How leading organizations take culture to the next level

To weather constant disruption and the accelerating pace of change, organizations fight for top talent, drive innovation, and focus on culture. So why talk about belonging? Belonging may be the key to retention, risk-taking, and engagement that launches an organization past the competition.

“Basically, Maslow was saying if you're starving to death, you're not going to be sitting around contemplating life—you’re going to be out searching for food. But what we now know is that Maslow may have missed the mark, and that belonging, the human need to connect and be part of the group around us may be, in fact, our most critical need.”

Howard Ross, Founder, Udarta Consulting

Howard Ross describes belonging as a shared sense of identity, destiny and values, a sense of interdependence, all of which allow people to feel fully able to be themselves. He says, “When people ask me for definition of terms, I like to say that if diversity is being invited to the dance and inclusion is actually being allowed to dance, belonging is when you actually have some say about the music. In other words, you are so completely a part of the culture or the organization that your input matters. It's not just that you're allowed to be successful in my organization; instead, you actually have something to say about the culture of the organization, our way of being in the organization, the choices we make in the organization.”

Our need to belong may be rooted in our evolutionary biology. Researchers Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary wrote, “It seems clear that a desire to form and maintain social bonds would have both survival and reproductive benefits” (The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. 1995). According to Stanford University researcher Patricia R. Barchas, “Over the course of evolution, the small group became the basic survival strategy developed by the human species" (A sociophysiological orientation to small groups. 1986). And researchers Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson suggest that early humans who violated their group’s social norms “might have suffered ostracism, been denied the benefits of public goods, or lost points in the mating game,” (Culture and the evolution of social cooperation. 2009) suggesting that the propensity to get along in groups would become a favored trait through natural selection.

“Up until fairly recently in human history, we couldn't survive by ourselves,” Ross explains. “If you got sick or injured you would die. So, people who got along with the people around them, people who were fully accepted into their community, had a far greater chance of survival.” A preponderance of research indicates that those kinds of survival behaviors have adapted over the course of human evolution. As a result, Ross says, “We are deeply influenced by people around us in ways that are quite powerful.”

Now more than ever, organizations are taking notice of how that basic human need to belong is at the heart of why culture matters and the fact that culture impacts their bottom line. Rose Gailey, Global Lead of Organization Acceleration and Senn Delaney Culture Shaping at Heidrick Consulting says, “Our firm began the work around organizational culture over 40 years ago, and what we've seen particularly in the last 10 years is that the concept of belonging has really hit a crescendo in terms of organizational focus.”

Belonging connects an individual to the culture, and in the current global business environment, culture is key.


The current organizational focus on belonging and culture can be viewed in the context of disruption, according to Gailey: “Political, socioeconomic, and digital disruptions.”

K Sudarshan is Managing Director, EMA Partners, India. He describes the current, competitive argument for culture. “Organizational culture determines several outcomes which have a deep impact on business performance and shareholder value. In a competitive business environment where there is a war for talent, an organization that nurtures and genuinely cares for its people will win. A culture which fosters innovation, initiative and risk-taking is more likely to develop dynamic and agile leaders who will be more suited in today’s demanding business environment. As a role model, it is the responsibility of every leader to truly believe and embrace a positive culture and ensure that the message permeates right through the organization.”

Lynn Foster, Senior Client Partner for Korn Ferry explains, “In order to transform digitally, for example, the culture itself has to support that transformation, which requires a different agility, a different mindset, and different leadership behaviors.”

Foster identifies some common triggers that will also motivate companies to look at culture. “One is rapid growth, and the board, a leader or a leadership team will ask themselves, ‘what's gotten us to this point, is it sufficient to carry us forward, and what do we need to change?’ Scandal or bad behavior is another trigger. Then the question is ‘what's going on within our company that's allowed X, Y and Z to happen?’ Certainly mergers and acquisitions lead to a company to look at culture, as well.”

Foster identifies an additional culture driver that is much more personal. “There is this idea of legacy. Leaders who truly embrace this understand that they are trying to leave behind an organization that is reflective of what they believe in, and what they're doing to help others be successful within the employee population, among their customers, and possibly even beyond the reaches of the organization.”

