The Superpower of Belonging

How belonging unlocks employee potential in today’s fractured, distributed work model

Imagine a time

Think of a time when you felt a strong sense of belonging. It could be from your personal life (perhaps your family or friend group, a sports team or community team) or your work life.  On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your performance on that team (by performance we mean how engaged, committed, and productive you felt)? Now, think of a team situation where, for whatever reason, you had a weak sense of belonging. How would you rate your performance on that team? Comparing the two ratings, how big an impact did your sense of belonging have on your performance? We’ve found many people report at least double the impact when they felt strong belonging.

Belonging isn’t a by-product of success; it is a fundamental condition for it. It’s a superpower for human performance. Being intentional about creating an environment of belonging is a leadership imperative that can unlock personal, team, and organizational success in today’s more distributed work model.

A fundamental human need

Human beings have a deep, primal need to belong. We’re a social species that survives and thrives in groups. When we belong, we feel secure, try new things, and ask for, offer, and accept help. We feel accountable to the group for its success. Ultimately, we work together to accomplish big things no one person could do alone.

Conversely, when we don’t belong, we feel deeply insecure. We experience what psychologists call “social pain.” We feel unseen and unworthy and become smaller in group settings. We turn inward and become distrustful. In organizations with low levels of belonging, cliques emerge, cohesion erodes, and performance drops off.

Feeling secure and part of something bigger is essential to the well-being of people and the high performance of teams.

A crisis of belonging

Our connections to each other have become deeply frayed. People report having fewer friendships and a greater feeling of loneliness. Participation in community and civic groups is down. Polarization is up. And work has evolved to be less a place of deep belonging and community. Workplaces are more distributed, interactions are more virtual, loyalty is less valued. This all adds up to what experts call a “crisis of belonging” that’s impacting our health, well-being, and ability to live our potential. What people are beginning to crave is an “us” orientation, and work is the place to re-establish that.

Rebuilding belonging

We believe organizations are under-leveraging the power of belonging in the new model of work. Companies are heavily focused on Return-To-Office policies – particularly how many days to be physically present. Getting people back together is very important. But it’s only one tactic to enhance belonging. To rebuild deeper relationships, innovation, and growth we must think more expansively about how to build belonging. This should include how we’re physically together but include multiple additional levers for creating greater belonging. 

We’ve studied multiple high performing, high belonging organizations to understand the common drivers to belonging. There are 5 actions that together build a culture of belonging:

  1. Define what we belong to. This starts with defining what we call a “Team Manifesto.” This goes beyond a simple purpose statement to define how and why the team is distinct and special compared to others. It is a deeply emotional vision that defines the identity people will participate in as part of this team. 
  2. Connect the dots on how I fit in. The leader/manager needs to explicitly help each employee understand how their role fits and contributes to the team’s work and fulfillment of their mission. This is an often-missed step that explicitly links people to what they belong to.
  3. Act in “our” way. Every organization does many of the same things. For example, all airlines read the safety briefing at the start of the flight. A high belonging organization does things in their “way,” consistent with their manifesto. Only Southwest Airlines reads the safety briefing in the quirky, humorous ways many of us have experienced as unique to them. 
  4. Know and accept the ALL of me. We need to know each other fully to feel part of a shared purpose and set of values. This comes by reducing the barrier between our personal and professional sides. We share and celebrate our full selves and how they impact our performance.
  5. Acknowledge us in rituals. These are often seemingly small acts that simply acknowledge people. Celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. Having a “welcome” ceremony for new hires. Holding awards for success, but also for effort, for learnings, and for role modeling values. These small acts have an outsized impact on people’s engagement and peformance.

These actions define an emotional “something bigger” that the entire team is part of. They say to the individual “we see, accept, and include you.” They create belonging.

This environment is leader led but people driven. The leader sets the vision and practices in a “servant leadership” style. But every member of the team contributes to the building and nurturing of the ties that bind them. 

A new set of paradigms

Our findings reveal a new set of seemingly contradictory principles for how to drive results in today’s environment:

  • Focus on the personal and emotional side of people to drive hard, rational business results. 
  • Create an environment of security, not fear, to motivate people to superior performance. 
  • Spend time micro-managing the team environment, not the team’s work.

Taken together, this is about pivoting to a human centric business approach. 

And the results are in

Leveraging these principles and practices creates a high belonging team that shifts from a “me” to a “we” orientation. People feel they can unleash their full self into their work. They act with initiative and confidence. Collaboration, speed, problem solving, and innovation go up. Engagement increases. Retention drops. Growth skyrockets.  What’s good for people becomes good for the business. This is simple, but not easy. But isn’t this what we should strive for? Isn’t this what we as leaders are called to do? 



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