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Sense of belonging = employees & their organisations thrive

Rising rates of loneliness in work is the canary warning of an approaching storm threatening the wellbeing of organisations & their people. The context of work is changing in ways that too often fail to meet a basic human need, a sense of belonging.

Social identification and organisational identification

People who share our values, passions and purpose, are people we’re highly motivated to be around and be recognised as part of their social group. Social identity theory posits there are numerous types of groups we may identify with as being a member, such as gender, religion, political persuasions, nationality, social class, professions, organisations, hobby groups and sporting teams.

We derive a sense of self from those social groups we associate with and also those we dissociate from, part of defining who ‘we think we are’.

When we identify as a member of an organisation or any social group we have a vested interest in its success, although our level of commitment can vary dependent on how aligned we are with a group’s values, our level of emotional attachment and sense of belonging.

Strong levels of organisational identification (OI) is when employees feel a proud member of their organisation, whilst others may only feel connected with their division or immediate team. For some, their social identity as it relates to work is limited to being a member of their profession.

Benefits of organisational identity and a sense of belonging

Unsurprisingly research has identified a strong correlation between levels of OI and affective commitment (AC), a positive emotional attachment to an organisation that results in an employee’s willingness to both remain and invest effort to achieve organisational goals. Employees Who Identify with the Company Boost Financial Performance notes the level of OI is directly related to employee and financial performance, and indirectly related to customer satisfaction. Organizational belonging drives organizational engagementmeaning employees are willing to go above and beyond defined responsibilities, including exceeding customer and client expectations.

“Having a sense of belonging means acceptance as a member or part, and is a human need, just like the need for food and shelter. Feeling that you belong is most important in seeing value in life and in coping with challenges. A sense of belonging to a greater community improves your motivation, health, and happiness.”

The rise of multi-team membership, work crossing organisational boundaries, the gig economy and work related exhaustion, can significantly hinder a sense of belonging.

The good, bad & the ugly of membership of multiple teams references research showing professionals now are on average members of four different teams. Resulting in weakened relationships and coherence within teams and projects, if time isn’t spent on personal interactions that develop trust and familiarity that enable a sense of belonging. In Tribes, Squads, Neighbourhoods and Confusion Colin D Ellis also highlights that

reorganising and renaming teams and structures within organisations won’t enhance team collaboration that improves project and operational delivery performance, if team members don’t have a strong sense of belonging. Enhanced collaboration requires a strong social contract to be built between the members of a team.

The rise of the gig economy and temporary work means more workers have short term relationships with organisations that accentuate transactional relationships and obligations, rather than building a sense of affiliation and belonging.

Employee commitment to whom? speaks to the tensions facing professional service firm (PSF) and knowledge workers today who work across organisational boundaries of their employer, clients and collaborating business partners and suppliers. These workers can spend the majority of their time colocated and working with employees of other organisations, challenging which organisation they connect to emotionally.

Juggling competing commitments and a diversity of cultures when working for multiple teams and/or organisations can be exhausting, leading to a lack of social connection and belonging with any one organisation or team.

Burnout at Work Isn’t Just About Exhaustion. It’s Also About Loneliness reports that ~50% of people say they are often or always exhausted due to work, an increase of 32% over the past two decades. The emotional exhaustion associated with workplace burnout creates loneliness and significant harm.

“Loneliness, whether resulting from social isolation or exhaustion, has serious consequences. Research demonstrates that while obesity reduces longevity by 20%, drinking by 30% and smoking by 50%, loneliness reduces it by a whopping 70%. Loneliness increases the risk of strokes and coronary heart disease by 30%, the leading cause of death in developed countries.

Productivity suffers and other costs of the high level of disengagement associated with loneliness includes ~37% higher absenteeism, 49% more accidents, 16% lower profitability and 65% lower share price over time.”

A regulator responds

Evidence of levels of employee disengagement, loneliness and workplace related mental health issues, and the associated costs to individuals, organisations and economies, has not resulted in organisations making changes that have improved current statistics.

It’s heartening that the The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC)  has responded to the findings of the Financial Services Royal Commission, announcing plans to strengthen governance rules to ensure companies, their boards and senior executives act in lawful, ethical and socially responsible ways. New rules will target culture and behaviour, introduce a 30% gender requirement for directors of ASX300 boards, also include a social licence to serve the wider community as well as shareholders.

Time will tell how much the ASIC can be a cultural change maker. Whether new rules will propel publicly listed organisations to consistently use a lens of building a sense of pride and belonging for their employees when considering the context of how their people work, and what their executive and management actions reveal about the character of their company.

An organisation’s people create great customer experiences, products and services, they generate innovation and enable transformations that keep businesses competitive and sustainable. It’s a no brainer that when employees thrive, so does the organisation.

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