Belonging in the Workplace

The desire to belong is a powerful human need-no less important at work as it is on the playground.

Some employers may scoff at the idea that staff need to feel they belong at work. Yet recent research indicates that employers who encourage a sense of belonging reap significant rewards.

Stefan Thau of the London Business School, Karl Aquino at the University of British Columbia and Marijn Poortvliet at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, noted in a May 2007 study that belonging at work results in increased team work and cooperation among employees and helps staff refrain from actions that harm others.

Unfortunately, not every workplace nurtures belonging and takes advantage of the gains. If a sense of belonging is thwarted, cynicism, sadness, lower self esteem and self-defeating behaviour results.

Self-defeating behaviour is evident when excluded employees behave in ways that increase the gap between desired belonging and actual belonging. For example, staff who don’t feel they belong engage in fewer helpful behaviours. The less the staff member experiences belonging, the more she is likely to engage in alienating, self-defeating, isolating and unhelpful behaviours. As a result the person feels increasing social isolation.

While it would seem reasonable to engage in behaviours to attract inclusion, such as accommodating others or being respectful, staff who experience exclusion appear to become more aggressive, say the researchers.

That’s because these individuals spend a lot of energy trying to figure out why they are excluded and how the exclusion could affect their careers and themselves. As a result, they have trouble performing tasks that require long-term commitment such as maintaining ongoing positive relationships with co-workers.

An excluded individual feels socially devalued and less worthwhile. As a result, he feels angry and engages in aggressive behaviours, ironically, forgetting the long term goal of being included in the staff group.

This ensures further exclusion and reduces the information the person might receive about what the team needs, wants and values. Without this kind of information the isolated employee is hampered in his or her efforts to belong.

According to the researchers, excluded employees are more likely to practise harmful behaviours towards others such as throwing things, cursing or yelling at others, glaring, scowling or ignoring workmates.

They are also less likely to volunteer for projects, assist others with tasks not immediately relevant to them and go above the call of duty to assist a colleague. They are less likely to do favours for people at work and may in fact go out of their way to make things difficult.

Thau, Aquino and Poortvliet indicate that managers can do two things to create more inclusive work environments to offset this negative spiraling reaction to exclusion:

1. Integrate Newcomers

It is important to have a plan to welcome, orient and include newcomers quickly to reinforce the message that the workplace culture is one of inclusion. For example, besides regular new employee orientation programs, create a buddy system where a more seasoned employee takes a newcomer under his or her wing. These types of programs are not only meant to teach new employees about the job, but to give them an opportunity to ask questions, learn about the culture and to know who to talk to in the organization to help get things done.

Ensuring that new people are integrated into existing staff groups is important. Others may not mean to exclude, however, the need to remind people of the importance of extending an invitation to join is key.

2. Be Aware of the Dynamics of Exclusion

A manager can monitor staff inclusion. Keeping an eye on who is being included in meetings, how information is shared and who is socializing with whom, is not the sign of a busy-body manager if the purpose is to know who is being isolated or not. This can be vital to communication in the department.

At the same time, if a staff person appears standoffish, aggressive or passive aggressive, these could be signs that they are being excluded from the team. Taking time to ask staff individually about the team and its functioning is important.

Telltale signs of a staff group employing exclusivity include engaging in “in-jokes” that do not include everyone, talking behind other staff people’s backs, withholding information about projects, tasks or meetings and defining themselves as superior to other staff members in some way.

These behaviours must be made explicit by the manager and staff practicing them must be told to stop. The organization has to underscore collaboration, inclusion and information sharing as expectations of all staff. Also, it’s important for managers to tell the excluded individual that being unhelpful to others will never close the gap. The researchers note that unhelpful and harmful behaviours on the part of excluded staff are not conscious nor necessarily rational responses to being ostracized, so it’s important that they be made aware of what they are doing.

Maintaining a consistent effort to remain cooperative, collaborative, helpful and respectful in the face of rejection is difficult but ultimately a better tactic long term. Supervisors who support excluded staff in maintaining their reputation as a team player against the odds will be rewarded.

Encouraging belonging in the workplace is not just a luxury or a social undertaking. To encourage productivity, enhance retention and decrease harmful behaviour at work, ensuring staff include each other is key.

Being excluded hurts. It hurts not only the isolated staff person, but the company as well.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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