Gailey adds, “Another critical point as it relates to the sense of belonging is the shifting demographics in the workplace, with five generations in the workplace today. Millennials represent about 48% of the workforce today, Gen X and Z represents about 30% of the workforce today. Less than 4% represent the Silent Generation and less than 20% represent the Baby Boomer population. The impact is challenging organizations in their desire to inspire inclusive cultures for all.”

How is it possible that people from disparate experiences and backgrounds can all feel like they belong within the same culture? The answer may be found in creating the right culture.


Foster explains, “Culture exists regardless of whether a company is actively seeking to shape it, tweak it, or transform it. Culture shaping includes understanding the current culture, the target culture, and identifying the gaps. It answers the questions: What do we need to change, based on our strategy? Do our practices really echo what we're saying?”

For example, a company with a strategic emphasis on M&A activity requires a culture that is accepting and open toward new people. An innovation-dependent organization would collapse without a culture that embraces risk-taking and tolerates the occasional failure.

To get to the heart of a client’s culture, Foster asks, “What are the unwritten rules?” She says, “We’re trying to get to any contradictions; if the strategy says x, but the reality of how things are actually done within the organization is different. Because when people are left on their own to make those decisions, they're going to go with what they believe to be the underlying message the organization is sending.”

“The culture is really what is shaping people's choices when no one else is telling them what to do,” she says.

“For every employee to contribute 100% and stay engaged with the organization, it is critical that they have a strong sense of ownership and they ‘belong’ to the organization,” Sudarshan says. “People have to feel emotionally invested and connected with the organization and the workplace is often an extension of their families. Leaders have to drive a shared vison where every employee feels important in the larger scheme of things and contribute their might to achieve organizational goals.”

Organizations have come to understand that culture is within their realm of influence. “Look, every organization has a culture,” Gailey says. “The question is, do you shape your culture or does the culture shape you?”

Gailey identifies four key principles required to shape an organization’s culture: “First culture has to start with purposeful leadership, leaders who are committed to the organization and to casting a positive shadow. Second, those leaders have to model an openness to personal change. You've got to be uncomfortable at times to be able to say, ‘let's do the right thing here’ and leaders have to be able to take a hard look in the mirror to make an authentic commitment. The third principle is that the culture has to be lived across the organization. There has to be broad engagement to get to employees on the frontline who make decisions for every day for customers that either support the culture and values or defy them. And then the final principle is systemic alignment. This is where the culture and values have to be integrated in the systems of the organization.”

And what are the outcomes? Gailey describes the difference between an employee really living the culture of customer-focus, versus what she calls ‘ticking the box.’ “Take an example with an airline that might espouse to be focused on the customer. You go to the ticket counter and the flight's been canceled and the rule says you're not supposed to make an adjustment for the customer if the flight is canceled due to weather. How do you respond, when you see somebody who's got an ill child, and they've got to get home? Would the culture dictate that you really step up and reasonably support that customer, or would the culture say tick the box when the rule says tell the customer no?’ Those are the tough decisions that are really the test of the culture.”


How do individuals connect within a culture? How do they feel that innate sense of belonging? Ross describes modes of human engagement. “Robert Putnam was a sociologist at Harvard who identified that there are two main ways that we engage with each other. One is through bonding and the other is through bridging.”

Ross describes bonding relationships as “the relationships we have with people who we feel we identify with in some way. So we might identify with our family, we might bond with a particular identity. For example, women may feel a sense of bonding with other women, particularly as they deal with men. Sometimes African Americans nod when they're walking past each other, particularly in a predominantly white environment. It's almost like conveying ‘we're in this together,’” Ross says. In bonded relationships, people have some sense of interdependence and shared destiny: what happens to you could very well happen to me.

“Then we also have bridging relationships that go across groups. They can be just as valuable and important, but they require us to extend ourselves a little bit. So what tends to happen at times of fear or tension is we tend to resort back to a bonded relationship,” Ross explains.

Researchers who study social capital often look at bonding and bridging relationships in terms of trust, in which trust is assumed in a bonded relationship, and must be earned in a bridging relationship. True bonding exists within organizations that cultivate a shared sense of identity, purpose, common goals, and a sense of belonging.


Shapers of organizational culture should consider and try to mitigate the many negative outcomes associated with the human need to belong, including silencing, tribalism, and otherness.

