Can’t We All Get to Belonging?


The pressure to perform and conform in business often leads to elevated levels of stress. Adding to the pressure are feelings of loneliness and disconnection. The 2019 EY Belonging Barometer study surveyed 1,000 employed American adults to better understand the emotional impact of belonging and the feeling of exclusion.

The results of the study found that more than 40% of those surveyed were feeling physically and emotionally isolated in the workplace. By creating workplace cultures that foster morale and camaraderie, we can impact lives outside of work as well. To build this kind of culture, companies need to focus on their values and their decision-making processes. The good news is that businesses can increase that sense of belonging for their employees by manifesting behaviors that foster intentional inclusion.

Belonging is defined as an affinity for a place or situation. Belonging provokes a sense of feeling like you are an essential member of a group. The subjective nature of the word “belonging” itself varies from individuals and environments. Belonging is in the eye of the beholder. In equity and inclusion efforts, belonging is the emotional state, which is the goal of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Ina perfect world, our organizations’ inclusive processes welcome everyone. To feel truly welcome involves feeling accepted exactly as you are. Employees should not have to check a piece of themselves at the door.

Belonging was at the top of the 2021 Global Human Capital Trends survey as one of the most important human capital issues; 79% of survey respondents said that fostering a sense of belonging in the workforce was important to their organization’s success in the next 12-18 months, and 93% agreed that a sense of belonging drives organizational performance. Seventy-eight years later, Abraham Maslow’s 1943 hierarchy of human needs and his theories on the desires for esteem and belonging are still relevant today. The need for affiliation and belonging is still a legitimate and dependable predictor for success today. Belonging is a universal human need, ranked third on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In fact, research shows that when we experience feelings of acceptance it positively affects the prefrontal cortex of our brain.

During the recent Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Accessibility: Trends, Updates and the DEIA Leadership Forum, DEI advocates and business leaders discussed the importance of belonging as it relates to inclusion and belonging efforts. The panelists emphasized that to have innovative solutions in our business systems, it is time to embrace new thinking. However, creating an inclusive situation that allows for individualism can be challenging for organizations that default to operating through command and control. Intentional inclusion leads to improved belonging. Permeance and sustainability will occur when inclusion is baked into our policies and practices.

The objectives of DEI initiatives must go beyond meeting compliance goals to effectively drivea sense of belonging and positively impact the business. To build a culture that supports belonging, companies need to align DEI to their values and decision-making processes. Businesses can increase that sense of belonging for their employees by manifesting behaviors and participating in the following actions that foster inclusion:

• Practicing Emotional & Cultural Intelligence – It is important to listen, and it is crucial to listen while practicing emotional intelligence (EI) and cultural intelligence (CQ). Both EI and CQ involve active listening and being cognizant of bias. To deepen listening skills, it is important to acknowledge the feelings of others and commit to remaining educated on cultural concepts.

• Develop Agents of Belonging – Employee resource groups (ERGs) and DEI councils create platforms that ensure psychological safety and promote the feeling of inclusion. During these sessions, ensure that there are opportunities for storytelling that allow employees to feel seen and heard.

• Redefine Success – Business leaders should embrace a broader vision of success that encompasses learning, innovation, flexibility, equity, and human dignity.

• Measure Engagement – Benchmarking results through employee surveys allows the business to measure success or determine areas of improvement.

• Celebrate – Celebrating uniqueness and acts of inclusion by providing employee rewards and recognition for acts of inclusion creates a culture where leaders are encouraged to make inclusion and belonging a priority.

Creating a sense of belonging pays emotional and financial dividends. When belonging is fostered from within, it permeates to a business’ client base, which can lead to increased revenue. For example, when employees understand how to effectively use culturally specific language, they can use that same language to drive customer loyalty.

Understanding that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, organizations will create an environment where everyone belongs. As businesses perfect behaviors needed to achieve organizational cultures rich in purpose and strong in mutual respect, those cultures will foster environments in which individuals and teams build and maintain strong relationships that allow employees to bring their best selves to work.

Dr. Thelá R. Thatch leads diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in corporations, boards, and communities. With more than two decades of experience in human resources, talent management and organizational development, she’s passionate about building internal cultures and external communities where an authentic commitment to inclusion, equity, and diversity thrives. Thelá is a published author of a children’s book titled “The Dog Chef” and has written shorter pieces for several publications. Her latest book, “Inclusionomics™,” is dedicated to the study of inclusion and scheduled for release in 2022. She holds a Ph.D. in public policy and administration with a law specialization from Walden University, where she also serves as a contributing faculty member supporting Ph.D. students.