We all just want to belong…

by Bee Heller
January 24, 2017

This morning I got up at 6am, cycled in the dark to the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park, ran round the frozen lake, did a few sit ups and press ups and then jumped in to the icy water.

Why on earth would I do this?! It’s not a physically pleasurable experience – in fact most of those activities are pretty uncomfortable. And yet this is something I do several mornings a week all year round.

Ok there’s the endorphins that follow exercise, the buzz you get after cold water swimming and the satisfaction that comes from knowing I’ve made the most of a couple of hours when many people are still in bed. However, the biggest motivation I have for continuing this morning ritual is the sense of belonging I get from being part of a relatively small community of people who do this with me.

Our desire to belong and ‘fit in’ is a powerful motivator for human beings. We have evolved to be the most sociable species on the planet.

Two particular fields of research provide evidence as to why belonging is such a strong motivator:

1. Anthropology

Robin Dunbar has done research on how monkeys, apes and humans collaborate and maintain the social structures in their groups. Our ability to laugh together, dance together and share stories makes us incredibly efficient social animals. We can maintain social networks of up to around 150 people without the need for any formal rules or processes to guide how that group should interact. Coincidentally this is about the size of the core group of regular Serpentine swimmers.

2. Social neuroscience

Matthew Lieberman has used brain scanning technology to discover specific adaptations of our brain that give us our social ‘superpowers’. One such adaptation is the way in which our brains process social experiences. We process social pleasure and pain in the same way as we process physical pleasure and pain. So when we experience a relationship break up or social rejection we ‘feel’ this hurt in the same way as a broken leg hurts.

Why does belonging matter in workplaces?

While this might explain why I continue to throw myself into freezing cold water (it’s all about the hot tea and chats in the changing room after), what does it mean for workplaces?

People want to feel like they belong. In fact our desire to belong is so strong, we will often conform to the group around us even when we disagree or know that they are wrong. This tendency to conform means that belonging poses both a threat and an opportunity as a source of motivation.

Left unchecked people will behave in accordance with their desire to fit in – they will simply copy the behaviour of the majority of the people around them. This can create stale work environments where nothing ever changes. It explains why cultures are so stable and frustratingly difficult to change.

How can managers make the most of people’s intrinsic motivation to belong?

If you’re a manager you can avoid this situation by consciously shaping what it means to fit in to your team. What do you want people to conform on and, just as important, in what areas do you want to encourage non-conformity and diversity of views? Then put effort in to creating this group identity – make it socially enjoyable to be part of the team, create rituals that bond the group, laugh together, share stories, recognise behaviours you want to see more of, talk about your shared values, celebrate success.

It’s the cumulative effect of all these small actions that allow you to tap in to people’s desire to belong. Be purposeful about how you use it and you’ll have a source of team motivation that no money can buy.

Frozen Serpentine Lake

Sunrise, reflections, tea and ice at the Serpentine, Hyde Park

As with my previous blog on motivation (how to help people learn and progress – create the conditions for flow) HR Director and blogger, Gary Cookson has written a response to this blog based on his personal experiences.

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