When do you perform at your personal best – when you’re in a strange place, surrounded by people who neither know nor like you? Or when you’re in a supportive, positive environment surrounded by those who earnestly want you to succeed, grow, and thrive? It’s a no-brainer – everyone performs better in a positive environment. So, it’s a surprise that many businesses take so little thought to create a sense of belonging for their employees. This very act creates an outsized benefit in improving performance in the organization.
We Don’t Belong, So We Don’t Perform
When was the last time you felt like an outsider? Think back. How well did you perform in that situation? How comfortable were you in that environment? Chances are good that you performed poorly, were uncomfortable, and were thankful to get out of the environment when you did.
Human beings are social creatures. We perform best when we feel like we belong. This is evident throughout society. Look at kids in school. Academic performance is only loosely tied to intelligence. Instead, the students who perform best are usually those who feel that they belong. Those without a sense of belonging struggle in some areas.
The same pertains to the workplace. If you don’t feel a sense of belonging at work, you won’t perform up to your capabilities. Your efforts will be stunted, and you’ll feel uncomfortable in the environment.
In fact, when we feel like we don’t belong, we’re chronically in a state of fight, flight, or freeze. Our brains see it as a survival situation and begin producing different chemicals to help us survive, whether that’s adrenaline, cortisol, dopamine, serotonin, or something else. Changing the paradigm in the workplace can change the chemicals our brains produce, helping get our teams out of survival mode and into engagement thereby improving performance.
Creating a Sense of Belonging
While there is no one-size-fits-all plan that will work for every business or every individual, it is possible to create a sense of belonging in the workplace. To start doing that, you’ll need a better understanding of what hormones the body releases in reaction to specific stimuli. We’ll cover a few of the most important below.
Mental, emotional, or physical stress can trigger the release of cortisol. It’s probably most famous for its effect on fat retention in the body, but it also enhances your brain’s use of glucose, while reducing mental and physical functions that might affect your ability to fight or flee. So, a workplace where chronic stress is the rule actually encourages aggression, fear, anxiety, depression, and reduced mental performance.
A sense of autonomy, or control over yourself and your destiny, has been linked to the production of dopamine. Higher levels of dopamine in the body and brain have been linked to improved ability to think and plan, improved mental focus, and even our ability to show interest in things going on around us. It affects learning, motivation, and even sleep.
Feeling that you are being seen and heard (recognition) has been linked with an increase in the production of serotonin. This hormone helps to regulate our moods and support a sense of physical, mental, and emotional well-being. It also improves the clarity of thought, improves sleep quality, and even helps nerve cells communicate with one another. This is a simple but effective method to improve the performance of your team.
Connection and Trust
Feeling a sense of trust and connection with your team, your manager, and others in the workplace has been linked to an increase in oxytocin production. In addition to multiple roles in reproduction, this hormone also controls elements of social interaction and human behavior. It helps form social and emotional bonds between people and plays a role in things like anxiety and trust, as well as in how we deal with stress.
Applying This to the Workplace
All this talk about hormones might seem like it has little to do with the workplace. However, it’s of central importance. Every single conversation you have in the office triggers the release of at least one hormone.
Creating the right culture is an intentional act. You must intentionally choose how you (and others) interact to help maintain balanced hormone production within yourself and team members. It’s all about designing a culture that supports positive outcomes (trust, autonomy, etc.) while minimizing negative outcomes (stress, anger, disconnection, etc.).
Build an Environment of Trust
To create a sense of belonging in the workplace, you need to foster trust, communication, and openness. The key to that is the intentional structure of culture based on an understanding of how the human body responds to various stimuli. For instance, if you want to help ensure team members have the mental clarity necessary for active planning and focus, you need to increase dopamine production. The key to that is greater autonomy – making your people feel like they’re in the driver’s seat. This is how you begin to organically improve performance across your entire team.
If you want to forge stronger connections between team members, oxytocin production is the key. That requires that you make your team members feel that you trust them and being able to connect with them on a deeper, more personal level. Again, this is an intentional step around which you design workplace norms, ranging from one-on-one check-ins to group meetings, and everything in between.
Ultimately, creating a sense of belonging in the workplace is an essential step to moving your company forward. However, it’s more complicated than most leaders realize. It requires a realization that people are complicated, that our actions, thoughts, and emotions are based on both external triggers and internal biological processes. They’re even affected by genetics, so ancestry plays a role in your workplace culture, too.
Recognize this. Understand that instilling a sense of belonging is a team effort, but it begins with you. Intentionally foster a sense of belonging through open dialogue, building a sense of camaraderie and trust, and helping your team members feel safer and more connected with leadership and the rest of the team. Anything less will result in more of what you’ve already got – a culture that doesn’t include everyone and is not improving performance.