How to cultivate “belongingness” in teams

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; or how people dress; or the amount of order or disorder
  • The auditory environment: for example, loud or soft, relaxing or stimulating
  • The human environment: for example, the sense of privilege, power or equality; or the importance of rules and rituals; or shared purpose and values.

A home is like a nest. We shape it around our own interests and what enables us to feel authentic. It’s often a refuge from other environments, where we feel less at ease. Wherever we are, human beings instinctively like to shape their environment to their own ideals and what’s personally significant. In a shared working environment, such as an open plan office or a production facility, our capacity to do so is much more limited. If the company encourages hot desking, it’s even more difficult. If you work virtually from home, it can be worse again, because your sanctuary is constantly invaded.

Having a strong, positive sense of belonging reduces staff turnover, absenteeism and workaday stress. It also encourages “flow”, because that focused attention and seemingly effortless engagement with tasks occurs best when we are relaxed and at peace with ourselves.

Here’s an interesting exercise. First, think of times when:

  • You have felt you really belong in a place or with a group of other people
  • You felt you didn’t belong in a place or with a group of other people
  • Someone visited you in your home and you could see that they fitted right in
  • Someone visited you in your home and you felt uncomfortable about them being in your safe space.

Now think about your work environment. For example:

  • How strong a sense of belonging or not belonging do you feel there?
  • How might a stranger feel?

Finally, consider:

  • How could you enhance your own sense of belongingness in your work team and environment? (What could you do personally and what could you and your colleagues do together?)
  • How could you enhance other people’s sense of belongingness in your work team and environment?

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of assuming that, because we feel a higher or lower sense of belongingness, other people feel the same. It’s obvious that that isn’t the case. But the sense of familiarity that helps us be at ease also blinds us to other people’s experiences. For example, for many people on the autistic spectrum, the sound of slightly louder than normal background conversation can be physically painful; or to a person with hearing difficulties, such sounds can exclude them from conversations, because they cannot filter out the speech from the noise.

It’s not possible to create working environments that meet everyone’s ideals, but it is possible to be aware of each other’s belongness needs and to attempt to meet these whenever possible. And in that simple statement lies the clue to solving the problem. Just knowing that other people care enough to make adjustments, where they can, goes a long way towards making us feel we do belong, after all.

© David Clutterbuck 2023




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