Why Belonging Is Key in Today’s Workplace

For our ancestors, belonging to a group that shared the workload and helped protect each other was essential for survival. As a result our brains are hard-wired to motivate us toward connection and belonging. In fact, recent research in neuroscience has indicated that social needs are managed using the same neural networks as used for primary survival needs such as food and water. (Lieberman, Eisenberger, 2008)

Belonging can literally feel like a life or death matter.

Belonging in the Workplace

The need to belong is often overlooked in the workplace. We don’t do enough to facilitate connection, while we often implement programs, systems, and structures that have a tendency to alienate and cause divisiveness. The impact of failing to create a sense of belonging with our employees not only affects how much they enjoy their work; it has a significant effect on their ability to be productive.

We don’t do enough to facilitate connection, while we often implement programs, systems, and structures that have a tendency to alienate and cause divisiveness.

Our biological need to belong results in a constant subconscious scanning of the environment to assess us or them? Safe or unsafe? Instinctively we determine if we belong or not – if the people that we meet are friend or foe. This constant scanning of the environment can trigger one of two areas in the brain: the threat response or the reward response.

Employee Productivity

The impact on employee productivity of triggering the threat response is steep. Recent studies have shown that threats to social needs such as belonging result in the equivalent experience as physical pain. (Lieberman, Eisenberger, 2008) Anxiety, avoidance of tasks and uncooperative or even undermining behavior can all result when the environment indicates threats to social needs.

When the threat response is activated in the brain, the resources available to the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for higher-level thinking and problem solving, are reduced. There is literally less oxygen and glucose available for the brain functions required for working memory. At the same time overall brain activation is increased reducing the ability to absorb more information, and the amygdala is highly activated resulting in more generalizations. In short, our problem solving capability is reduced, we lose the ability to perceive subtle information and we are highly prone to making faulty assumptions.

In addition to impaired brain function, an employee who feels a threat to their sense of belonging will expend time and energy trying to satisfy this powerful need, frequently resulting in toxic behaviors. How often have you come across the following behaviors or attitudes in the workplace? Cynicism, Gossiping, Cliques, Information hoarding, Silo thinking? Many of these behaviors are rooted in an employee’s drive to create their own sense of belonging (generally by excluding others,) and indicate the lack of a strong identification with the organization.

Creating a Positive Culture

The good news is that with the recognition of the importance of social needs such as belonging, you can create a positive culture that avoids triggering the threat response and encourages the reward response. Employees that find their environment supporting social needs such as belonging have significantly improved enjoyment and performance. When the brain is the reward state, employees perceive more options to solve problems, are more insightful, collaborate better and have higher performance overall. When employees feel a sense of belonging and identification with the organization, they are naturally motivated to help it succeed.

What can you do to create a strong sense of belonging within your organization?

  • Lead with an inspirational mission and purpose that aligns and creates an emotional connection with all employees.
  • Encode and live by a strong set of values that guide both business and interpersonal behaviors. Emphasize things like respect, collaboration and fun.
  • Set the expectation and train your leaders to be champions of your purpose and exemplars of your values. Teach them how to be open, available and inclusive.

Our biological need to belong results in a constant subconscious scanning of the environment to assess us or them? Safe or unsafe? Instinctively we determine if we belong or not

  • Immediately and decisively deal with behavior that is not in line with your values, especially if it occurs with someone in a leadership position.
  • Know and respect all employees as complete individuals with their own personal relationships, interests and challenges.
  • Communicate openly and inclusively, particularly regarding business or organizational issues that have the potential to adversely affect employees.
  • Encourage positive social connection and enjoyment in the workplace.
  • Provide vehicles and opportunities for all employees to have a voice.

Focus on Achieving

When employees have their need to belong satisfied, their energy is free to focus on higher level social needs such as achieving. Similar to belonging, employees also have a biological drive to achieve. A future post will discuss how your organization can benefit by supporting your employees’ need for success.

Satisfying the social needs of your employees is critical to achieving a highly engaged and productive organization. When it comes to the workplace there generally aren’t any actual threats to human survival – time spent in the threat state simply translates to reduced performance and wasted energy trying to satisfy these basic needs, rather than contributing to the success of your business.



Passionate believer in people, systems thinking and conscious business. Curious explorer of ideas and connections. Recovering corporate executive helping leaders align and engage their employees… awakening organizational excellence.

  • Donna

    I just blogged for the first time as a new employee about this very topic :) I’m one of only three women, and one of only four non-engineers in a high-tech engineering firm. But I’ve always been made to feel included and valuable. We just won a Cool Places to Work award and I believe that sense of inclusion is an important part of our winning culture.

    • Lisa Shelley

      Congratulations on your firm’s award Donna- it sounds like you have a great place to work!

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