Humans are social creatures. We have an inherent need to belong, to feel like we are a part of a group, and to be accepted by that group for who we really are. In business, the ability to create a sense of collective whole, a sense of belonging, can be a potent way to empower employees, promote diversity, and achieve more effective results.
A study by UCLA looked at the way that humans neurologically react to positive and negative social stimuli. According to their findings the experience that a person has when there is a threat to their social needs, such as their sense of belonging to a group, is the same as that of physical pain. This underpins the vital need to foster a positive community environment in workplace settings.
The stress that comes from feelings of social isolation can lead to detrimental physical and mental effects, including a reduction in higher level cognitive functioning and problem solving abilities. It can also give rise to feelings of apathy, anxiety, and even antagonism in some cases.
Having a sense of belonging is particularly important for female and minority employees. A recent Stanford study looked at the effect of social marginalization on women entering predominantly male fields, such as STEM. It found that negative performance issues for these individuals could often be attributed to a lack of inclusion, and feelings of isolation from not being part of the larger demographic group.
However there is hope. That same study also showed that gender specific performance disparities could be mitigated through interventions that replicated the effects of past social-belonging and value affirmations. This was particularly effective when the sessions were focused on helping individuals interpret challenges and social cues according to a more positive self narrative.
When an organization takes steps to help employees from minority populations integrate into the greater whole, the performance of those individuals will increase. They are more likely to make connections with people outside of their own background, and through this stronger, more diverse, and more dynamic teams can be formed.
This is particularly important because diverse teams have been shown to produce better results due to the benefits of having a broader collective intelligence. A 2015 study by McKinsey demonstrates this, showing that gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform competitors, while organizations with an ethnically diverse population outperform them by as much as 35%. The bottom line is businesses that are able to increase diversity through efforts to promote belonging among minority groups will be more successful.
One company that is making strides towards increasing inclusion in their corporate philosophy is Airbnb. There they have adopted a culture that encourages group identity through the promotion of an organizational value system that is intended to be inspiring and engaging. They also implement informal team building events such as impromptu surprise birthday parties, baby showers, and celebrations of individual employee’s life landmarks.
Groups outside of the workplace such as Women Who Code, a nonprofit that supports tech professionals in their career goals, can also provide a sense of belonging that can have an impact on a person’s sense of worth by giving them a voice and a community within the industry. With initiatives such as WWCode For Companies, which launched this past September, this advocacy organization is working directly with companies to change the conversation, promoting diversity and inclusion while recognizing the accomplishments of underrepresented populations.
One interesting result of the UCLA study is that the fulfillment of social and emotional needs can have as great an impact on employee performance as more tangible things such as salary and benefits. Creating a positive work environment where everyone feels included and accepted, while also developing a group identity that has specific inspirational goals and aspirations, can in many ways be even more powerful than the incentives of payment and promotion.