Employees Share What Gives Them a Sense of Belonging at Work

October 25, 2017

Studies show that feeling a sense of belonging in the workplace leads to more than just good vibes and friendships. Belonging is what allows employees to feel like they can be their authentic selves without fear of different treatment or punishment—and it has a major impact on performance and retention.

Diversity and inclusion still matter, but they won’t cut it if you don’t consider belonging as part of the equation. Belonging is the crucial piece of the puzzle, leading to psychological safety and employee engagement. Supportive environments even trigger different responses in the brain, leading to better collaboration and problem solving.

But, you might not know how to actually create a culture of belonging. Though more and more companies are accepting the importance of fostering a sense of “belonging,” it’s still a relatively new and developing concept. For those wondering how to create a culture of belonging, LinkedIn’s Inside the Mind of Today’s Candidate report reveals some concrete insights on what employees say they need to feel like they belong.

Here, we’ll walk you through the main factors that make employees feel like they belong and four key things you can do to help foster a sense of belonging.

1. Recognize employees for their unique efforts and accomplishments

Mentioned by a whopping 59% of respondents to our candidate survey, being recognized for accomplishments at work was the largest single contributor to an overall sense of belonging.

Not surprisingly, being recognized for their accomplishments was most important to millennials—coming in at 60%, compared to just 53% of baby boomers. Many a joke has been made about millennials and “participation trophies,” but plenty of studies show that millennials are actually uniquely conditioned to want continuous, regular feedback on their work.  

Recognition for accomplishments was also more important to women (62%) than it was for men (57%). Though the reason isn’t clear from the data, it could be because women often feel undervalued at work, especially compared to their male colleagues.

Interestingly, valuing recognition is also correlated with an employee’s company size. It was cited by 63% of employees at enterprise companies (with over 1,000 employees) compared to 59% at small businesses (with fewer than 200 employees), indicating that the average worker might feel more valued in a smaller pond.

Small, simple gestures are an impactful and cost-effective way to make employees feel truly valued, like allowing them to announce big wins, honoring employees’ work anniversaries, and unique award programs that go beyond the standard “Employee of the Month.”

Keep in mind that not all employees are motivated the same way—for example, while some like to be recognized in public, visible ways, others prefer a private message or reward.

That said, all employees want to be recognized not just for showing up, but for offering something unique to the organization. To accomplish this, show them how their individual contributions are irreplaceable to the company.

Leaders should aim to always speak intentionally, challenging employees and emphasizing their unique skills.

"You did a great job designing that website last week,” writes The Muse’s Avery Augustine, as an example conversation. “We have a new client who seems pretty picky, and since your work is so detail-oriented, I think you're the only one for the job."

Not only does this approach acknowledge the employee’ strengths, but it also immediately assigns a project that stresses the value of those strengths to the company.

2. Acknowledge and appreciate employee’s contributions in meetings to make them feel valued

50% of survey espondents said they feel a greater sense of belonging at work when their contributions in meetings are valued. Though similar to recognition, valuing contributions is more about employees speaking up during discussions, and less about their job performance. And like recognition, having contributions valued was cited by more women (55%) than men (48%), which could signal that women are less likely to feel “heard” in meetings and discussions.

The survey data doesn’t show a strong correlation with either seniority or age, which points to an interesting truth—feeling valued at work isn’t just about raises or promotions. It’s largely about how leaders treat their subordinates, from trusting their decisions to empathically listening to them in meetings.

Another way to show employees that their contributions are valuable is to simply listen respectfully and attentively. Note that this might look different depending on a team member’s personality: quieter team members prefer someone who “pauses, listens, and creates a space,” while more outspoken employees want room to bring their thoughts “whenever and wherever.”

3. Practice candor and give employees opportunities to share their honest opinions

Feeling free to express one’s opinions at work is another major component of belonging, called out by 51% of respondents.

Though similar to having your contributions valued, being able to express your thoughts and opinions at work is more about fostering an open, honest environment where employees won’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. Employees who know they can speak their mind feel more motivated to contribute unique ideas that go against the grain, and even command more respect from peers.

Perhaps surprisingly, freedom to express opinions was generally considered most important to senior employees—cited by 62% of VPs, compared to 51% of managers. Though there was no correlation with age, it’s possible that millennials have different reasons for emphasizing open expression. Whereas older team members may wish to express needs and frustrations, millennials are significantly more likely to see the sharing of ideas and opinions as necessary for workplace inclusion.

Sometimes, employees have to learn to speak more candidly and confidently on their own—in interviews or performance reviews, for example. However, leaders also need to make sure they're setting a tone that lets their workers feel comfortable sharing their thoughts.

According to Cornell professor James Detert, getting employees to speak freely can be especially difficult, largely due to workplace norms, along with their fear of losing out on bonuses, promotions, and even their job for speaking up.

“We have a deep set of defense mechanisms that make us careful around people in authority positions,” says James. Yet he believes lower-level employees are often more in touch with the organization’s “problems and possibilities,” and can identify small issues before they become large and unmanageable—making their opinions especially valuable.

To develop a more open and candid environment, start by identifying issues and subjects that seem to cause silence, then invite employees to lunch or other informal settings to discuss them. Make it clear you’re seeking their honest opinions and give them an incentive or reward for speaking up. Leaders can also promote candor by practicing it themselves—speak openly, and your team will follow.

4. Encourage employees to bring their whole selves to work to improve retention and performance

Feeling comfortable with being yourself at work might seem like a fuzzy goal, but 50% of survey respondents consider it an important element of belonging. And it’s not just about self-expression—in a major study, researchers found that emphasizing individuality on the job led to greater retention, less turnover, and even higher customer satisfaction.

Among the workers surveyed, freedom to be yourself was more important for women than men, possibly due to a pervasive “old boys’ club” mentality in many career paths. It was also more important to millennials than other age groups, which dovetails with the common belief that the millennial generation is especially individualistic.

Allowing your employees to feel comfortable with their true selves is especially important when it comes to improving diversity and company culture. When team members feel like they have to stifle parts of their personality, it doesn’t just harm engagement and feelings of belonging—it can also keep women, minorities, and other potentially marginalized groups from succeeding at a company.

In the study mentioned above, researchers found success by emphasizing individuality during orientation. For example, employees were asked what makes them unique, then given fleeces with their names on them, rather than the company name.

Leaders can also promote individuality and “walk the walk” by choosing not to hide important parts of themselves at work. Also, consider re-tooling your employer branding to reflect employees’ personalities—all it takes is a little trust.

Feeling like you belong at work makes employees happier, but the benefits don’t end there. Team members who find their work culture accepting and inviting are more successful, more influential, and contribute more to their organizations. By emphasizing the four factors outlined here, you can help create the perfect environment for future growth.

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