Blog / DEI & Inclusive Growth

The Role of Employee Belonging in Organizational Transformation

by Malik Robinson
The Role of Employee Belonging in Organizational Transformation

Imagine you have been working for an organization for about six years. It’s not your favorite thing, but you don’t mind going to this job because you feel a sense of purpose. Over time, however, you start to notice there are some cracks in the system. You have some ideas — a better operating system, opportunities to build a more inclusive culture — and you go to the senior team with your thoughts.

You present the ideas and try to show off the benefits and costs. Maybe you even have a plan already for how to make the change. The manager or supervisor looks at your idea and says they will consider it, and then you don’t hear much after that.

The problem you identified still exists and is still not solved. The issue is bringing down workplace morale; everybody feels burned out, overworking themselves or competing for specific roles. You start to lose your motivation, become less engaged, and lose your sense of purpose because you feel like you have no voice. You feel powerless.

Unfortunately, this situation happens worldwide inside organizations and companies; but why exactly does this happen? In this article, we are looking into the necessary changes needed to achieve organizational transformation — starting with creating the kind of inclusive culture that supports change.

The NOBL Academy (2022) defines organizational transformation as “the process of [a company] aligning its organizational culture (how employees work together) with its strategy (the trade-offs the company is willing to make to achieve its goals)” (para. 2). So, how exactly do leaders and staff implement changes to achieve organizational transformation and include employee voices from multiple generations in the workforce to reach its goals?

Cultivating a Sense of Belonging Within Your Organization

Organizational transformation first relies on everyone in the organization having the sense that they belong there and are part of the group. Strayhorn (2012) provided a comprehensive definition of this sense of belonging. While specifically referring to higher education settings, the definition is broadly applicable. A sense of belonging, Strayhorn wrote, is “… perceived social support … a feeling or sensation of connectedness, the experience of mattering or feeling cared about, accepted, respected, valued by, and important to the group (e.g., campus community) or others on campus (e.g., faculty, peers)” (2012, p. 17).

“We cannot separate the importance of a sense of belonging from our physical and mental health. The social ties that accompany a sense of belonging are a protective factor helping us to manage stress and other behavioral issues” (Theisen, 2022, para. 3). “Belonging is also critically tied to social identity — a set of shared beliefs or ideals. To truly feel a sense of belonging, you must feel unity and a common sense of character with and among members of your group” (Brower, 2022, para. 3).

“Organizational transformation first relies on everyone in the organization having the sense that they belong there and are part of the group.”

It goes beyond mere presence. Jeanine Stewart, senior consultant with the Neuroleadership Institute, said, “Being surrounded by other human beings doesn’t guarantee a sense of belonging. Belonging actually has to do with identification as a member of a group and the higher-quality interactions that come from that. It’s the interactions over time which are supportive of us as full, authentic human beings” (Brower, 2022, para. 4).

A sense of belonging also helps to combat or head off the rise of stereotypes and identity threats within an organization — forces that prevent the kind of “in it together” response that is necessary for organizational change. Social categorization explains why we develop these prejudiced attitudes — the “them and us” mentality — because humans typically try to understand our social environments by categorizing objects.

Once we have categorized ourselves as part of a group, we adopt the identity of that group and compare that group with other groups. “This is critical to understanding prejudice, because once two groups identify themselves as rivals, they are forced to compete in order for the members to maintain their self-esteem” (McLeod, 2023, para. 17).

Henri Tajfel proposed that stereotyping (i.e., putting people into groups and categories) is based on a normal cognitive process: the tendency to group things together resulting in a tendency to exaggerate the differences and similarities of things among groups (McLeod, 2023). These exaggerations create stereotypes that invoke feelings of uncertainty and may threaten a person’s identity in a way that heightens vigilance to situational cues in the local environment and accentuates cues relevant to whether their group is valued and accepted (Walton et al. 2015).

Understanding Stereotype Threats to Team Members’ Authentic Selves

In order to prevent the proliferation of these kinds of prejudices and negative forces within the workplace — thereby making way for organizational change — it is important to understand and name what individuals and groups are facing.