Social Silencing

Silencing occurs when people who believe they hold a minority opinion or conclusion do not speak up because they fear being excluded from the group. Ross describes the experience: “You feel like you're going to say something and then at some point you modify what you were going to say or don't say it at all because you're afraid that the group won't accept it.”

“We've seen instances where whole groups of people have gone along with an idea, even though some of them weren't sure it was a good one, only to find out later that their instincts were actually correct. Consider the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. A couple of people actually had serious questions about the O-ring but didn't say anything. The zeitgeist in the organization was to move ahead,” Ross says.

The consequences of silencing can include dampened employee engagement, stifled innovation, and in the case of the Challenger disaster, unexpressed warnings that result in tragedy.


Tribalism can be understood as the tendency for humans to sort people into in groups and out groups, based on real or imagined similarities or differences. Experiments by Polish social psychologist Henri Tajfel prove that it takes very little for people to separate themselves into these groups, and act in discriminatory ways. For example, studies point to people being willing to punish those in out groups and forgive people from in groups for identical offenses.

Tribalism in the workplace can lead to hostile groups viewing others as inferior, rivalries that threaten cooperation, and mistrust that can undermine a culture. Ross says, “Right now, more than I've ever seen it before, people's political identities are framing how they relate to each other in the workplace,” adding a new threat to a cohesive workplace culture.

For Gailey, “Tribalism that is at its best can inspire a sense of affinity and connection, and even belonging. But at its worst, it absolutely creates separation and silos, and dissolves the power of diversity. It can quiet the voice of the unique perspective.” She adds, “You want to be sure that you're guarding against some of the negativity and the unintended consequences of a tribe that becomes more exclusive than inclusive; that becomes more isolating than welcoming.”


The isolation Gailey refers to is expressed in ‘otherness.’ “Oftentimes, ‘belonging’ can mean that someone is outside,” Foster explains. “There are strong and positive senses of belonging that can help people do great things together. There are other kinds of belonging that push some people outside.”

Organizations stand to lose a lot of value if their people don’t feel they belong. “When you have somebody who's an outsider in the group, somebody who can't find their way into a culture that they're supposed to be a part of, then that person may be impacted in any number of ways,” Ross explains. “They can begin to question themselves and it can impact their self esteem, their sense of confidence, the ability that they have to function. When we feel like we're really valued, we perform at higher levels. When we feel like we're not being valued our performance drops.”

Foster cites new research from Korn Ferry on employee retention. “Culture fit is a top reason employees will stay or go. We conducted a survey that asked participants if you're planning to take a new job in 2020, what's the top reason? About 38% said because the culture doesn't fit with my values.”

If organizations work to mitigate the downside of belonging, there are vast benefits. Ross describes where “tribes can be quite healthy at times. The aftermath of the Boston marathon bombing is a good example of what happened in the city, how people really came together around their identity as Bostonians.”

People who belong, who feel psychologically safe and connected to the organizational culture are more likely to contribute, take measured risks, and collaborate; they are better brand ambassadors and they are more likely to make strategically and culturally aligned decisions. And they are more likely to remain in the organization.

Psychologist Stevan Hobfoll writes, “The other side of tribalism is our positive sense of attachment and community. Tribalism can be about our common hope, our common dreams. What we share as people who seek justice. Tribalism can divide and conquer or build justice, build a new Camelot.”


Ross identifies the elements necessary to create a healthy sense of belonging in the workplace. He says, “Let me preface this by saying that the organizational behaviors that we know build belonging are really the behaviors that build healthy organizations; they're not separate. As we’ve said for years around diversity and inclusion, good diversity management is really just good management.”

  1. A clear vision and sense of purpose: We know that human beings are inspired by building, they're not inspired by fixing. For most of us, we need to feel like we're building something in order to feel inspired.

  2. Creating the container (mission, vision, values, purpose, goals, articulate understandings, agreements, norms, rituals and rules): Knowing that there are clear rules that we're operating under gives people a greater sense of psychological safety.

  3. Personal connection, vulnerability, and consciousness: Encourage people to connect personally and to get vulnerable with each other and be much more conscious about where they're coming from.

  4. Inclusion and enrollment: We must broaden our acceptance of ideas, and broaden our sense of what's allowed in the organization.

