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  • Lilian Kolker

February Thought-Starter: Why belonging matters

Our monthly thought-starters come to you from our team of Guides, who are trained to help you make the most of your MeaningSphere experience. They're on hand to help members of our community explore the big question: "What is the meaning of my work to me?" Find out more about our Guide services here.

Two individuals fist bump at work

This month we're exploring "belonging at work"– something many people find important when considering what brings them meaning in their work. The dictionary defines belonging as “being in the right place and feeling happy in a comfortable situation” – as group animals, we quickly sense if we’re a “fit” with the people and places we encounter. And we can fit in in many different places, often at the same time – according to where we live, love, and work.

If your work requires connecting with others, you may want to reflect on whether you feel you belong at work. As a MeaningSphere Guide, I talk to people about where they find meaning at work – as well as what they would like to change. Whether people feel they belong is almost always discussed, because these feelings are so powerful. Our human connections, or the lack thereof, can make or break our sense of meaningfulness in our work or lives. We all need friendly faces around us as well as the opportunity to show up as ourselves. Let me share some practical examples I’ve encountered as a guide that will explain why belonging at work matters.

MeaningSphere offers a Meaningful Work Survey to determine how meaningful your work is to you. Six of the 31 items on the survey are about the unity we experience with others. What's noticeable is that three items are often picked as things people like to explore in more depth: feeling a sense of belonging; having mutual support; and being able to speak openly about what's valuable to you when you decide on work matters. Of course, how we perceive the strength of our connections differs for all of us, but belonging strongly influences how most people function at work.

The importance of having a sense of belonging

There was a guy I once talked to who had been a member of a sales team in a consultancy firm. It was a competitive business where money was leading in everything they did. He came home every night exhausted. When reflecting on his situation, he realized he had no click with the organization's product and leadership and disliked the internal competitiveness. But he had a great talent for making businesses more financially sustainable and loved doing that. Changing his line of work wasn’t an option, but he needed a different context in which to apply his skills. His passion for brewing beer led him to write to every brewery within travel distance looking for new opportunities. Soon, a brewery welcomed him with open arms. He now rearranges the brewery's working methods to be more profitable, and sharing a passion offers him a much more enjoyable experience at work. He is one of the team now.

The importance of having mutual support

A young woman told me enthusiastically how her colleagues gave her the space and confidence to develop herself right away when she started at the company. The team runs smoothly, and colleagues value each other both for their contributions and as people. It sounded like an excellent example of mutual support. Nevertheless, she told me it was time for the next step, learning new skills and developing her expertise. Exploring why she did not apply for a promotion yet, she told me it was due to the strong team spirit. Although she knew her work friends would have her best interests at heart, breaking up felt hard to do. Talking was good practice for finding the courage and the right words to tell her teammates what she wanted.

The importance of connection and speaking about our values

My last illustration is a common thing but not easy to fix. We all find meaning in doing something beneficial for someone else. But often people who are drawn to helping roles for this very reason find it tough to create a meaningful connection and “do the right thing” in the moment. Many people have experienced this disconnect from the client’s perspective and felt frustrated or unheard. (Who hasn’t had the experience of calling their internet provider's help desk, only to have the person suggest resetting and calling back if the problem persists? Or shared their heartfelt problems while a healthcare provider barely looks up from ticking boxes on their screen?) But in my guiding conversations, I also hear the other side of such stories. Unfortunately, people in helping roles such as healthcare or customer service can feel just as disconnected as their clients in situations like these. Their jobs are often tied to rules, structures, and/or computer programs that prevent them from making a friendly and helpful connection. As a result, they experience a loss of meaning. And in organizations dictated by these structures, it's not often easy to express what you value and would like to change. There can be a possibility for change if teammates share your ideals. However, if your hands are tied or there's no real connection in the team, it can be wise to try to find meaning elsewhere, maybe even outside work.

To enjoy and derive meaning from the places you belong, you don't have to rely solely on the workplace. There can be other solutions. I found a great one for myself. A few years back, I did a lot of work with clients, but missed having close colleagues. Then I started volunteering at the local art-house movie theater. Immediately I had 120 new coworkers, and I loved being on the team. For those of us without close work relationships or a traditional office to go to each morning, such opportunities can be a vital source of belonging.

A mature man and woman talk happily while looking at a clipboard

What came to your mind when reading about others’ experiences? How do feelings of belonging add or detract from your experience of meaning at work? It's worthwhile to explore this. This month, we’re focusing on three areas crucial to belonging: workplace friendships, tackling loneliness, and building community. Because belonging matters – to all of us – every working day.


Lilian Kolker is a MeaningSphere Guide based in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Image credit: Shutterstock


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