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Dr. Beth Kaplan

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Wait, There Is More Than One Type of Belonging?

Do companies really understand belonging?

Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends report ranked ‘Belonging’ as the top human capital issue facing corporations. The same study indicates that while belonging is rising as an essential topic for organizations, most struggle with how to solve the challenge. It’s a terrible irony. You see, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to create a sense of belonging, but companies treat their belonging issues as if it is, often lumping them in with diversity and inclusion.  

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. – Albert Einstein

In their attempt to solve belonging challenges, one of the worst assumptions that companies make is that employees have the language and vulnerability to express their feelings about belonging. Another mistake is to assume there is only one type of belonging.

That’s right; there are multiple types of belonging. In a recent study, only 43% of employees experienced what we all think of when we hear the word belonging, true belonging, the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us without having to sacrifice who we are. 23% of the employees experienced thwarted belonging when the need to belong is unmet. The remaining 34% of employees experienced misaligned belonging that was not defined in prior research and has come to light: dissimulated and sacrificial belonging.

  • Dissimulated Belonging occurs when one is not candid and sincere, does not feel a sense of belonging but pretends that they do, or disconnects from an environment on purpose.
  • Sacrificial Belonging occurs when one consciously or subconsciously gives up what they value, including their physical and mental health, for the sake of a company believing that this disequilibrium equates to an authentic experience of belonging.


Dissimulated Belonging
. When employees describe having a dissimulated sense of belonging, they mention belongingness that can be deceptive in appearance. They mention falsely representing (through words and actions) that they are aligned with the company culture, values, management, or their fellow employees. They purposely disconnect from and are apathetic to the workplace environment and the people around them. Is that a bad thing? No. Here’s a fact, while some employees want to do their best and give their best possible performance, not all employees look for meaning and belonging in the workplace. Performance and socialization are not mutually exclusive. Some employees go to work for a paycheck and don’t want to be swept up in the “family,” the “culture,” or the “INSERT KITSCHYWORKPLACE PHRASE here.”

You may be thinking, isn’t this similar to the concept of covering? If you are not familiar with covering at work, it is when employees are worried about being judged or discriminated against (for their unique identities), and they engage in actively obscuring their thoughts, opinions, and feelings. Dissimulated belonging is different because the goal of covering is to belong, albeit by fitting in. In contrast, the purpose of dissimulated belonging is to get by without the negative stigma of not wanting to find belonging and social connection through the workplace.

Employees don’t typically admit to dissimulated belonging. Historically, employers associate negative connotations (and return on investment) with employees that do not seek a sense of belongingness, describing these employees as antisocial, mediocre, or simply not a cultural fit.  Employees with dissimulated belonging do not look to the workplace for meaning and belonging and are likely to act as if they do to avoid associated stigmas and negative stereotypes.

Sacrificial Belonging. Sacrificial belonging occurs when one consciously or subconsciously gives up what they value, including their physical and mental health, to meet or exceed a company’s or manager’s expectations. You may ask yourself, why would someone do this to themselves? Well, employees with sacrificial belonging believe that their actions lead to an authentic experience of belonging or that their sacrifices will be “worth it.” They feel like they belong. Ironically, individuals in this bucket aspire to bring their whole, authentic selves to work. Not surprisingly, those with sacrificial belonging experience it as a continuum, meaning that while engaging in sacrificial behavior may seem positive and even noble to some participants, it most likely leads to adverse personal outcomes.

Employees with sacrificial belonging are “all in” and will work harder to “get it done,” similar to endurance athletes that sacrifice and suffer through the pain. They believe their work or company is worth all their effort and sacrifice, similar to endurance athletes. Yet where endurance athletes have coaches and trainers protecting them, employees do not have a similar safety net. They can easily be taken advantage of by managers who may be more preoccupied with achieving corporate goals than protecting those who work for them.

Companies reward “always-on.” The more work they put in, the more they achieve, and more rewards and recognition come their way. When someone is part of a company where this is common practice, it may feel like a collective spirit that one subscribes to and that sacrificial belonging is the norm. However, when an individual trades what they most value (their sense of self and health), their sense of belonging becomes misaligned.

Now that you know, you know.

So, why should companies know this, and what can they do about it? Companies are looking to increase employee sense of belonging, and to do that, they need to understand that belonging is multi-faceted. Belonging has complex associated experiences in the workplace and its own vernacular. These new, proven terms are a good start for companies to take a good look at themselves and look for conclusive validation of misaligned belonging and the factors identified as central to the social construction of belongingness.

Companies that want to put a dent into increasing true belonging at work and create a braver workplace can do the following to add new belonging vernacular:

  • …to the conversation. Many companies have a philosophy on courageous conversations. Since courageous conversations are those which you initiate to discuss issues that many would rather avoid, this is a perfect fit. Add belonging vocabulary into the discussions and remember that these conversations typically take the most courage. Encourage all parties to speak candidly and listen openly for positive change.
  • …to your training and development programs. One program, in particular, is leadership development. To build a culture of belonging, leaders first require a clear understanding of what it means to belong at work, and part of that is belonging terminology (and then add it to courageous conversations). Start with your senior-most leaders to impart the sweeping changes needed to realize promises of belonging in the workplace. CEOs need all hands on deck: senior leaders and people managers.
  • …to the culture. After you train your leaders, make belonging vernacular known to employees at every level of the company. Then, walk the walk. Emphasize a culture of belonging and call everyone in, making everyone accountable. Create space in the conversation with the newly understood vernacular to address how to build a bridge to greater empathy and a sense of belonging in the workplace.

What else? I’d love to hear from you. Where else would the new belonging language be useful? Tell me in the comments section…and keep the conversation growing, follow @belongingatwork on Instagram, and join the Belonging at Work page on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/belonging-at-work

Next month, I’ll dive into knowing the signs of each belonging type …. stay tuned.

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