be here.’”

The need to belong runs deep in our composition as human beings. A recent study found that feeling a lack of belonging (in other words, ostracism), like for this sales associate, disables important elements of psychological functioning, including a sense of meaningfulness in life.  Believe it or not, even feeling rejected by a group one despises can be hurtful.

Bring it home

Researching and teaching leadership for over thirty years has led me to believe that the organizational chart that best reflects how organizations truly operate contains the CEO in a circle in the middle. Inches away in all directions are other circles—the people the CEO most trusts. Fanning outwards into other circles are the people they trust.

Leaders play a critical role in helping people experience this sense of belonging. The security of the people you lead hinges on this feeling of being central to–and valued by–the social network that is the organization.

How can you foster this feeling of belongingness in the people you manage or lead? Here are three strategies that, based on my research you may want to try out:

Scale kindness

The simple act of being kind and empathetic toward people is the first step. A lack of genuine caring is like air—you don’t notice it when it’s there every day, yet when it’s gone it’s all you notice.

As a software engineer (yes, they have feelings too) shared with me, “What reduced my feeling of belonging was [the senior leaders] not really saying hello to you. Not really making eye contact with you or having any type of small talk or discussions. The only communication you had was something that was demanding, like ‘I need this’ or ‘You need to do this.’”

Facilitate opportunities for social connection

While enabling your team members to feel like they belong begins with common courtesy, that’s not where it ends. Bring them together in meaningful ways, whether brainstorming for a new project, hiking together, or playing softball and having a picnic.

As soon and as safely as you can, bring people back to the office

Now that social distancing measures are softening, it’s time to safely—and resolutely—rebuild the social connections people need to feel they are needed—and belong—in your organization.

Anthony Silard, Ph.D. is an associate professor of leadership and the director of the Center for Sustainable Leadership at Luiss Business School in Rome and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Monterrey Institute of Technology. Anthony’s research focuses on emotion, leadership, loneliness, and trauma. His latest book is Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age. Anthony’s blog, videos, courses, and podcasts can be found here.

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