Five Warning Signs Your Employees May Lack a Sense of Belonging

Culture of Exile?

When employees feel they belong, they’ll give you their all. When they don’t, well, you’ll get only crumbs. 

Consider the power of belonging. Adolescents will change their speech, dress and behavior to “fit in” with their peer groups. Inner city teens will commit crimes — including murder — for the privilege of wearing gang colors. Adults, too, gain much of their identity from the neighborhoods they live in, the churches they attend, the political parties they align with. Yes, belonging to “the tribe” is a human need we never grow out of — yet most leaders neglect it in the workplace.

Many companies have fostered cultures of exile. No one is purposely making people feel they don’t belong, but they’re also not proactively making them feel they do — and that’s a huge, huge mistake.

Belonging, along with safety and mattering, is a basic human drive. After food-water-shelter needs have been met, we must feel that we’re safe, that we matter and that we belong. If not, we can’t seek self-actualization, meaning we can’t perform, innovate, collaborate or do any of the other things it takes to survive in our global economy.

Exile is a deep-rooted, primal fear. The way our critter brain sees it is: “If I’m not part of the tribe, then I must not matter, and I’m surely not safe. A lion is going to eat me. My only goal right now is survival, so I am going to do and say whatever will keep me safe.”

When employees feel this way, they hide out, procrastinate or say what the boss wants to hear instead of what needs to be heard. When that occurs chronically, not only will your company be unable to move forward and grow, it may flounder and fail. 

People will never speak up and say they feel they don’t belong. It’s up to you as the leader to diagnose the problem and take steps to fix it.

Here are five red flags that indicate you may be fostering a culture of exile:

1. Certain people get preferential treatment. Maybe there are different sets of rules for different employees. (Many companies harbor “Untouchables” — people who were hired and most likely over-promoted because they are related to or friends with someone in power.) Or maybe the CEO always plays golf with Drew and Tom, but not Greg and Alan. 

Preferential treatment is a leadership behavior and … it’s a major culprit in making people feel exiled.

2. Cliques and inside jokes flourish. If you notice some employees seem to be regularly excluding others — maybe members of a certain department socialize after work but one or two people are not invited — take it seriously. Those who are left out know it … and it doesn’t feel good.

It’s amazing how little difference there can be between high school dynamics and workplace dynamics. And while leaders can’t (and shouldn’t) interfere with friendships between employees, they can set an example of inclusion. They can have frank discussions on the hurtfulness of making someone feel exiled. They can hold fun workplace events and celebrations to strengthen bonds between all coworkers.

When you focus on belonging, everyone will.

3. There are obvious and visible signs of hierarchy. At some companies there’s a stark division — maybe even a chasm — between, say, the executive suite and the hourly workers. The white-collar guys are on a higher floor with nicer furniture, while the blue-collar guys are lucky if the bathroom is maintained. To many people this may seem like the natural order of things, but this attitude is precisely the problem. 

Is it really a good idea for the physical workplace to say, “We’re in the gated community while you’re in the trailer park?” 

Getting rid of some of the symbols of divisiveness would be a good start. 

4. Entrenched silos lead to information withholding and turf wars. Departments are, by definition, different from each other. Still, they needn’t be alienated from each other. It’s possible for departments to be “different” in a healthy way — IT is a band of cool pirates, while salespeople are wild and crazy cowboys and cowgirls out there on the range — while still marching forward together. 

It’s okay for groups to have their own identity, yet they must still be able to link arms and help each other toward that end goal. When they have that reassuring sense that they belong to the company overall, they don’t have to close ranks and play power games. 

5. There is no path for personal development or advancement. True belonging is knowing you’re not just a cog in the machine; it’s knowing employers care about your future and want you to live up to your potential. That’s why Individual Development Plans are good to have for every employee at every level.

When people see their IDP, it tells them, “You’re safe here; we’re planning on you being here for a long time.” 

Making employees feel that strong sense of belonging can send performance into hyperdrive. 

When people feel they truly belong, they will open up their minds and do everything in their power to make sure the tribe is successful. They’ll come to work jazzed, engaged, 100 percent on.

You cannot inspire this kind of presence, this deep involvement, in employees with coercion or bribery or even logic. It happens on a primal, subterranean level. When it does, the transformation is amazing to witness.

Start at the Top:

A Leadership Code of Conduct 

Exceptional teams create exceptional companies. Exceptional companies make a difference for the world. A leadership code of conduct could look like this:

We treat all employees fairly, respectfully and equally. We strive to avoid preferential treatment, reward on merit and hold everyone (including ourselves) accountable to the same set of standards. 

We deal with issues directly with the person in question. No complaining about others behind their back, passive aggressive behavior or backstabbing of any type will be accepted or tolerated. 

We value the privilege to serve on the leadership team. Monthly management meetings must be a priority, along with weekly leadership meetings and huddles. Coming prepared is a must. 

We debate in the room, execute out of the room. We are accountable to each other for timely and quality results. Once we debate and decide, there is no more debate. 

We are powerful creators. We are outcome creators, insight creators, action creators.

We promise only if we have the authority and ability to execute. We commit to anything we can deliver upon to clients or employees, but not until we get needed approval or resources lined up first. We under-promise and over-deliver.

We are the model of accountability and leadership. We provide the example of accountability and leadership that everyone can follow to success. 

“So … What’s Next for Me?”

Individual and Leadership Development Plans 

Most employees won’t ask about the future, so you need to be proactive about putting it in front of them.

Individual Development Plans can be planned with a one- to three-year time horizon. What’s essential is that they are monitored, and the individual’s development is actually happening. 

Here are some components of an Individual Development Plan:

Professional Development:

  • Two or more possible career evolutions that can occur in the coming one to three years
  • Job skills that need to be gained for each 
  • Leadership skills that need to be gained for each
  • A timeline for acquiring these skills
  • A plan, budget, leadership commitment to support the plan
  • Next steps and monthly or quarterly check-in on plan progress
  • Agreement that the plan will be driven by the individual, not by their leader

Personal Development:

  • Personal growth that the individual wishes to undertake (weight loss, fitness goals, learning new language, stop smoking, etc.)
  • Mapping of how this personal growth will benefit the company
  • A timeline for acquiring these skills/creating this growth
  • A plan, budget, leadership commitment to support the plan
  • Next steps and monthly or quarterly check-in on plan progress
  • Agreement that the plan will be driven by the individual, not by their leader

If the individual is in a leadership role or will be in the next year or so, consider a Leadership Development Program. This is where you cultivate your bright stars with vice president-plus potential. 

Christine Comaford helps mid-sized and Fortune 1000 companies navigate growth and change, is an expert in human behavior and applied neuroscience and the bestselling author of “Rules for Renegades.” Her latest book, New York Times best seller “SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together,” was released in June 2013. Her coaching, consulting and strategies center on increased accountability, communication and execution. To learn more, visit 

Categories: Human Resources