Code-Switching. So how exactly do individuals present themselves differently in group environments, especially in the workplace? One powerful example is code-switching, which “involves adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities”(McCluney et al., 2019, para. 4).

We naturally have multiple different aspects of our authentic selves that we present in different settings, such as being at home with friends and family versus in an airport on work travel. However, when we interpret particular social cues as threats to our identity, code-switching forces individuals to always prepare for potential discrimination, mistreatment, and unfair judgment. This is especially true for marginalized individuals who may ultimately feel forced to downplay their race to avoid stereotypes and change their behavior and appearance to promote shared interests with majority-group members (McCluney et al., 2019).

These highly vigilant behaviors correlate with W.E.B. Du Bois’ double consciousness; an individual feels the need to perceive themselves through someone else’s lens to feel accepted due to labels created by systematic oppression.

Imposter Syndrome. Research has shown that even when individuals succeed and reach achievements in an organization, they sometimes feel like frauds who do not deserve those accolades. This concept of imposter syndrome was developed by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. (Tulshyan & Burey, 2021). The definition evolved as “the internalized belief that your success is due to luck or other external factors rather than your skills, intelligence or qualifications” (The Data Incubator, n.d., para. 1) disproportionately affecting high-achieving people, who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments.

Interestingly, original studies of imposter syndrome focused on women who did not feel they were worthy of their achievements. However, Tulshyn & Burey (2021) observed that imposter syndrome conceptually attributes these feelings to individual perceptions and fails to account for historical and cultural contexts. These systems dynamics are foundational to how imposter syndrome manifests amidst microaggressions and behavioral expectations in the workplace formed by stereotypes and racism. Improperly attributing how imposter syndrome arises “puts the onus on women to deal with the effects. Workplaces remain misdirected toward seeking individual solutions for issues disproportionately caused by systems of discrimination and abuses of power” (para. 10).

“Because imposter syndrome is looked at mainly as a self-internal conflict — instead of one derived from systematic oppression or external factors — it reinforces the feelings of an individual and influences whether they feel the need to code-switch in specific environments.”

Misunderstanding the cause of imposter syndrome may contribute to a gap in organizational culture where some employees feel they belong and others do not, oftentimes disproportionately affecting individuals from marginalized backgrounds. Because imposter syndrome is looked at mainly as a self-internal conflict — instead of one derived from systematic oppression or external factors — it reinforces the feelings of an individual and influences whether they feel the need to code-switch in specific environments.

Stereotype Threats. Furthermore, research explains the process of how stereotype threats cause people to doubt or even undermine their own performance and abilities and this could lead to a person feeling like they do not belong or need to act differently and inauthentically due to stereotype and identity threat.

Schmader & Beilock (2012) describe a model by which stereotype threat triggers a network of affective and cognitive processes to closely monitor and undermine performance on challenging cognitive and social tasks. In this process, people experience a cycle of negative thoughts, emotions, and appraisal processes that are suppressed to focus on the task at hand. “This suppression itself, however, takes up needed working-memory resources and undermines executive functioning, which ultimately weakens performance on challenging tasks” (Walton et al., 2015, para. 9).

The Role of Leadership in Organizational Transformation

To accomplish organizational transformations, organizations themselves must consider the role of leadership and what is needed for a leader to implement change. For change to happen, leaders need to recognize that change is continuous work, not just an objective or a task.

You Must Be the Agent of Change. Authors Hussain et al. (2018) — who used Kurt Lewin’s change model to study organizational change processes — identified leadership as a change agent to “unfreeze” organizations and recognized “organizational change as a feature of organizational life for strategic and operational level, so there is no doubt about the importance of change in the organization” (p. 126). Organizational change should not be something that happens only when there is a problem or as a response to changes in the environment.

Instead, healthy organizations include change, growth, and adaptation as a part of the organization’s life cycle. Graetz & Smith (2010) confront the classical, linear approach to organizational change, namely, the underlying assumption to urge a multi-philosophy approach that applies an interactive mix of continuity and changes.

Adaptability is the Name of the Game. As changes in your environment arise, organizations and their leaders must be flexible and adapt to ambivalent situations. The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of an outside event forcing leaders and organizations to adapt to dramatically different ways of working.

