“Belonging in the Workplace” What Does It Mean, and Why Does it Matter?

Today, union organizing efforts look vastly different than they did even just pre-pandemic. Employee trust in "big labor" and belief in the idea that a union can swoop in and make good on a myriad of promises are no more. Instead, worker groups are uniting to address concerns and create a sense of belonging at the companies they work for.

This focus on a need for belonging is found in organizing campaigns at Amazon, Starbucks, REI and dozens of other companies. We have reached an "Age of Affiliation," during which workers want a voice in corporate social responsibility, as well as how their company handles environmental, safety and governmental issues.

When otherwise satisfied, high-performing employees who work well with their supervisors seek change, it can be hard to explain. The need to belong, to feel "in on things" has been shown to be one of the most important factors in employee satisfaction. In 2020, a McKinsey survey determined that nearly two-thirds of the workforce was reflecting on their purpose at work.

So, what is this need for belonging in the workplace and how can employers meet it?

What Does Belonging in the Workplace Mean?

Remember when they talked about Maslow's hierarchy of needs in school? The most basic needs on the hierarchy are physiological, like food and shelter. Once those are met, people fulfill their safety needs, which include employment, health, and personal security. Then comes love and belonging, followed by esteem and finally self-actualization, which is the fulfillment of a person's potential.

Belonging is right in the middle of Maslow's list. Belonging is a powerful human need that drives behaviors, leading people to form connections with friends and co-workers. Belonging in the workplace means feeling valued through positive connections with others and able to bring the authentic self to work. People are always looking to develop a sense of connection in their personal and work lives because that is how they validate their feelings and fulfill the need of belonging.

Additional research after Maslow's theory has shown that employees don't have to satisfy a lower need to pursue a higher need fully, and one behavior can meet more than one need. For example, a person who develops a sense of belonging will likely have more self-esteem (higher need) and feel more secure/safe (lower need). Psychological safety in the workplace refers to feeling safe to be your authentic self and to find fulfillment in that work.

Workplace Belonging And Union Organizing 

Understanding the need to belong sheds light on how people act in the workplace and the pull of union promises. One of the most confusing employee behaviors, from an employer's perspective, is when people vote for a union when they seem satisfied with their job, working conditions, compensation, and benefits. Why would someone who seems like a content, engaged employee vote to let someone else represent them? What would encourage them pay dues to get something they already have? Why do they go along with the crowd? What's going on?

Sometimes, it's just a matter of going along to get along. This is something frequently seen when some union members agree to strike, even though they know it has the power to impact them financially or really just don't want to participate in the turmoil. During protests, people are carried along by the camaraderie and emotion of the crowd, feeling like they are really participating in something important and able to drop defenses and just be themselves. People join a union, protest, strike, or alt-labor group - even when satisfied with the workplace and knowing it could lead to personal and work problems - because of the deep need to belong.

Employees may be productive and motivated at work, but still experiencing the following.

  1. Employees feel isolated in the workplace because of their difficulty bonding with co-workers. They may assume joining a union makes them feel connected, or
  2. They need a strong attachment to other people as a source of self-esteem, and going along with the people who are leading the organizing campaign supports that need
  3. Employees believe the only way to create an environment in which people can be authentic in the workplace is to join the union to demonstrate to the employer a need to develop a culture of belonging in which people feel secure and accepted as they are

There has been significant research on human bonding, including in the workplace. Psychologists have found that for some people, attachment to co-workers is more motivating than money. As an employer, you're thinking in terms of equity and fairness, and the employee is thinking about a sense of belonging. People who feel like they belong believe they are fully supported, accepted, and able to share experiences.

belonging at work

Why Does Belonging in the Workplace Matter?

Employees join unions for many reasons. Some employees who vote for unions have very specific reasons. They believe they need a strong collective voice because they aren't getting the attention of organizational leaders. Sometimes, it's easy to pinpoint why union organizers can convince employees to start a campaign and vote a union in.

Many times it is not. When it's all about belonging and feeling "in on things," management is often blindsided. Leaders may believe that employee relations are good, and most employees are engaged. But when a few dissatisfied employees feel marginalized and seek outside help, the effort grows.  It is the need to feel the sense of belonging that drives some people to support the union organizing campaign or vote for unionization. As one Monster.com author points out, in a discussion on ways to connect with co-workers, the one thing all employees have in common is the employer. Uniting with co-workers "against" the employer creates a sense of belonging.

Big labor and today's big unions use belonging in their marketing efforts - and talk about that more than any employer in the recruitment process. It's why they use words and terms like "brotherhood" and "sisterhood," "collective strength," "solidarity," "unite," and "banding together." The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union calls itself a "proud union family". 

