3 Things That Hurt Your Sense of Belonging at Work
Do you feel like you don't belong at work? Science provides some explanations for why this can happen. Check out these things that hurt belonging and see if they are happening at your workplace.
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For our ancestors, it was beneficial to hold an "us vs. them" perspective. By focusing on their own tribes, families, or communities, they ensured that their kin would be more likely to survive. So our brains are still hardwired to classify people into "us vs. them" based on the tiniest of cues.
For example, if you are assigned to wear a red shirt and another team is assigned to wear blue shirts, your perceptions of who is "us" and who is "them" begin to change. The same thing happens if you are assigned to a position of authority, or even if you are assigned to a group based on the way you count dots. Suddenly, you will begin to maximize gain for members of your group and minimize gain for the other group.
Of course this can help explain many of the problems that exist across the world, but it also causes big problems locally, in our workplaces, particularly in the age of technology.
Here are 3 things companies often do that make people feel like outsiders:
1. Give people "different colored shirts."
Do managers wear black shirts while employees wear red shirts? Does the warehouse crew wear jeans while the office workers wear dresses or suits? Do people get awards, badges, or other markers that separate them from the rest of the staff? Are some people circles and other people squares on the Slack channel? These are all signals we use to identify who is and isn't "one of us" — and treat them accordingly.
This approach makes complete sense when we want to enhance competition — like when we have sports teams wear different colored jerseys. But in the workplace, we're all supposed to be on the same team. As soon as people start feeling like outsiders while being inside their own team, they'll start to compete rather than collaborate. That's just human nature.
2. Use language that's not inclusive.
Surely, the growing use of the phrase "team members" in the workplace was designed to increase group cohesion. The irony is that nearly 40% of the workforce will soon be independent — freelance, contractor, or temporary employees. These individuals are not considered "team members" when it comes to benefits, perks, and company involvement, and they are often not referred to as team members by leadership. What do you think happens when team members have to work with all these non-team members? That's right. It creates an "us vs. them" dynamic.
In the age of technology, hiring contractors or remote workers is getting more and more common. In fact, independent positions are increasingly coveted and held by the best and brightest — people who don't want to limit themselves to one position or one company. Creating dynamics that make these folks feel like outsiders is a good recipe for losing them.
3. Mishandle remote employees.
An increasing number of businesses are hiring remote workers. This approach enables them to hire people from all over the world. Unfortunately, remote work cuts people off from much of the team building that goes on at the office. "Us vs. them" dynamics start to form simply as a result of being "here vs. there."
In sum: There are many ways companies unintentionally make employees feel like outsiders. My hope is that we can break down some of these walls so that people can feel like they belong at their workplace.
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at Berkeley, she started creating online content & programs to boost well-being—some of these have reached more than a million people. As author of Outsmart Your Smartphone, and contributor to Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis aims to share her insights on happiness & health with people all across the world. Learn more about Dr. Davis.