Developing an organizational culture where people perceive they can perform and have well-being is essential for organizations to attract and retain relevant talent. A central component of such a culture is social belonging. While the formula for success is known, a lack of neuroscience understanding often steers organizations in different directions, making the feeling of social belonging more challenging to maintain.
- Social belonging is an old but underutilized principle in organizations that, when leveraged right, can drastically improve talent attraction and retention.
- Social belonging triggers the brain’s pleasure system, increasing performance, well-being, motivation, and creativity.
- If an organization lacks social belonging, the consequences can be many, affecting people’s performance and negatively impacting the organization’s chances of reaching its goals.
- To maintain a culture centered around social belonging, organizations must build it into the cultural foundation, live and breathe the right behaviors, and recognize others for their contributions.
- Continuously measuring and following up on the employee experience makes staying focused and keeping social belonging high easy.
The neuroscience of social belonging
The human brain has not changed much over the past 40,000 years when being part of a group meant you had a greater chance of surviving the wild animals trying to kill you. This fundamental brain structure still impacts our behaviors, and the brain’s principle remains today: to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Social belonging triggers the brain’s reward system, and a sense of belonging is therefore associated with brain areas connected to pleasure and reward. When the feeling of social belonging is present, the brain releases neurotransmitters such as dopamine and oxytocin, impacting motivation, trust, commitment, performance, and creativity.
Sensing social belonging activates brain regions for cognitive performance. On the contrary, when we experience a lack of social belonging, brain regions for physical pain and emotional response increase, decreasing cognitive capacities, such as decision-making, focus, and collaboration. To simplify, the brain seeks to be part of the “in-group,” activating pleasure regions in the brain, but when feeling part of the “out-group,” it activates pain areas. To the brain, social pain is the same as physical pain.
Another significant social belonging trigger is the feeling of fairness. Even minor unfair treatments can impact a pain response and decrease the sense of social belonging.
“To the brain, social pain is the same as physical pain.”
Decreased organizational effectiveness
Social belonging is such an essential part of a thriving culture that without it, people’s stress levels and negative emotions increase. Negative experiences relating to a lack of social belonging can cause people to leave their employer early, decrease productivity levels, and spread a negative reputation about the organization’s employer brand.
Social belonging in organizations
When centering work around teams, you can maximize employees’ feeling of social belonging. This is true for both remote and in-person settings. Organizations that work mainly in a hybrid model will especially benefit from a culture of social belonging to ensure each team member feels part of the in-group and strengthen team coherence. The manager plays an integral role, but how the team members treat each other is also important.
Building a boss of social belonging
First and foremost, growing a culture of social belonging requires managers who demonstrate strong value-based behaviors fostering inclusion. Empathy and listening are essential leadership skills to achieve this type of culture, also recognized in the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report 2023 among the top ten core skills. Organizations striving for sustainable high performance must educate managers on how to lead with social belonging as a central concept to enable high performance, motivation, well-being, and engagement.
“Organizations striving for sustainable high performance must educate managers on how to lead with social belonging as a central concept to enable high performance, motivation, well-being, and engagement.
A proven formula for success
In addition to developing managers to foster social belonging and lead by example, a culture of social belonging must be rooted throughout the organization. To be successful, it is essential that everyone lives and breathes social belonging. Here are our recommended steps to develop a culture of social belonging.
Step 1 - Ensure social belonging is a central piece of your culture: Create a solid foundation focused on how your culture already leverages social belonging and give everyone the same types of words, slogans, and behaviors to follow. Using what already works well gives you a head start, and a greater chance of successfully implementing and ensuring people live the culture.
- Understand what your employees value based on your pulse survey results by:
- Analyzing the focus areas that employees score high, explicitly looking for feedback about their sense of social belonging.
- Understanding the details of your people’s feedback and what they write about your Employee Value Proposition (EVP) pillars, leveraging AI-based comment analytics.
- Finding the teams that score high on eNPS and interviewing them to understand what works well in their team, learning concrete examples and best practices.
- Work with your communications team to develop or update the internal communication content that supports the foundation of your culture.
Step 2 – Educate your people about social belonging: Explain what living social belonging in your organization looks like. Ensure you educate your managers and ambassadors to recognize and show appreciation for the right behaviors of others.
- Update the existing or create new leadership profiles that include how leaders and managers keep the sense of belonging high in teams. Our brains constantly measure whether a situation is safe or unsafe, making appearances and words essential to ensure a healthy social belonging culture. The keys are:
- Authentic and empathetic leadership.
- Fair treatment at all times possible.
- Making the “in-group” present for all occasions possible.
- Using positive body language.
- Moving away from using “I” to “we.”
- Making senior leaders and managers available for employees in informal settings.
- In your values document, explain what living the culture looks like for everyone, ensuring social belonging focuses on:
- How to continuously recognize others’ efforts and behaviors and their impact on the team’s performance, not someone’s personality.
- Keeping recognition close in time to performance
- Rewarding consistency and discipline in living social belonging.
Step 3 – Measure and acknowledge the right behaviors: Continuously recognize others when they portray the right social belonging behaviors and recognize their contributions to the team and organization.
- Measure the employee experience. With Populum’s pulse survey, you can:
- Steer teams’ attention to the parts of the organization’s focus areas they can directly impact. Use the focus area measurements to develop leaders’ and employees’ social belonging mindsets.
- Follow the employee experience over time in trend reports, catch a lack of social belonging early with AI-driven comment analytics, and predict sick leave and attrition.
- Empower teams to have open and transparent improvement dialogues about strengthening social belonging.
- Have personal recommendations for every employee and manager.
- When leaders discuss the survey results in team meetings, they should focus on recognizing people’s social belonging behaviors and contributions and explain why their actions brought success.
Sustainable talent attraction and retention
A sustainable talent attraction and retention engine begins from within and must center around social belonging. This approach improves well-being and performance and fuels creativity and innovation in all work areas. Employees with a strong sense of social belonging can be ambassadors for the employer as a great workplace and often stay longer with the organization. Leveraging neuroscience—even when it means minor tweaks of existing approaches—can create significant gains for talent, managers, and the organization.