  5. Cultivate open-minded thinking: We have to cultivate consciously open-minded thinking to really get out of our own way of thinking; saying to ourselves, ‘what if I was coming from that perspective?’

  6. Develop shared structures and forms of communication: Are we communicating openly and transparently to people as much as possible? Do we have a shared sense of what's accurate?

  7. Honoring narrative: Part of belonging is the art of sharing stories, where people feel known and can understand each other.

  8. Tools for negotiation and conflict resolution: Establish an agreed upon method for decision-making, otherwise every conflict can become a threat to belonging.

To these eight steps, Gailey would add “a shared language.” She explains, “In a world in which organizations are massive, with hundreds of thousands of employees far-flung all around the world, I've seen where you walk into an office no matter where it is in the world and employees have some of this common language; you see the touchstones that connect all employees to the values.”


The triple bottom line is an accounting framework that evaluates performance from the broader perspective of people, planet and profit, adding stakeholders and the environment to the traditional financial performance metrics. Ross explains, “We make decisions based on what's going to move that metric. We can see at the end of every month and at the end of the year, how much money did we make? How much money did we lose? And so, because that number is right in front of us, it really drives our performance.”

Organizations that commit to the triple bottom line are investing in their people, building a sustainable culture in which people feel they belong, and creating communities of employees and customers that are engaged and committed.

“What we're realizing is some of the best companies in the world have more than one metric,” Ross says. “If we include financial performance as one metric, we might also say that employee satisfaction is another metric; another metric would be customer satisfaction. So we know that we're hitting our bottom line, and our employees are satisfied and our customers are also satisfied. And then add a domain of corporate social responsibility, that is, how do we contribute to our community? It might be issues of sustainability. And so if we begin to look at all of those together—if financially we're doing well, if we're meeting the needs of our teams, if we're meeting the needs of our customers and if we've got a good relationship with our community and environment, there’s a pretty good chance that that is a thriving organization.”


Can an organization thrive without a strong culture, without creating a sense of belonging among stakeholders?

Gailey says, “In the past, there may have been a perception that culture is the soft stuff; belonging is the soft stuff. Today, what we recognize is our customer's experience is really inspired by our employee experience. And ultimately what we've been finding is that culture and belonging drive performance. It is a hard lever and it is at the root of innovation. It's at the root of the customer experience. It's at the root of employee retention.”

For Ross, “If culture is the phenomenon of people coming together with a shared sense of commitment over time and the shared sense of values or practices to work together, belonging, we might say, is the connective tissue of that culture.” He adds, “If I don't have a sense of belonging, I'm not likely to feel fully connected to the culture. So they're almost like different distinctions of the same thing. One is the phenomenon itself and the other is what holds that phenomenon together. It's hard to imagine having a vibrant culture without a sense of belonging.”

In Gailey’s experience, “belonging is really about community, and even micro-communities that feel part of a bigger community.” And I think that's what inclusion is about. It's one of those shared moments that brings out the best in people." For example, she says, “I live in El Paso, Texas, on the border. And it's so interesting because El Paso and Juarez, Mexico are really on either side of a bridge, but we live as one community. At the end of the day when people are in need, when people are hurting, it doesn't matter what your political views are. The community rallies and it's unbelievable; it's so powerful. There is almost no dissension when it comes down to people in need. And I think that's what inclusion is about. It’s one of those shared moments that brings out the best in people.”

“And how do we replicate that,” she asks? “How do we, without the tragedy, how do we promote and support that bigger sense of community? So it's not really that tribalism is bad. We should focus on the notion that a sense of belonging can come through community and through shared culture. And then you don't have to worry about the silos and the potential negative effect of tribes.”

Belonging is also a two-way relationship. Sudarshan explains, “In an era of instant gratification, connected employees who have a strong sense of belonging are not swayed by short-term gains and are ready to invest time and energy for the long term. Employees who give their 100% to organizations also have an unsaid and a fair expectation that the organization will step in to support them at times of their need. It is critical that the organizations foster a reciprocal culture which genuinely cares for the wellbeing of its people.”

“Belonging, I think, creates a level of commitment that is beyond financial, beyond a promise, beyond your moral responsibility,” Foster says. “It becomes personal. We're all looking for a sense of belonging.”

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