Why Belonging Is Key to Building the New Workforce

By making belonging a priority, companies can boost employee retention and performance.

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Businesses are spending more money on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives than ever before. By one estimate, the global market for DEI reached $7.5 billion in 2020, and it is expected to more than double by 2026. But such financial commitments have been followed by a slew of reports questioning the results of all that spending — including ones that say such programs have “largely failed” and often “implode.”

At Degreed, my team has taken a different tack by building a program around DEIB — adding belonging as an essential element. In our recent study with RedThread Research on how to create a DEIB culture, we defined belonging as “the sense of security and support one has resulting from a belief in being accepted and valued for being their ‘authentic self.’”

The term diversity often puts the focus on metrics such as how many people of various ethnicities or identities are part of an organization. Equity is about treating everyone fairly and ensuring opportunities across the board. Inclusion is a matter of behaviors — the actions that help ensure the equitable and fair distribution of resources. Belonging puts a focus on how employees feel. As one leader in an executive search firm put it, “Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a behavior, but belonging is the emotional outcome that people want.”

Making belonging a part of ongoing DEI efforts offers many benefits. In one study, a high sense of belonging at an organization was positively correlated with a 56% improvement in job performance and 75% fewer sick days. Degreed employees have also told me that their sense of belonging is a key reason they want to work for the company. This is especially important in an era of increased job switching, with companies seeking ways to be competitive on retention. A survey by McKinsey found that one of the top three reasons people gave for leaving their jobs during the Great Resignation was that they “didn’t feel a sense of belonging at work.”

Here are four things leaders can do to help foster a sense of belonging at their organizations.

Broadcast the Message

Some leaders hope that as their organization focuses on DEI, a sense of belonging will naturally follow. But experience has shown me that for something like this to grow, it needs to be addressed head-on.

This starts with making clear to the entire organization — and repeating the message often — that belonging is an essential value. Through onboarding, all-staff meetings, corporate retreats, messages from executives, and other means of communication, explain what belonging is and why it matters. Some organizations build culture playbooks that lay out their values in great detail, and discuss these values at town hall meetings.

The more you talk about belonging, the more aware your staff will be that you’re committed to helping them feel it.

Measure Belonging

Track your progress through employee surveys. Ask whether staff members feel a sense of belonging, feel that their unique backgrounds and identities are valued at the organization, and feel included in discussions and decisions that affect their jobs.

In the Journal of Organizational Change Management, a group of researchers introduced a 12-item instrument to measure belongingness that includes asking whether an employee feels “able to work in this organization without sacrificing my principles” and whether they refer to the organization with “we/us” pronouns rather than “they/them.”

Through these kinds of surveys, conducted anonymously to allow employees to answer honestly, organizations can get a picture of where they have the most work to do. It can be particularly helpful to include demographic data so you can see how respondents of various backgrounds and identities feel. It’s also helpful to segment the data by department so you can see whether parts of the organization feel a lower sense of belonging. (These tabulations can still be anonymized to avoid identifying any specific respondents.)

Managers should also have one-on-one conversations with employees to discuss their sense of belonging. Through open-ended discussions, they can learn the kinds of impediments employees are running into.

Upskill Managers

Managers also need skills to help them create an environment that allows belonging to flourish. Our study found that a range of emotional intelligence skills, such as openness to new ideas and the ability to drive change and navigate social complexity, help managers. While often thought of more as personality traits, these are all learnable skills.

Managers can be taught to be more curious about employees’ views and experiences and more effective change managers. Leaders can also help employees do a better job of listening to and getting to know one another, which helps to build a sense of belonging on teams.

Celebrate Individual Achievements

One of the most important approaches to building belonging is taking note of employees’ contributions. At Degreed, we created a quarterly award for this. One went to a marketer who makes sure we have a diverse slate of spokespeople around the globe and approaches all of her projects with empathy, encouraging our spokespeople to be authentic.

These acts of recognition can take place in numerous forums, whether conference calls or Slack channels. The author of one study encourages companies to produce internal newsletters “to create a community and sense of belonging, allowing businesses to recognize individuals’ achievements and celebrate company birthdays, for example.”

At a time of profound change for businesses, creating an organizational commitment to belonging can deliver profound rewards. The more DEIB catches on — in a real, sustained way — the more our employees and our organizations stand to gain.


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