Why belonging is crucial in team culture and organisational performance

What does it mean to belong to a group, a team, or an organisation? Belonging is a sense of fitting in or feeling like you are an important member of a group.

Individualism versus collectivism (or communitarianism) is one of the most researched dimensions of culture and social studies. This dimension can be defined as the extent to which the individual orients themselves towards their own self as opposed to orienting themselves towards the broader collective. People with a high sense of individualism might resist working in teams, and instead prefer to have a personal agenda, work on their own goals, and be compensated according to their efforts and performance, ie be responsible for their own outcomes. In cultures with high levels of collectivism, self-managed teams are more productive, cooperative, and empowered. They usually maintain a positive attitude to the team, in an attempt to protect the group. Those are extremes – many of us identify as individualists, but also need to feel like we belong to something with purpose, something we value – and vice versa.

Belonging and well-being were at the top of the most important human capital issues according to Deloitte Insights in their Global Human Capital Trends survey in 2020. The report showed that 79% of survey respondents say "fostering a sense of belonging in the workforce was important to their organisation’s success in the next 12–18 months". In addition, 93% agreed that a sense of belonging drives organisational performance.

Having a sense of belonging contributes to a more meaningful life. Being included in a team makes us feel connected and part of something purposeful. In an episode of Finding Mastery: creating the optimal environment for people to thrive, Owen Eastwood suggested that ideal team culture begins with belonging as we all psychologically and biologically yearn for it. When we feel a sense of belonging, stress and anxiety levels drop whilst dopamine and oxytocin levels increase. Eastwood also adds that "when people feel a sense of belonging, they lock into the task, they lock into their role. They lock into the people around them".

Every time you add a new member, the team is like a new team all over again, and team mates need to learn how to feel safe and work together. Thus, we can consider that all teams are immutable. Constant changes to the team damages the friendships and relationships that have been nurtured. It also affects the levels of psychological safety that team members feel within that group.

Good team culture that fosters a feeling of belonging has become harder to achieve with the remote working arrangements enforced for many by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, many workers may not feel a sense of belonging to the organisation they work for or the team they work with. Technology in the workplace can also be a contributing factor. While technology enables instantaneous communication with virtually anyone, the way people use that technology can contribute to increased feelings of isolation. Many virtual workers cite loneliness as one of remote working's challenges. Moreover, the increase in political polarisation, tribalism, and populism are contributing to individuals’ feelings of frustration and division. These divisions may be leading some individuals to turn to the workplace to find a sense of meaning and solidarity that is often becoming more and more difficult to achieve with society at large.

We spend many waking hours 'at work' and many of us seek something that is more than just a salary. People are increasingly looking to work for personal fulfilment and satisfaction which can include, among other things, a sense of belonging. Research from BetterUp shows that if workers feel a sense of belonging, companies benefit substantially: better job performance, lower turnover risk, and fewer sick days. According to the Harvard Business Review, American businesses spend nearly eight billion dollars each year on diversity and inclusion (D&I) training that miss the point because they neglect our need to feel included. By focusing efforts on an inclusive culture that makes teammates feel like they belong to something that is greater than just the individual, organisations can increase performance, productivity, employee retention, and job satisfaction.

At Blackmill, we feel strongly about fostering belonging in team culture. Our Building Empathy in Remote Teams workshop is designed to help organisations promote personal development, inclusion, and emotional intelligence, within a remote and distributed work context. It teaches strategies to address issues that prohibit team productivity, and enables you to foster a diverse and inclusive company culture. Moreover, it prepares you for a post-pandemic future, where work is mostly done remotely, where trust, autonomy, and communication are more important than ever, and where working smarter (not longer) should become the new norm.

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