Belonginess surveys – how to get under the surface of people’s lived experience at work

When someone feels they belong in an environment, what they sense around them makes them feel at home. This can involve a wide variety of stimuli. Among these are:

  • The visual environment: for example, how spacious or confined it is, the general decor, pictures and objects, how people dress, etc
  • The auditory environment: for example, loud or soft, tone, welcoming or not
  • The human environment: the sense of privilege, power or equality

When people feel they belong, they can be more authentic, have a greater sense of psychological safety and have greater confidence in their ability to influence their environment. It also has  positive impact on retention and productivity.

Systemic change happens either abruptly and disruptively, or gradually through an evolving consensus. The greater the level of belongingness people feel, the easier it is to achieve the latter, which is healthier for everyone in the system. So, understanding the level and scope of belongingness in an organisation is a critical metric of organisational culture.

Unfortunately – but hardly surprisingly – people are reticent to speak up about lack of belonging. They may even convince themselves they belong more than they do, to maintain self-esteem. That’s where a belongingness survey comes in.

Belongingness surveys
A belongingness survey aims to assess the general level of belongingness in the workplace and at the same time identify factors that promote or detract from the sense of belonging. It gathers both qualitative and quantitative data. Survey questions should be relatively specific. For example:

  • When have you felt unable to express your individuality at work?
  • What one thing would make you feel you truly belonged in your team?
  • What one thing would make you feel you truly belonged in this organisation?
  • What characteristics do you think are most important in “fitting in” here?

Responses will typically establish a range of factors, which can be quantified by the number of people experiencing them, while the specific quotes can provide qualitative examples. It’s important that the surveys are administered anonymously and that respondents have confidence that this is the case. It also helps to give some examples of the kind of thing you are looking for (for example, being talked over, laughing at rather than with, being made to feel less valued). Perhaps emphasise that you want to know when they feel excluded, regardless of what actually happens.

Focus groups

Focus groups allow us to get into greater depth. They can be used either before a survey, to fine tune the survey questions; or after, to expand and interpret survey results; or both. A benefit of the focus group approach is that an experience shared by one person can stimulate recollections in others. At the end of the session, you may wish to ask whether anyone would be willing to be interviewed on video about an experience they have shared. These personal stories can have an enormous impact, particularly at senior management level, on awareness and understanding the need for change.  

Some of the prompts for a good focus group dialogue include:

  • What we hear: words may provoke different emotional reactions according to cultural background. Background noise (many people with neurodivergent traits find loud noises painful; while people with age-related hearing loss struggle to distinguish a single voice from background chatter).
  • What we see: the artefacts of culture. Sterile open plan offices or work environments where no-one has a space of their own can strip people of the ability to express their own identity.
  • Access: the obvious consequences of physical barriers, especially for people with mobility issues.
  • Identity: Belongingness involves feeling accepted and integrated, while at the same time being able to express one’s individuality. A useful question is: “In what ways are you different when you are at work compared with when you are socialising with friends?”

Analysis and report

Some core learnings include:

  • It’s important to be clear who you want to influence and how. Two key audiences, for example, are senior management and disadvantaged groups. The report should at a minimum stimulate ongoing dialogue between these two groups.
  • A few well-chosen quotes have as much impact or more than statistics – so aim to present both in your report.
  • Identifying an issue is not the same as resolving it. Gathering suggestions about practical changes helps shift the conversations within the organisation from silence or diatribe to dialogue.
  • A regular belongingness health check allows you to measure progress and focus on issues, where there is little movement. It’s always easier to tackle specific issues than general ones.
  • Changes in one area can have unexpected knock-on effects in another. Recognising these helps to keep attention on the system as well as the discrete factors.


Of course, there is a balance here. If there is too high a level of belongingness in an organisation, it is almost certainly becoming dysfunctionally cosy. The period, in which people join and become acclimatised – when they settle in – is a valuable source of innovation and adaptation. The key difference is how much of their identity someone has to give up to fit in and be fully accepted.

© David Clutterbuck 2024




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