Feeling disconnected? Need some help creating belonging among your team members?

At IRI Consultants, we have worked with countless companies to create employee advisory committees. Our team of experts can help you implement a strategy that works with your unique culture to create a sense of belonging.

Working on the Emotions First

For younger generations of workers that include Millennials and Gen Z, technology plays a role too. Many people experience a significant portion of their social interaction via smartphones and the internet. They grew up using social media, which is a means of gaining a public voice, engaging others, and staying connected. Connectedness is related to a sense of belonging. This appeals to the need for belonging in the workplace. Younger works want to continue the sense of belonging in the workplace, especially since social media cannot replace human interaction. Research indicates younger, college-educated workers are accepting organizing in greater numbers today, whether it is a formal union campaign or an alt-labor group.

And while we're talking about younger workers, don't forget that digital belonging should be part of your belonging efforts. While technology can make us feel more connected, it also has a tendency to stand in the way of belonging.

Digital Belonging Podcast Link

Some people just want to belong to something for emotional and mental support and not necessarily because they think the employer is doing anything wrong. That is one reason why unions sometimes emphasize a focus on people's emotions first. "Belong to the union, and share a common cause with your coworkers and friends." It's a difficult challenge for employers to address. In some cases, it seems that no amount of goodwill on your part will stop some people - those with low self-esteem, those who avoid being antagonists among co-workers, and those who believe they aren't fully accepted - from going along with the crowd. In this case, the crowd consists of union supporters. 

Can Your Supervisors Recognize A Lack of Workplace Belonging?

Leaders need to understand how to deepen employee engagement and develop alternate ways for employees to resolve their need for belonging. It takes a concerted leadership effort. Do your managers and supervisors understand the value of workplace belonging and how it impacts the workforce and company culture? 

The need exists to train supervisors to identify team members who are experiencing isolation in the workplace. There are always clues that an alert supervisor will notice: someone who always eats lunch alone at their desk or an employee who "keeps to himself" and never volunteers an opinion. This extends to remote and hybrid workers, who can be difficult to bring together and motivate them feel like a cohesive team with an influence in how things get done. Pay attention to your leaders and their understanding of the importance of developing a sense of belonging in the workplace for union avoidance

Signs of A Lack of Belonging in the Workplace

A lot has been written about ways to improve employee engagement, but your business success may ultimately be at stake if your employees feel low or no motivation or engagement in your organization. Here are some of the signs to look for if you want to improve the employee experience and make sure employees feel included.

  • Lack of communication
  • Diminished work, poor job performance
  • Higher rates of absenteeism
  • Withdrawal, lack of collaboration
  • Not providing feedback, or asking for it
  • Taking more sick days than normal, with little explanation
  • Disinterest in learning more or challenging themselves
  • High workplace turnover

An Inclusive Workplace Promotes Belonging at Work

We've shared at-length about the intricacies of workplace inclusion and belonging - how to differentiate between the two, what the differences are, etc. To sum it up, you need to be proactive to create an inclusive workplace; one which truly promotes and champions diversity, equity, and therefore, belonging. It's possible that employees feel "included," but still lack engagement and don't actively collaborate with others.

It's not as simple as a one-size-fits-all approach. However, to promote inclusion and also promote belonging, a strong start is forming employee advisory groups, as well as championing diversity and inclusion best practices. Evaluate and identify the potential challenges of underrepresented groups, and then offer adequate resources and support channels to address them. Seek feedback from employees and ensure your leaders have the necessary skills to connect with their team members that promote honest dialogue. Your leaders can help employees feel heard, valued, and safe to come to work as their fully-realized, authentic selves.

You Can Cultivate a Sense of Belonging in Your Workplace

Belonging in the workplace isn't a touchy-feely principle. It's human nature, driven by the brain's responses to positive events promoting feelings of belonging. One of the biggest challenges of old-school managers today is understanding the days of command-and-control are over. Leadership must consider factors like employee psychological needs, and consider a holistic approach to positive employee relations in order to become an employer of choice.

At IRI Consultants, we have found that Employee Advisory Groups and Employee Advisory Committees help cultivate a sense of belonging and foster a strong, inclusive culture that helps our clients become an employer of choiceCreating an environment where unions aren't necessary takes strong, trained leaders who understand human nature and know how to nurture a sense of belonging in the workplace persistently. We'd love to help you create a custom solution for your organization and your unique needs. Click here to get started.

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About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

With over 25 years in the industry, and now as IRI's Director of Business Development, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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