Belonging: An Emerging (Next) Leadership and HR Agenda

By Dave Ulrich | August 3, 2018

What is the leading cause of mortality? The answer may surprise you. 

Quick test: What is the leading cause of mortality?

  1. High blood pressure
  2. High Cholesterol
  3. Inactivity (no exercise)
  4. Social Isolation
  5. Drinking
  6. Obesity
  7. Depression


Answer: D: social isolation


The U.S. surgeon general recently stated that loneliness is more serious a health problem than opiates. To illustrate this rising problem, the number of Americans with “no friends” has tripled since 1985. The U.K. has just named a Minister of Loneliness to create policies to deal with the challenge of social isolation.

Loneliness (social isolation) affects all age groups. U.K. research found that 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month. For the younger, digital-native generation, technology often leads to superficial connections. It is relatively easy to “unfriend” someone; and Instagram and Snapchat generally show images of people doing happy and positive things, which only makes the viewer feel more lonely in comparison. Those who spend more than 2 hours a day on feel more social isolation. Loneliness also causes organizational problems when employees act independently, not collaboratively.

I find the concept of “belonging” a critical factor for overcoming social isolation and for creating organizations that have a positive impact on people and performance. Belonging draws on attachment theory, which essentially states that when someone has strong emotional attachment to another (person or organization), personal well-being increases. This improved well-being in turn increases personal productivity and overall organizational performance.

My wife and I recently had lunch with my decades-ago (ahem!) college roommate and his spouse. While we live in different states and share occasional technology-based interactions, we had not been together face-to-face in some time. This meeting reminded me of the importance of belonging and what it entails:

  • Belonging is active, not passive (I invited my roommate to lunch).
  • It requires persistent work and does not occur haphazardly (we each made the choice of spending time to reconnect).
  • It endures over time (over the decades, we stayed close through technology and other means even when apart, and getting together feels natural and easy).
  • It is tied to shared values (we listened with interest and delight about how our lives have evolved in different but similar ways).
  • It shapes well-being (we each left the luncheon feeling a sense of belonging and closeness).

To move beyond this friendship belonging, organizations where we work, play, and worship should become settings for belonging. My experience in reconnecting with my roommate has lessons for how leaders and HR professionals can create belonging.

1. Recognize that belonging requires work.

C.S. Lewis, the famous religious writer, characterized hell as a place where whenever people disagreed, they simply moved away from each other. Over time, everyone lived in moated and gated mansions far away from everyone else. Belonging requires the hard work of investing in a relationship. One of the reasons married people are generally happier is that marriage partners commit to working through the inevitable power struggles, withdrawal, and conflicts in any long-term relationship.

Leaders who are too busy for or distracted by personal connections erode belonging. One leader had a morning staff call for fifteen minutes every day no matter where the employees were in the world. One of the reasons for this call was to update business issues, but an even more important reason was to form a team where people felt that they belonged.

In organizations, HR professionals help people recognize that the price of belonging is being able to disagree without being disagreeable, to have tension without contention, and to move from divergence to convergence and back again without personal enmity.

Belonging requires effort.

2. Use technology to build connections, not contacts.

Technology makes the world a global village, but it is often a global village of increasingly isolated people. Like walking down the street of a large city, there are literally crowds of people, each person moving with purpose and direction. But crowds do not necessarily lead to belonging. Technology dramatically increases breath of contacts but not necessarily depth. Counting likes and followers or joining a group does not imply belonging. In fact, more screen time often leads to more isolation. As I have posted, an emerging challenge of technology is to pivot from efficiency to connection.

Leaders can use technology to connect if they personalize their use of technology. Instead of sharing scripted studio posts, one leader became more authentic by creating short weekly posts about his focus, priorities, and experiences.

HR professionals can encourage technological connection that leads to belonging by sharing more personal experiences. One company, on an employee’s birthday, asks colleagues to share positive experiences with the employee through technology. This affirming exercise helped employees feel closer (more belonging) with their colleagues.

Belonging requires making social media more social.

3. Demonstrate empathy.

Satya Nadella, CEO at Microsoft, has a new leadership mantra about empathy, which means understanding and feeling what others experience. He claims that empathic leadership leads to connection that leads to innovation that leads to better business performance. Empathy is another way of defining value through the receiver not the giver.

Leaders build empathy in their professional relationships by asking how people are doing, being aware of personal circumstances, and being willing to help others. One leader began his regular meetings with a brief personal interlude: “Who has a good news moment to share?” Another sends personal hand-written gratitude notes to employees. Another frequently asks herself, “How can I be helpful?” These empathic actions create a sense of personal belonging between leaders and employees.

In organizations, HR professionals can instill the values of empathy by being more transparent and sharing information, personalizing employee work agreements, and meeting individual employee needs.

Belonging requires empathy.

4. Ensure that employees take personal responsibility for finding meaning.

Agency theory has changed how investors invest. When an agent acts on behalf of the owner, the agent often sub optimizes decisions. So investors want managers who are not just agents but active participants in investment decisions (ergo the rise of equity-based compensation, private equity, and other mechanisms to make managers into owners and not agents).

Leaders create belonging by asking employees what they think, encouraging them to take ownership of innovation and personal work. HR professionals shape personal accountability for belonging by helping employees shift from being passive agents to active participants in organization actions. In employee engagement, this changes questions from “Do I like my pay, boss, or working conditions?” to “Do I do my best to earn my pay, build a relationship with my boss, or improve working conditions?” Marshall Goldsmith calls this active engagement, and it shifts the responsibility for belonging from the organization to the individual.

Belonging requires that employees are agents for themselves.

Building on these criteria, I belong to my family who share DNA and memorable events, my friends who share experiences, my professional colleagues who share ideas, and my faith community who share values. Where do you belong? How can the lessons I’ve shared help you to improve your connections to the organizations where you work, play, and worship? How do you increase your belonging?

Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

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