Why We Long to Belong, and How to Send Signals of Inclusion

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Achieving a universal feeling of inclusion can be challenging for even the most diverse teams, but it can be done with the right skills and habits.

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I was recently discussing the power of belonging with an organization and how it can lift engagement and performance. They have a very diverse workforce, which they celebrate within and outside the organization, and have even received an award for this success. But there was still a problem with how people felt in certain teams. We discussed the critical role leaders play in creating an environment where people do their best work and why belonging is necessary for people and businesses to thrive. Even with so many supportive practices in place, achieving a universal feeling of inclusion was still a challenge for them.

The term belonging means different things to different people, but the American Psychological Association defines it as “the feeling of being accepted and approved by a group or by society as a whole.” We belong when we feel connected and part of the group, and our need for belonging can be traced to our pre-human ancestors. We evolved social skills and a social brain to ensure we remained within a group — our source of safety.

Fast forward to today. If we don’t feel part of the tribe (in this case, our work tribe), we can feel socially excluded. Feeling excluded primarily engages social brain networks involved in helping us understand our interpersonal experiences and interactions. Stress caused by a lack of social connection moves control of our behavior from the prefrontal cortex (responsible for thoughtful processing) to the more primitive and emotional amygdala.

An experience of social exclusion, such as not being invited to lunch with some of the team or being left off a calendar invite, triggers an elevated level of stress that negatively impacts a broad range of abilities. Social exclusion can adversely affect how we collaborate. It narrows our perception and makes it really hard to see the big picture. It also drops our IQ test performance — yep, we actually become less intelligent when we feel left out. Those aren’t ideal conditions for ourselves or team members in the workplace or any other setting.

There’s another layer to consider when looking at threat and its impacts. Namely, our brains are constantly scanning the environment for potential threats and rewards. Our survival instinct causes us to weigh threats more heavily than rewards (it’s better to miss lunch than to be lunch). Therefore, even fairly neutral signals, such as being left off an email or not being acknowledged when the boss walks into the room, can trigger a threat response.

The relationship between threat and reward can be compared to a seesaw, but an imbalanced one. Threats are much stronger or “heavier” than rewards, so to mitigate this effect, leaders must balance any threats they deliver — by necessity (for example, negative feedback) or oversight (such as accidentally leaving someone out of a training session) — with two or three reward actions or comments. Optimizing inclusion, therefore, requires a leader to send very deliberate rewards to balance any social threats.

How do we create conditions where people feel included and psychologically safe? NLI’s The SCARF® Model summarizes the five domains of psychological needs that all humans share, which can be triggered in social contexts. We can use this model to better understand what threats people might feel and then send appropriate rewards to foster inclusion and belonging. SCARF® stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness and is defined as follows:

  • Status is our desire to feel respected and valued.
  • Certainty is our ability to predict outcomes and events.
  • Autonomy is our need for choices and control.
  • Relatedness is a sense of belonging: Am I part of the in-group or out-group?
  • Fairness is the need for credit and opportunity and a perception of fair exchange.

Think of an employee who accidentally wasn’t included in a training session. This could create threats across the status, fairness, relatedness, and certainty domains. A leader would need to send positive signals — and plenty of them — to balance those threats. For example, the leader could offer a catch-up session (certainty) or a choice in how the employee would like to catch up (autonomy). Providing additional opportunities for the team to connect with the employee could send other fairness and relatedness signals. Even asking them to lead a future session or act as a mentor or coach (status signals) could help balance the initial threat.

An increase in hybrid and remote working over the past few years has made it even more important for leaders to intentionally send signals of inclusion. Working in partial isolation has meant the absence of social cues that help us feel connected and understood. Our brains often assume the worst, and as a result, if we’re not actively including people, we’re probably accidentally excluding them. Leaders need to work even more specifically to create a stronger sense of belonging in their teams and the wider organization. Focusing across the domains of The SCARF® Model can help leaders ensure each domain is effectively addressed and employees’ threats are at manageable levels. For many leaders, sending reward signals frequently and intentionally will require changes to their current practices.

The organization I mentioned earlier is part way through this journey — building the skills leaders need to promote inclusivity, embedding those skills as habits, and then ensuring their systems and processes support those habits. They’re aiming for an ecosystem where it’s far easier to practice their new behaviors. Although the rollout of their belonging strategy isn’t yet complete, employees have already reported an increase in “my right to be here,” with a number of them claiming, “I have found my tribe” in subsequent listening circle discussions. If feedback like this is any indication, they’re off to a grand start.

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