Company Culture Building Block #4: Belonging

June 13, 2022 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

In the 1950s and 60s, American psychologist Abraham Maslow created “a theory of psychological health predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in priority, culminating in self-actualization.” In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, he ranked five levels of human needs with our most basic needs for survival (like food, water, and shelter) on the bottom, and our completely self-actualized needs (like creativity and the ability to solve problems) at the top. He placed belonging in the middle, appropriately, right in the heart. Just as in our personal relationships, a sense of belonging is the lifeblood that holds our work connections and company culture together. Without it, there can be no trust. No vulnerability. And no unity. Without belonging, any hope we have of building a great company culture is DOA.

Belonging is universal.

We’ve all been there. The sense that you are being excluded. The realization you’re not part of the “in crowd.” Standing on the outside looking in and wondering… why not me? Belonging is primal. We all want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. We all yearn to be included because being included means being seen. Being trusted. Being valued. Think about your employees. Not as a group, but as individuals.

Imagine what it might feel like for each of those people to get up every morning, get ready for work, fight the traffic, get to the office door (or even the Zoom meeting), and feel like they didn’t belong in your organization.

Now, consider how many of them are actually feeling that way every day?

In 2017, LinkedIn posted a piece that listed what more than 14,000 global professionals said gave them a sense of belonging at work. Here’s what they said:

1. Being recognized for my accomplishments (59%)
2. Having opportunities to express my opinions freely (51%)
3. Feeling that my contributions in team meetings are valued (50%)
4. Feeling comfortable with myself at work (50%)
5. Transparent communication about important company developments (48%)
6. Feeling my team/company cares about me as a person (46%)
7. Feedback on my personal growth (39%)
8. Being assigned work deemed important for the team/company (39%)
9. Having the company values align with my own personal values (37%)
10. Being a part of company meetings (24%)

How many of those cues does your team experience daily? And, as a leader in your organization, what role do you play in helping deliver those experiences? Belonging takes a village — a village that must be owned by everyone in it.

It’s not a want. It’s a need.

Of all the foundational elements for a transcendent company culture, belonging may be the most crucial. It’s our need to belong that pushes us to seek out lasting relationships. When we feel we belong, we stay. We stick. And when we don’t, we don’t. Consider last year’s “great resignation.” In 2021, 25 percent of the American workforce turned over. The other 75 percent thought about it. As a rule, people who genuinely feel the support and stability of belonging don’t leave. Consider the financial ramifications of that. What is the monetary value of maintaining your team and not having to manage through constant turnover? When you’re building company culture, belonging is fundamental. But it goes even deeper than that.

In 2017, Business Insider posted a story from Inc. magazine that quoted a clinical review of nearly 150 studies with more than 300,000 participants. It concluded this: “People with close friendships had a 50% better chance of survival regardless of age, sex, health status and cause of death than those with weaker ties.” Not a happy life. Not a fulfilling job. Survival. That’s how important belonging is.

It’s time to get personal.

Renowned expert on shame, vulnerability, and leadership Brené Brown frames belonging this way: “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.” For some company leaders, that may all sound a little personal for work. I’d like to suggest getting personal is exactly what our companies need more of.

When we talk about building company culture, it can sound like an inorganic, procedural box to be checked, like you simply build it and move on. That’s not how it works.

The only way your team will buy into and help cultivate your company culture is if it is personal.

Those interactions, those relationships, those unexpected, delightful collisions we experience every day at work are how we all make sense of our belonging. Meaning at work doesn’t just come from tasks done well. It comes from relationships formed and the sense of belonging they give you. Quite simply, belonging elevates our level of performance.

I’ve been privileged to work with hundreds of extraordinarily talented people over my 30 years in this business. I’ve helped build successful Dallas advertising agencies, branding agencies, creative agencies, digital marketing agencies, and the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency. The consistent thread through it all has been the sense we all belonged to something bigger than ourselves. People commit themselves to what matters to them personally. Their families. Their friends. Faith. Philanthropic causes. Aspirations and dreams of something better. When they walk through the doors of your office and instantly know they belong, it can even mean building their company and its culture into something spectacular.

MIKE SULLIVAN is president and CEO at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top Dallas advertising agency for digital, social, mobile and user experience. For more about challenger branding, advertising, and marketing, leadership, culture, and other inspirations that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on all of our posts.

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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