Research Questions: On Belonging

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What questions will this research answer?

The examination of belongingness as a construct is a relatively recent field of study, with the original belongingness hypothesis proposed by Baumeister and Leary in 1995. Much of the research to this point has centered on defining the characteristics of belongingness, creating valid scales of measurement, considering gender differences, and exploring ties to factors such as self-esteem, self-regulating behavior, and social identity. Examined settings have included social groups, schools, healthcare organizations, and a variety of cultural contexts.

The study of belongingness in the realm of traditional corporate settings remains sparse. While there is a strong foundation of knowledge providing perspective on what belongingness is, there is a gap in the development of a coherent paradigm for how to achieve it. In this research, we will attempt to bolster that skeletal framework by turning the lens of belongingness to the workplace in consideration of the following questions:

  • Is the changing nature of work enhancing the extent to which a humanistic approach (with belongingness as a cog in that wheel) is vital to the cultivation of a flourishing workplace culture?
  • What is the impact of belongingness on organizations as entities? What outcomes can be predicted based on the existence or absence of cultures that foster belongingness?
  • What is the impact of belongingness on employees? Is there a tie to factors such as engagement, productivity, tenure, and job satisfaction? Does belongingness at work travel outside the office walls to enhance overall well-being and happiness?
  • Is there a moral imperative for organizations to focus on belongingness as a component of a healthy workplace culture?
  • What is the “dark side” of belongingness at work? Are there certain types of organizations, cultures, or even individuals for whom steps toward belongingness are more harmful than helpful? What cultural considerations or cautionary steps should be examined?
  • When it is deemed desirable, what specific actions can organizations take to create and cultivate belongingness?

What questions is this research not trying to answer?

While there is compelling research on the link between belongingness and depression, examining belongingness as it relates to mental illness is not in the scope of this work. We will dip a toe in the waters of loneliness in light of the expanding body of work on the loneliness epidemic, but it will not be a primary focus. Likewise, the child, adolescent, and elderly populations will be generally excluded from these studies since they are not in the mean working-age range in developed countries where this research will take place.

Why does this research matter?

Stripped down to its most basic tenets, the current research would suggest that belongingness is a human imperative, a necessary element of a fulfilling life. If we believe this to be empirically (and experientially) true, then it makes sense to overlay the concept of belongingness on the structure that consumes most of our waking life: work.

Particularly as we see shifts in what we value and ultimately seek in our work, it stands to reason that many organizations do (or will) have a desire to create cultures that are cohesive, productive, and meaningful. By demonstrating the impact of belongingness on workplace metrics that matter to both organizations and their citizens, we will come to understand the critical role that it plays in the changing world of work.

Given the sparsity of practical heuristics for achieving belongingness in the workplace, this research will lay the initial groundwork of actionable steps in support of that aim. By considering the foundational definitions of belongingness, what it means to us in the halls of the workplace, and how we can reasonably expect to infuse it into organizational cultures, we come full circle. If we can produce meaningful tools that foster efficient, healthily functioning organizations and cultivate climates that enhance individual fulfillment and well-being, it is one more brush stroke in the art of living well.

What will this research accomplish?

This research will first accomplish the basic aim of crafting a more robust definition of belongingness at work and identifying how this may differ from other spheres. We will seek to delineate behaviors and characteristics of individuals, teams, and cultures where belongingness is valued and intentionally fostered versus those where it is noticeably absent. Utilizing a mixed-methods approach, the general belongingness scale (GBS) will be employed for these studies, in addition to qualitative interviews and quantitative data collection.

Furthermore, this examination will help us look to the future at the changing world of work and identify why belongingness plays an integral role in this landscape. Outside of the generational shifts in the make-up of workplace populations, considerations such as changing expectations of leadership, the impact of technology and accessibility, the blurring lines between the work self and the personal self, and the waning dichotomy of the work-life balance construct will take on a clearer hue through this research.

To more clearly view the degree to which belongingness matters, readers will sit in the watchtower of both the employer and the employee. The connection between belongingness and a variety of useful outcomes will emerge, ranging from quantitative evidence like productivity and tenure to more abstract concepts such as well-being and engagement. On the heels of this positive framing, some cautionary tales will emerge about contexts in which belongingness is prohibitive. Perhaps most importantly, this research will provide a prescriptive for organizations to lay the groundwork for belongingness and to create a cultural climate of sustainable meaningfulness.

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The human soul doesn't want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed - to be seen, heard, and companioned exactly as it is.

Parker Palmer

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