Ah, the Fall. Yes, it’s that time of year again; the kids are back in school and we are settling back into routine. To set the scene for my topic today, imagine you are back in English class and have been asked to explain what it means to belong. Being a smart cookie, your answer no doubt agrees with both the Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries: to be a member of a club, organization, set or group. Why is this important in the workplace? According to research by psychologist Matthew Lieberman1, the way our brain treats physical and social pain is pretty much the same. In other words, not belonging feels as bad to us as physical pain. Now, we all spend a large proportion of our time at work, so if we don’t feel as if we belong there, a major part of our life is lived in pain.

Searching high and low for fulfilment

Back in the 1940s, American psychologist Abraham Maslow identified a hierarchy of human needs2 describing what motivates and drives our behaviours. He depicted the hierarchy as a five-tier pyramid with each tier representing a need that we strive for. Progression from the bottom to the top of the pyramid hinges upon meeting each need in turn.

The lowest tier – Physiological – consists of such fundamental needs as food, air, water, clothing, and shelter. When those have been met, we can progress up to the next tier, Safety,which has two key components: physical (our environment, where we live and work) and emotional (knowing that we have safety nets in place if things go wrong). These two lowest tiers – Physiological and Safety – both impact our physical wellbeing, and I call them the Base Needs.

I call the top two tiers of the pyramid—Esteem and Self-Actualization—the Higher Needs, as they concern our emotional wellbeing. Esteem is feeling good about yourself and having self-respect. Once you have aced that, you move up to the highest point, self-actualization: everything is coming together, you are fulfilling your life’s purpose, and chances are you have perma-grin most of the time.

Why the need to belong is such a powerful force

Between these two—the Base Needs and the Higher Needs—sits belonging: feeling accepted and that you ‘fit in’ as part of a group.

On the one hand, it’s our network of relationships and social support that is the foundation of our self-esteem, so you might think of belonging as a Higher Need. On the other hand, as we see from Lieberman’s work, the pain of not belonging feels like physical pain to the brain. In other words, it feels like something that could threaten our physical safety or survival. That’s why so many cultures have used the threat of disconnection—Catholic excommunication, Amish shunning, political exile—to keep people in line.

It’s because of that duality that I think of belonging as a crossover between the Base and Higher needs.

High performers meet their higher needs

Now, think about what these needs mean for performance. Who is going to perform better and put their best effort into their work: someone who is struggling to keep food on the table and lives in fear of their job? Or someone who feels that they are living their purpose, who is proud of their position and achievements?

Imagine you have an employee named Michael. He has been with the company for many years and has a senior position. He loves his job and his team, and he feels fulfilled.

He is offered and takes a promotion that requires a change of team and, with it, a change of manager. In his new role, he’s in an unfamiliar environment, with new colleagues and a new boss who he just doesn’t gel with.

His emotional support structure has been taken away, and he starts to wonder if he really fits in. Inevitably, his performance starts to suffer, and he knows it. Here’s the problem: as his performance falls, he starts to feel disconnected from the team and—eventually—the company. The more disconnected he feels, the more his performance suffers. Left unchecked, he’ll start to worry that his job is on the line—which just increases the pressure by knocking out the Base Needs of his hierarchy.

When VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) hits, it doesn’t matter how far up you are on Maslow’s hierarchy, the pyramid topples like a set of dominoes, depositing you downwards, and until your base needs of safety and security are taken care of again, you can’t think about anything else.

This is why belonging impacts both base and higher needs—because it affects a person’s emotional wellbeing. Threaten someone’s job security, and they will inevitably disconnect from their manager and team. Instinctively, they will focus their efforts on restoring security, and only after it has been done will they feel able to give their attention to such higher needs as working relationships. In a nutshell, people who don’t feel safe don’t make good team players, and when teams don’t pull together, productivity suffers.

Here’s how you can help

So, what can leaders do to meet the needs of employees and in turn, look after performance?

  • Encourage and cultivate social interaction within your team
  • Let people know your door is open and give them your full attention when they talk
  • Focus on empathy. Listen and make a point of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes

Remember, you’re not there solve everyone’s problems or be available 24/7. Simply keep in mind that your actions will define the environment for others around you which can greatly impact a person’s sense of belonging.

In the next article in this series, I’ll examine how different managers approach Maslow from different angles.