Inclusion is different from belonging. Companies who are successful in making inclusion pay off strive to make their employees feel a sense of both. Unfortunately, for too long far too many companies have focused on inclusion. While they focus on DEI initiatives, transparency with executives, and team bonding (all noble and worthwhile pursuits!), they may not be creating belonging.


Inclusion versus belonging

Inclusion is different from belonging, so before we dig in, let’s define the difference.

We’re included when someone else invites us to join in, be it a game on the playground or a meeting in the office. When someone else reaches out and makes us feel seen, we feel included. But almost always, being included is predicated on the activities of others.

The feeling of belonging is much more internal. Belonging is about how we perceive the world around us, and how we fit into it. It’s entirely possible to be included, and still not feel like you belong. If you’ve ever had the feeling of being alone in a crowded room, you know what we mean.

Unfortunately, it’s long been common for companies to focus solely on inclusion. While dedicating time and resources to DEI initiatives, transparency with executives, and team bonding activities are all noble and worthwhile pursuits, they might be successful in creating an inclusive workplace. But if their people don’t have a sense of belonging, all the work to make people feel included might not pay off. 

This became clear during the Great Resignation, when employees who no longer felt engaged and effective at their work decided to look elsewhere. In fact, the Great Resignation truly highlighted the difference between inclusion and belonging, and has turned the focus for many companies (finally) to the latter. So has quiet quitting.

Companies are beginning to see that creating a sense of belonging can accomplish more than just reducing the chances their employees will leave; it can also have incredible positive benefits for their organization. A 2019 survey by BetterUp found that workplace belonging can lead to a staggering 56 percent increase in job performance, with a 75 percent decrease in employee sick days. According to the survey, 79 percent of respondents said that a sense of belonging in the workplace was important to their organization’s success within the next year to 18 months, with 93 percent of respondents agreeing that belonging drives operational performance.

So while you’ll never hear us tell anyone to stop trying to engender the feeling of inclusion in their employees, there are real reasons why going beyond inclusion, and creating a true sense of belonging, is worth the extra effort. 

Belonging in the Workplace

Creating and measuring a sense of belonging at a company is difficult, mostly because it involves creating an internal narrative in the minds of employees and team members. Unfortunately, you can’t just tell people to feel differently, you have to change their experiences over time. 

With some employees, it's just not possible. If they don’t fit, if their personal mission and purpose don’t align with the larger organization, they may never feel a sense of belonging. And that’s ok, but it might be a sign they need to move on.

It’s also rare for people to feel a sense of belonging to a large, abstract entity that a corporation represents. 

Where they can feel belonging is within their team, and with the people they work with directly. Someone belongs when they feel they’re a part of a team of people who they believe care about them, and who they care about in return. Ultimately, a sense of belonging lives at the team level, in the daily experience of going to work, who we’re working with, and what we’re working on

If you're going to create a sense of belonging, your team is where you have to start. And while inclusion activities are a great starting point, you have to go further. 

Inclusion first, then belonging

If you truly have a non-inclusive workplace, begin there. There are many options for solving these issues, from changing biased hiring practices to making sure that company events and holidays include everyone in the organization. In an ideal world, every company is working to minimize the instances that can’t include everyone while being intentional and reflective about how they can be more inclusive.

Now let’s see how to go deeper than that to get to belonging.

How to create belonging

We’ve covered that in order to make an employee feel like they belong, they have to think their employer cares about them. So, how do you make someone feel cared about at work? Well, by caring for them.

This may sound reductive, but the first step is authentically connecting with your team as individuals, and giving them the time and space to connect with you and each other. Many of the ways we create cohesive teams apply here: celebrating successes and wins; asking for feedback; respecting each other’s time; actively listening. Each of these help team members feel like they belong.

Sometimes the things that make people feel like they belong are more concrete. This includes benefits and initiatives that show employees you care about more than just their productivity. Things that demonstrate that the company sees them as individuals with lives outside of work, like wellness programs and flexible work hours.

Cohesive, engaged, belonging

At its core, a cohesive, engaged team is also one with a sense of belonging. These traits go hand in hand, and it’s hard to achieve one without the other. Thankfully, with the right support for team leaders and managers, it’s possible to work towards all of them at once. 

If you’re interested in finding out how, let’s talk. 

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