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Why “belonging” is next on the HR and leadership agenda

Loneliness does real harm while a sense of belonging is uplifting, writes HR expert Dave Ulrich. That’s why organisations need to care about it.

Quick test: What is the leading cause of mortality?

  1. High blood pressure
  2. Inactivity (no exercise)
  3. Social Isolation
  4. Drinking
  5. Obesity
  6. Depression

The answer is C: social isolation. Surprised?

The U.S. surgeon general recently stated that loneliness is more serious a health problem than opiates. To illustrate this rising problem, the number of Americans with “no friends” has tripled since 1985. The U.K. has just named a Minister of Loneliness to create policies to deal with the challenge of social isolation. (HRM has written before about the loneliness epidemic in Australia).

The silent epidemic

Loneliness (social isolation) affects all age groups. U.K. research found that 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month. For the younger, digital-native generation, technology can lead to superficial connections. Those who spend more than 2 hours a day on feel more social isolation.

Loneliness also causes organisational problems when employees act independently, and not collaboratively.

I find the concept of “belonging” a critical factor for overcoming social isolation and for creating organisations that have a positive impact on people and performance. Belonging draws on attachment theory, which essentially states that when someone has strong emotional attachment to another (person or organisation), personal well-being increases.

This improved well-being in turn increases personal productivity and overall organisational performance.

A personal realisation

My wife and I recently had lunch with my college roommate and his spouse. While we live in different states and share occasional technology-based interactions, we had not been together face-to-face in some time. This meeting reminded me of the importance of belonging and what it entails:

  • Belonging is active, not passive (I invited my roommate to lunch).
  • It requires persistent work and does not occur haphazardly (we each made the choice of spending time to reconnect).
  • It endures over time (over the decades, we stayed close through technology and other means even when apart, and getting together feels natural and easy).
  • It is tied to shared values (we listened with interest and delight about how our lives have evolved in different but similar ways).
  • It shapes well-being (we each left feeling a sense of closeness).

To move beyond this friendship belonging, organisations where we work, play, and worship should become settings for belonging. My experience in reconnecting with my roommate has lessons for how leaders and HR professionals can create belonging.

1. Recognize that belonging requires work

C.S. Lewis characterised hell as a place where whenever people disagreed, they simply moved away from each other. Over time, everyone lived in moated and gated mansions far away from everyone else.

Leaders who are too busy or distracted for personal connections erode belonging. I know of one leader who had a morning staff call for fifteen minutes every day, no matter where the employees were in the world. One of the reasons was to update business issues, but more importantly it helped the team feel like they belonged.

In organisations, HR professionals help people recognize that the price of belonging is being able to disagree without being disagreeable, to have tension without contention, and to move from divergence to convergence and back again without personal enmity.

Belonging requires effort.

2. Use technology to build connections, not contacts

Technology makes the world a global village, but it often seems as if the village consists of increasingly isolated people.

It’s like walking down the street of a large city. There are literally crowds of people, and each person is moving with purpose and direction. But none of them know each other.

Technology dramatically increases breath of contacts but not necessarily depth. Counting likes and followers or joining a group does not imply belonging. In fact, more screen time often leads to more isolation. As I have posted, an emerging challenge of technology is to pivot from efficiency to connection.

Leaders can use technology to connect if they personalise their use of technology. Instead of sharing scripted studio posts, one leader became more authentic by creating short weekly posts about his focus, priorities, and experiences.

HR professionals can encourage technological connection that leads to belonging by sharing more personal experiences. One company, on an employee’s birthday, asks colleagues to share positive experiences with the employee through technology. This affirming exercise helped employees feel closer (more belonging) with their colleagues.

Belonging requires making social media more social.

3.   Demonstrate empathy

Satya Nadella, CEO at Microsoft, has a new leadership mantra about empathy. He claims that empathic leadership leads to connection, which leads to innovation, which leads to better business performance. Empathy is another way of defining value through the receiver not the giver.

Leaders build empathy in their professional relationships by asking how people are doing, being aware of personal circumstances, and being willing to help others. One leader I know begins regular meetings with a brief personal interlude: “Who has a good news moment to share?” Another sent handwritten gratitude notes to employees. These empathic actions create a sense of personal belonging between leaders and employees.

In organisations, HR professionals can instill the values of empathy by being more transparent and sharing information, personalising employee work agreements, and meeting individual employee needs.

Belonging requires empathy.

4.  Ensure that employees take personal responsibility for finding meaning

Agency theory has changed how investors invest. When an agent acts on behalf of the owner, the agent often sub-optimises decisions. So investors want managers who are not just agents but active participants in investment decisions.

Leaders create belonging by asking employees what they think, encouraging them to take ownership of innovation and personal work. HR professionals shape personal accountability for belonging by helping employees shift from being passive agents to active participants in organisation actions.

In employee engagement, this changes questions from “Do I like my pay, boss, or working conditions?” to “Do I do my best to earn my pay, build a relationship with my boss, or improve working conditions?” Marshall Goldsmith calls this active engagement, and it shifts the responsibility for belonging from the organisation to the individual.

Belonging requires that employees are agents for themselves.

I belong to my family with whom I share DNA and memorable events; my friends who share experiences, my professional colleagues who share ideas, and my faith community who share values. Where do you belong?

And how do you increase your belonging?

Dave Ulrich FAHRILife is a Rensis Likert professor of business, a University of Michigan partner, and  co-founder and partner of the RBL Group.

This is an edited version of his LinkedIn article.

Access HR guidelines and policy templates on health and wellbeing with the online HR resource AHRI:ASSIST. Exclusive to AHRI members.

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Marion King
Marion King

Yes, it’s so important in the workplace to nurture a sense of belonging, as loneliness and social isolation is considered by many to be the global epidemic of our times. This comment is from a recent Radio National interview with Tania de Jong from Dimension5, a co-working space in Melbourne, which provides a sense of belonging to entrepreneurs, who would otherwise be working from home. I work from another co-working space, Frankston Foundry, which provides a sense of community, and social cohesion by, for example, all going out to lunch, providing mutual business support and learning opportunities. I work in… Read more »

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