You don’t want to lose your highest performing and most critical people, but you will, when they stop belonging. And, you may keep them in their seats by adding more pay. But if you’re resorting to adding more money as the primary motivator, they’ve already left. It’s just that their butts haven’t followed their hearts, yet.
Our brains don’t want A “sense of belonging”
Odds are, now you’ve at least considered looking at belonging for some answers on how to keep your high-performing employees. It’s the hot topic out there right now, commonly referred to as a sense of belonging- they feel like they belong. I just did a Google search and it returned about 1,720,000,000 results (0.54 seconds). Betterup did a study in 2019 and found a 56% uptick in job performance for people who feel they belong, and they stick around at a much higher rate also. So, it stands to reason that you’d look into that prospect, especially with all the “how to get higher employee engagement” talk on how to do the things you need to do to make employees feel good at, or right, about your company.
I’ll spare you, a rehashing of all the things you might already be trying, or could be doing towards that end. Cause, I’m pretty sure you’re busting your ass trying to figure this out to the best of what you know, and within your current abilities. You want high performers at your company, and you want them to stay. I get it and believe you’re headed in the right direction.
And, if you’re unsure or uncomfortable with this concept of, a sense of belonging, it’s because you should be. Do you want a sense of your client paying their bill? A sense of security? A sense of a successful outcome? How about a sense of love? No!
You want the real thing! Oh, and that sense of belonging, it’s just the feeling, of feeling good about being at your company. And because it’s a sense of belonging, anybody experiencing it will also experience the fear of wondering, when will the rug will be pulled out from under them. Don’t get me wrong, you want your people to feel good about being at your company. And yes, that gives you a big advantage over companies with employees that feel crappy.
Here’s Cornell University’s understanding of a sense of belonging for reference:
Belonging is the feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a member of a certain group. It is when an individual can bring their authentic self to work.
But, a sense of belonging can’t give you the massive advantage you’d get when your people really belong. Why? Because a sense is fuzzy, fuzzy is unclear, and unclear triggers fear. More on that later.
And The “sense of belonging” Fell short too
Gallup tracking employee engagement, January 7, 2022 (Gallup’s website)
That, nearly 45,000,000 people voluntarily resigned in 2021, might suggest that even the added effort to create a sense of belonging isn’t working either. Not for lack of good intentions though. The concept of belonging, as a “sense of belonging,” yeah it’s been gaining traction over the last five years. However, the polls and studies continue to reveal that, a sense of belonging, along with other systems and processes to improve company culture, hasn’t really moved the needle, but barely. It’s the same as it’s been for at least the last 20 years. In 2001 it was 30% and in 2020, 36%. And now we slammed head-on into Covid, 2021 it’s back down to 34%. In 20 years it gained 4%? That’s it! Hey CEOs, Boards, Funders… you losing your minds yet?
So in 2021, yeah, nearly 45 million people decided where they didn’t belong. We’re talking, within this last year. So, even the “sense of belonging” ain’t cutting it.
Since the early 1900s, Scientific Management in Business (emanating from Taylorism) evolved this way:
Employees placed in efficiency-systems (right butts in right seats with constraints) = less error + more $$$
Employees given physical and monetary perks = more engagement + more $$$
Employees given emotional perks = more engagement + more $$$
Employees given a sense of belonging = more engagement + more $$$
It’s the stuff you’ve probably learned in business schools, read about, and heard from the lips of many of the “successful” business leaders, however that’s defined. And it all sort of worked… well, until it didn’t. Again, near 45,000,000 people said, “take this job and shove it, I ain’t workin’ here no more!” (Old song by Johnny Paycheck, 1977.)
You see, Covid unmasked a sense of belonging, revealing it for what it was. And it happened like this. People working from home got to simultaneously exist in, an experience where they mattered versus, where the results of their efforts mattered. The sense of belonging offered by employers was just that, a sense, NOT the real thing. It’s an emotionally contrived offering used to motivate people for increased engagement, for increased results. In case that wasn’t clear, it’s creating a sense of belonging for engagement, not genuinely for the person.
And we all know the difference between, when it’s about “us” and when we’re in a “we” situation, versus about an outcome for somebody else, say, customers or shareholders, and not us. Covid brought out into full contrast.
