To weather constant disruption and the accelerating pace of change, organizations fight for top talent, drive innovation, and focus on culture. So why talk about belonging? Belonging may be the key to retention, risk-taking, and engagement that launches an organization past the competition.
“Basically, Maslow was saying if you’re starving to death, you’re not going to be sitting around contemplating life—you’re going to be out searching for food. But what we now know is that Maslow may have missed the mark, and that belonging, the human need to connect and be part of the group around us may be, in fact, our most critical need.”
Howard Ross, Founder, Udarta Consulting
Howard Ross describes belonging as a shared sense of identity, destiny and values, a sense of interdependence, all of which allow people to feel fully able to be themselves. He says, “When people ask me for definition of terms, I like to say that if diversity is being invited to the dance and inclusion is actually being allowed to dance, belonging is when you actually have some say about the music. In other words, you are so completely a part of the culture or the organization that your input matters. It’s not just that you’re allowed to be successful in my organization; instead, you actually have something to say about the culture of the organization, our way of being in the organization, the choices we make in the organization.”
Our need to belong may be rooted in our evolutionary biology. Researchers Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary wrote, “It seems clear that a desire to form and maintain social bonds would have both survival and reproductive benefits” (The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. 1995). According to Stanford University researcher Patricia R. Barchas, “Over the course of evolution, the small group became the basic survival strategy developed by the human species” (A sociophysiological orientation to small groups. 1986). And researchers Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson suggest that early humans who violated their group’s social norms “might have suffered ostracism, been denied the benefits of public goods, or lost points in the mating game,” (Culture and the evolution of social cooperation. 2009) suggesting that the propensity to get along in groups would become a favored trait through natural selection.
“Up until fairly recently in human history, we couldn’t survive by ourselves,” Ross explains. “If you got sick or injured you would die. So, people who got along with the people around them, people who were fully accepted into their community, had a far greater chance of survival.” A preponderance of research indicates that those kinds of survival behaviors have adapted over the course of human evolution. As a result, Ross says, “We are deeply influenced by people around us in ways that are quite powerful.”
Now more than ever, organizations are taking notice of how that basic human need to belong is at the heart of why culture matters and the fact that culture impacts their bottom line. Rose Gailey, Partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Costa Mesa office and the global lead of the Organization Acceleration and Culture Shaping Center of Excellence at Heidrick Consulting, says, “Our firm began the work around organizational culture over 40 years ago, and what we’ve seen particularly in the last 10 years is that the concept of belonging has really hit a crescendo in terms of organizational focus.”
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