What Does It Mean To 'Belong'?

Tamika S. Edwards Commentary

Last month, we addressed why belonging is critical to your organization. But what is belonging? And how do you incorporate it into your workplace?

This month, I’ll explore what belonging is. (We’ll discuss how you incorporate it into your workplace at a later time.) So cue the theme song to the classic TV show “Cheers”: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came; you want to be where you can see our troubles are all the same; you want to be where everybody knows your name.” I know you sang along.

Without mentioning belonging, this song illustrates what it means to belong. People want to go where they feel as though they matter. Even if only for a moment, in that moment, people want to be in a place where they are seen — a place where they matter. In his paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation” psychologist Abraham Maslow identified belonging as an essential human need. While use of the term “belonging” may be new to the workplace, the concept is not.

For years, organizations have used a variety of activities to ensure employees feel valued and seen. They’ve conducted leadership training designed to teach leaders how to connect with employees and motivate them. Companies have also implemented engagement activities to forge trust and camaraderie among colleagues as well as improve working relations. In many instances, those improvements occur. However, the research shows that instilling a sense of belonging is more than leadership training and engagement efforts.

Before we delve into the research, it’s important to understand where belonging fits along the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) spectrum. First, let’s define diversity, equity and inclusion.

Diversity is a range of differences such as gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or physical and intellectual abilities. These differences constitute our lived experiences. They inform all facets of our lives including our values, points of view, relationships, career choices or risk threshold.

Equity meets people where they are and ensures people have the tools they need to succeed. In the workplace, the organization’s policies and practices indicate how leaders view the needs of a diverse workforce. These documents and practices make up the organization’s systems, systems that condition behaviors and guide outcomes. (While often used interchangeably with equality, equity and equality are different. Equality is about everyone having identical access, resources or opportunities. An equality-only focus, however, fails to acknowledge that different circumstances require a range of approaches.)

As for inclusion, we achieve full inclusion when two things exist: the act of including (an act) and the sense of belonging (a feeling). The act of including is not so difficult to understand. However, it’s the feeling — the sense of belonging — that seems elusive. We all know it when we feel it, but how do we define it?

In 2020, Coqual (formerly the Center for Talent Innovation) conducted research to define what belonging means in the workplace. Part 1 of its multi-part series on belonging, “The Power of Belonging: What It Is and Why It Matters in the Workplace,” defines belonging through four elements (similar to a periodic table):

Seen (Se) — “When you are seen at work, you are recognized, rewarded, and respected by your colleagues.”

Connected (Co) — “When you are connected at work, you have positive, authentic social interaction with peers, managers, and senior leaders.”

Supported (Su) — “When you are supported at work, those around you — from your peers to senior leaders — give you what you need to get your work done and live a full life.”

Proud (Pr) — “When you are proud of your work and your organization, you feel aligned with its purpose, vision, and values.”

These elements help us understand that belonging is the ultimate outcome of any DEI efforts. Regardless of our differences and lived experiences, we all want to belong. The workplace is no different. Recognizing the why, what and how of belonging will have an enormous impact on your organization and demonstrate to your employees that they are in a place “where everybody knows [their] name.”

Tamika S. Edwards is the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Southwest Power Pool of Little Rock. She has more than 20 years of experience in social justice, public policy, government and community outreach.