A “sense of belonging” is a one-way street
Let me offer this, the failure of the four nuances above lies in that they’re all one-way equations, yes, even the sense of belonging addition. Regardless of how many one-way equations you string together, they all still add up to a one-way transaction for what matters. When we’re in this one-way transaction model, we become very emotionally aware of two things, one, that we are in a fuzzy “sense of” place, and two, that we’re disposable in the pursuit of the results. It’s like driving in the pouring rain on a street and you can kind of see the street lines, with the road’s many twists and turns to come. And, you can kind of see those guardrails, you have a sense that they’ll keep your car from tumbling down into the ravine below, in the event of a miscalculation. But there’s no way in hell you’re going to test that sense. You’re driving in fear. And similarly, the environment fostering a sense of belonging creates space for fitting within fuzzy lines, ultimately at the expense of and undermining real belonging.
A sense of belonging compared to belonging is like being with somebody pretending to be your friend, versus being with your best friend. The longer you hang out with the pretender, the more you get used to and even comfortable, navigating an environment of distrust as the norm. Vulnerability retreats, and with it the ability to truly belong.
A sense of belonging is a get/give transactional space. Your employees get a paycheck… they’re expected to give time, skill, and effort … by design, everybody’s starting in a receive mode.
Belonging, on the other hand, it’s always 2-way. It’s your people taking care of each other in primary focus first, forming and adopting a give/get living environment in your company Us Story. If you’re a CEO thinking, yeah my people should give to me, I pay them, you just broke belonging from the top down with get/give. Good luck. Or, if you’re giving to your employees for a transactional outcome, higher engagement, get the tasks done… that’s also not belonging. Good luck, again.
Your best butts come from Give/Get, not Get/Give
The give comes first. The power and performance uptick you get from real belonging comes from give/get, not get/give. We’re actually wired more to give than to receive. This may sound counterintuitive, but we are. It’s why joining a purpose feels so good and we regularly do so. Guess what’s behind joining purpose? You get to give! This means you matter personally in your contribution. Human neurochemistry is designed to reward you for this with higher oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine. Hopefully, your personal purpose lines up well enough to join with the company’s purpose. The resulting joint giving space becomes a force multiplier.
And guess what makes that joint effort in purpose work out well for you and the company, belonging. Without belonging, we ultimately divide into individuals bonded in self-preservation, in the pursuit as parallel purposes. Here, you’re now primed for your inevitable fender bender to turn into road rage, instead of the simple exchange of insurance information with an “I’m sorry, and a “that’s ok”, and continuing on to your shared destination. Shared purpose in belonging always beats many people in parallel purpose.
A little neuro-nerding. Your neurochemistry gets a bigger positive hit of oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins, from giving to someone and sharing gratitude, than it does from when you receive a gift, or gratitude from someone. That’s kind of a crazy thing. But it’s how we’re wired, presumably, so that we go towards each other, regardless of whether or not somebody’s come to us first. This initiates belonging.
You may have experienced this. Doing a nice thing for somebody feels great. Yes, given that they don’t reject us in the process. Vulnerability in the relationship is a requirement, too. Yet, receiving a gift from somebody usually feels great, but also awkward. This is a default/desired state for our brain.
Rewriting our work story by adding a belonging component of doing things for each other, not just in transaction, changes the net result for doing our jobs. This takes our emotional reference from, I get money to sustain myself my family, to we’re also doing this for each other, and for each other’s family. From that, we get an even higher neuro-reward and level of motivation to then do even better for each other, a.k.a. increase performance.
It plays out like this.
You and your good friend (teammate who you belong with as you go to your destination together) are driving in your own cars down the street, going towards the same destination and purpose.
Scenario 1. Your best friend gets a flat tire. Because you’re watching out for each other, you pull over and wait or help them, and then you continue on. You get it done faster together, and then back on the road. You stop because you’re giving, not because you’re going to get.
Scenario 2. Your best friend goes to pass you and hits your bumper, you keep ongoing, resolve the “oops!” later, and enjoy the destination.
Energy put at risk from either mishap quickly gets redirected back to and for each other and into performance. We’ll actually step into inconvenience, discomfort, and danger for each other.
Compare that to this.
You and some other person are driving in your cars down the street, going towards the same thing.
Scenario 1. They get a flat tire. You may or may not notice, and if you do, say “that sucks, but I can’t be late,” and then you continue on.
Scenario 2. You go to pass them, ‘cause you’re faster and want to get there first and on time, and “oops,” you hit their bumper. Turning and seeing their face, red in the fullness of road rage. You say to yourself, they should’ve been going faster. (It’s time to call 911, now!)
Energy put at risk from either mishap here, gets rerouted and withheld from each other, or wasted in rage, actively or passively. Worse still, energy and focus will be held back in reserve to deal with future dangers.
What do your flat tire and fender bender moments look like in your company? We’ll sacrifice for our tribe, and if an individual member does, the tribe unifies into greater power. But if the tribe sacrifices anyone to advance, it divides and weakens as its members pull together into sub belonging groups of self-preservation.