HomeEmployee ExperienceCultureResolving the feeling of not belonging at work

Resolving the feeling of not belonging at work

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A sense of not belonging in the workplace, particularly at this time of year, can be a very painful experience and have a significant impact on our psychological well-being as well as our performance.

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For the many people who feel a sense of not belonging at work, the office Christmas party can be an incredibly daunting prospect. Festive fun and merry conversation are reserved for those who have developed good relationships, who are comfortable being themselves around others at work, and who feel accepted by their colleagues. Dr Lee Waller, Ashridge  Executive Education, Hult International Business School explains why so many employees possess this feeling. 

An innate human motivation

The reason we feel a sense of exclusion so acutely is because the drive to belong is a fundamental human need, with an evolutionary heritage. In order to survive as a species, it was critical that we were able to establish and maintain relationships to secure our inclusion in social groups which offered protection, nurture and support.

Indeed, the pain experienced through interpersonal loss and rejection triggers the same neural circuits as physical pain, which suggests that social exclusion is as critical to our survival as a species as physical harm.

Recent research by Hult Ashridge Executive Education has found, however, that when it comes to a feeling of ‘not belonging’ at work, it’s not just about a lack of meaningful, quality relationships.

An absence of shared characteristics and being ‘different’ to colleagues, together with feeling you are not adding value or making a positive contribution, can also deepen the feeling of being an ‘outsider’.

When these factors combine at work, they can affect our very sense of who we are, undermining our self-esteem, our self-efficacy, and the clarity of our identity. This is because we so often attribute the cause of our sense of not belonging to ourselves – there must be something fundamentally ‘wrong’ with us, either in terms of our personality or our competence, that has resulted in us feeling excluded.

A perpetuating cycle

Attempts to resolve this sense of not belonging often only exacerbate the situation. By trying to fit in, presenting a version of ourselves we believe is acceptable, or protecting ourselves by avoiding certain situations, we often undermine our sense of identity even further.

We then admonish ourselves for acting inauthentically and may fulfil our own fears by withdrawing and detaching from our teams. Quite apart from the personal impact on our sense of self-worth, this approach also has significant implications for our performance at work.

So, what can we do, as colleagues, leaders and organisations, to both support those experiencing a sense of not belonging in the workplace, and avoid it emerging in the first place?

Awareness

Be aware that employees who may be in a minority demographic, who lack quality relationships or who have experienced a failure in the workplace, may all be at risk of experiencing a sense of not belonging. Behaviours such as withdrawal or conformity may be signs of people who are struggling and need support from their managers or colleagues.

Support the development of relationships

Encourage the development of empathetic and genuine relationships in the team. Look out for those who have strong inter-personal skills when recruiting and prioritise this in development programmes. Support employees in establishing
social networks through informal ‘off-task’ activities or social events. Relationships built in this way can give people a safe space where they can support each other or voice concerns about how they may be feeling.

Make people feel valued

Make sure people are clear about the expectations and requirements of their job, are trained in the necessary skills to do it well, and have some level of autonomy over their role. Our research showed that if people feel they lack control and are unable to do anything to address their sense of not belonging, they are more likely to withdraw or disengage.

Foster a culture of psychological safety

A psychologically safe culture is one where employees feel safe to contribute and comfortable expressing their concerns and vulnerabilities, as well as their diversity. This means they can speak out and get support if they feel excluded, and may be more able to be themselves in the workplace. The behaviour of leaders, and particularly the extent to which they role model a mindset of openness, curiosity and inclusivity, is the most significant factor in developing this psychological safety. The more people feel they can speak up about feeling they don’t belong, the more they will learn that they are probably not alone in this feeling and not so different from everyone else.

Challenge negative assumptions

Employees can often feel that having a sense of not belonging makes them in some way deficient or weak. Offering workplace coaching or counselling services might be a valuable way to help employees understand that they are not unique in their experience and may help them establish a more positive sense of self at work.

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