By Laurie Cure

It happened again. Over and over leaders share stories of their challenges, heartbreak, and reasons for wanting to leave an organization; over and over, belonging is at the heart of their needs.

We often speak with pride saying, “I would rather be respected than liked” or “I’m not here to be liked”. Regardless of what we tell ourselves, feeling connection, acceptance, inclusion, belonging, and a sense of being liked all lead to increased job performance, lower turnover, and a reduction in sick days. Being liked allows us to be more effective, efficient, productive, engaged, and the list goes on. Feelings of isolation occur more often than we want to admit (over 40% of employees), yet we often discount this need.

In my 2012 book, Leading without Fear, I shared,

“We have a basic human desire for belonging, feeling connected to groups, and having social affiliations that align with our values and make us feel a part of something. I worked with a CEO a few years ago who was a tough, fair man who spoke his truth and stood strong in difficult professional decisions. Often, as you can imagine, when we make those difficult choices, it can result in hard feelings toward us by others.

One day in my office, as he was discussing one of these very difficult choices, he stated, “Deep down, I really do want to be liked, and it feels horrible getting beat up like this.”

Our desire to be liked and to belong can often lead to searching for it in ways that don’t serve us. We might always be trying to break into the group, so we agree with others when really, we don’t, we do things that might violate our own ethical boundaries, or we compromise our own perspectives just to feel valued and purposeful.

There are often red flags that serve as a signal that employees are lacking a sense of belonging and that leaders or organizations are failing to meet these needs.

  • Increased turnover
  • Workplace gossip
  • Cliches and inside jokes abound
  • Some people are not privy to information that others in their role have access to
  • Turf wars
  • Exclusion from key events, meetings, conversations, or opportunities
  • Human Resources complaints, employee lawsuits, and/or workplace violence 

Addressing belonging starts with leadership. The following strategies are worth considering:

  1. Establish a leader code of conduct that outlines various practices the organization wishes to instill. 
  2. Define strong onboarding strategies that provide direct expectations for how leaders will help employees feel a part of the company. These might be regular check-ins, the establishment of buddy programs to help new staff acclimate, or team socials like lunch or birthday celebrations.
  3. Review the data. When you see employees turnover within a few months of hire, it is often a result of affiliation needs not being met. Pay attention to the role this need plays in retention. Consider integrating a “buddy system” for new hires so they have a “go to” person for questions, someone to introduce them to others within the team, and within the organization, and even as simple as someone to talk with at lunch. 
  4. Watch for group dysfunction. When conflict results and there is no psychological safety, teams begin to display dissension amongst group members. Pay attention to signs that your workplace may have clichés or be divided. If you notice subgroups forming on your team, consider partnering different employees together on projects or work efforts. 
  5. Pay attention to unproductive behaviors. Conversations or gossip behind people’s backs, a sense of being ignored or not included, or even intentionally “forgetting” to invite someone to meetings, all result in a lack of belonging. For the CEO that I spoke about above, it was everyone talking and sharing their frustration behind his back, leaving the lunchroom abruptly when he was walking near, or avoiding him. These all led to a deep sense of isolation.
  6. Consider deliberate teambuilding or training which helps employees value their personality differences. If you have employees voicing concerns that they just don’t fit in or feel left out, don’t dismiss these claims as immature or petty. Hear them and act on them. Also, assist employees in determining what is within their control to do differently. How can they more proactively engage teammates in relationship building? 
  7. Foster social interaction within your team. Organize team outings, virtual hangouts, or informal get-togethers. These social interactions help build personal connections and strengthen the sense of belonging among team members.

I’ve heard comments like, “In Leadership, it’s not my job to be everyone’s friend. I have to make the tough decisions. That is what I am paid for.” I am not suggesting that leadership is a popularity contest. It’s true, leaders have different roles and they do have to make tough, sometimes unpopular decisions. What I am saying is that despite how we rationalize the issue of affiliation, we all have a foundational need to be part of something and to feel a sense of belonging. 

As leaders, when we don’t create and meet that need for employees, they will enter a place of fear, and we will ultimately experience the consequences as an organization. That consequence may manifest itself as disengaged employees, absenteeism, higher turnover, etc. All of these things are at the expense of the team, and the organization. This is why it is so important that leaders create environments that foster inclusion. Not everyone on your team will be best friends. Various personalities and styles will likely result in some team members engaging in closer relationships than others. However, establishing a team environment that is collegial and non-competitive can be a key factor in ensuring that employees feel a sense of belonging. 

If you find you could use support in any aspect of team development, HR processes, and procedures, planning, transition, or change, we’d love to talk with you. We have helped many of our clients work through challenges and walk the path to greater personal and organizational success, we’d love to help you too. Contact us for a complimentary consultation at or call us at 970-279-3330.

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