Which One Doesn't Belong? How to Foster Belonging in the Workplace

standing man being ignored by female coworkers at nearby desk

Thanks to Dr. Rumeet Billan for this article written exclusively for SPARK in conjunction with her presentation at the virtual ADP Pro Summit held in the summer of 2022.

One of the most impactful strategies companies can utilize in the workplace is the power of belonging. As human beings, we are hardwired to motivate ourselves towards connection. In fact, recent research by neuroscientists suggests that social needs such as belonging are actually managed by the same neural networks as our basic needs, such as food and water.

But what exactly is belonging?

Belonging has been defined as a unique and subjective experience that translates into an emotional and physical desire for connecting with others. It's rooted in positive relationships, interpersonal connections and interestingly, it does not depend on participation with or proximity to others or groups. Instead, a sense of belonging stems from the satisfaction, quality and meaning that we derive from our social connections. That means, we feel a sense of belonging when we feel accepted fully for who we are. the benefits for creating and experiencing a sense of belonging are countless. For starters, a person who is well rooted in their social circles and community is more likely to trust, have empathy for others, and encourage vulnerability.

But what happens when you feel like you do not belong?

The answer lies in understanding what it means to belong. Belonging means far more than simply being included. In fact, ample research shows that being given a seat at the table, or an invite to the party is not enough to mitigate the feelings of isolation and exclusion that often emerge when someone does not belong. Similarly, a lack of belonging is not the product of a single event or incident. It's a complex feeling based on how our relationships and experiences make us feel.

If belonging stirs up feelings of acceptance, understanding, and inclusion, a lack of belonging evokes the opposite. It's being invited to a gathering but feeling undervalued, unappreciated and out of place. Or feeling afraid to speak up at work because you believe that your thoughts will not be received well by your colleagues and supervisor. While it may seem easier for employers to take the easy route, and overlook sentiments of workplace belonging, the consequences of doing so can be detrimental to the health and wellbeing of the overall corporation. It can also become financially costly. Research shows that employees are more likely to resign from a workplace, because they do not feel as if they belong there.

So what does it look like to not have a sense of belonging?

Think of a time where you felt invisible during a staff meeting, or the feeling of knowing that if you quit, you would easily be replaced as an employee. We lack belonging when we don't feel included, involved or accepted.

In my 2022 Workplace Belonging Study, commissioned by Ipsos, research showed that one in four women feel lonely at work. Further, less than half of Americans felt comfortable sharing their opinions or thoughts without fear of negative consequences. Feeling safe and comfortable is a critical component of fostering feelings of belonging and resilience. If a sense of belonging is not nurtured for employees, organizations may struggle to grow and face challenges such as employment retention and productivity.

Consider this.

While many workplace diversity and inclusion initiatives emphasize the importance of giving everyone a seat at the table, what begins to happen once historically underrepresented employees have a seat at the table? The reason many diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives fail, and companies continue to struggle to retain diverse talent is because there is a lack of understanding on what inclusion really looks like.

Here are steps on how employers can change that:

  1. Acceptance. Employees should not be afraid of negative consequences for sharing their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and/or perspectives. Psychological safety matters.
  2. Solicit opinions in meetings. The three ways to foster inclusiveness at meetings are inviting someone to the table, asking them their opinions and then fully engaging and listening when they speak. Oftentimes, employers limit inclusiveness to inviting an employee to a meeting. While this may create diversity at the table, it does not create diversity in ideas or a workplace of belonging if the employee is not accepted or an active participant in the conversation.
  3. Share stories. Relationships are not one sided. It's important to build camaraderie in the workplace, and sometimes that starts with you. While workplace boundaries are important, being open and honest with your team builds the type of understanding and trust that helps foster belonging.

In summary, companies and organizations are only able to benefit from the power of diversity once they begin to understand and foster a sense of belonging for all employees. Belonging starts with self. Once you start showing more of your honest self at work, your employees will inevitably have permission to do the same.

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More information

Dr. Rumeet Billan is an award-winning, internationally recognized entrepreneur, learning architect, speaker, author and humanitarian. Her mission is to transform workplace cultures through research, training, and experiences that enable trust, foster belonging, and build resilience. For further information on enabling trust and belonging, visit

About the study

From Ipsos: The 2022 Workplace Belonging Survey was conducted January 7 – January 11, 2022 by Ipsos using our KnowledgePanel®. This survey is based on a nationally representative probability sample of 1,054 U.S. employed adults and oversamples in each of the following Designated Market Area (DMA): New York City (n=333), Chicago (n=283), Los Angeles (n=295), and Washington D.C (n=286). There were 2,098 total respondents. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, for results based on the entire sample of employed adults. More information about the study is available on Ipsos' website.