Van den Heuvel et al. (2020) identified a key aspect of preparing for ambiguity in the landscape: “Organizations can facilitate adaptation to changing work environments by providing change resources such as support, information, and opportunities for participation,” and reminding leaders that change is not just a moment or a one-time focus (p. 13). Leaders must adopt an adaptive and flexible posture to implement successful organizational transformations.

Hear All of Your Staff. Leaders must also consider a diversity of voices and adopt a willingness to reconsider important decisions through dialogue. Graetz & Smith (2010) expand further to take a strong stance “that understanding change as part of a continuing work in progress calls for a much broader canvas that seeks out competing voices, and works with the resulting ambiguities, contradictions and tensions of messy reality” (p. 136) and advocates a multi-philosophy approach.

Conclusion

Issues like imposter syndrome and code-switching harm more than the individual experiencing them. They also harm the organizations and communities to which that individual belongs and impede those groups’ abilities to achieve necessary organizational transformation and ultimately overcome and dismantle systems and barriers.

Alongside individuals working to take responsibility for their own experiences, organizations need to support them and recognize how organizational culture impacts individuals’ ability to work with others. Without this awareness and without implementing practices to mitigate negative working environments, we will not see change. Therefore, there is a significant need to understand and/or address the lack of understanding about belonging and recognize the impact on individuals and full staff.

“[I]mposter syndrome and code-switching harm more than the individual experiencing them. They also harm the organizations and communities to which that individual belongs[.]”

The nonprofit sector should be especially aware of these concepts and the tools we can use to improve our workplaces for so many reasons, including:

  • The sector is continuing to expand with new ideas, teams, and methods to reach and connect with people. The more people we touch, the more important it is to ensure those relationships are positive and affirming.

  • The way we work is changing. With hybrid and remote opportunities in demand and on the rise, organizations need to consider the implications of a post-pandemic workplace. There are layers of implications for how people work and what that means for how they engage with one another, how frequently they see each other, what our expectations are for in-person work norms, how workloads are distributed, and the diversity of demands on our schedules.

  • Coworkers need language and resources to be helpful and supportive when they see a teammate struggling and not operating at 100%. Understanding the kinds of forces that alienate us from our communities can also help us understand how to fix those broken links.

It is my hope that this research can inspire organizations to ask what they can do to build community and make an environment where people can thrive in the workplace, no matter their level of role or responsibilities, to have open communication about personal and group pressures and contribute to the overall health and success of our teams.

Malik Robinson
GRADUATE STUDENT
Malik is a graduate student at Grand Valley State University. He previously interned at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy.

References

Brower, T. (2022, November 9). Missing your people: Why belonging is so important and how to create it. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/tracybrower/2021/01/10/missing-your-people-why-belonging-is-so-important-and-how-to-create-it

Graetz , F., & C.T. Smith, A. (2010, June 8). Managing organizational change: A philosophies of change approach. Journal of Change Management, 10(2), 135–154. https://doi.org/10.1080/14697011003795602

Hussain, S. T., Lei, S., Akram, T., Haider, M. J., Hadi Hussain, S. H., & Ali, M. (2016, October 11). Kurt Lewin’s change model: A critical review of the role of leadership and employee involvement in organizational change. Journal of Innovation & Knowledge, 3(3), 123–127. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jik.2016.07.002

McCluney, C. L., Robotham, K., Lee, S., Smith, R., & Durkee, M. (2019, November 15). The costs of code-switching. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-costs-of-codeswitching

McLeod, S. (2023, October 5). Social Identity Theory in Psychology (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Simply Psychology.
https://www.simplypsychology.org/social-identity-theory.html

NOBL Academy. (2022, March 4). Why organizational transformation requires different implementation strategies. https://academy.nobl.io/organizational-transformation-strategies/

Strayhorn, T. (2012). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. Routledge.

The Data Incubator. (2021). Six steps to break the imposter syndrome cycle. https://www.thedataincubator.com/blog/2022/02/23/6-steps-to-break-the-imposter-syndrome-cycle

Theisen, A. (2022, August 25). Is a sense of belonging important? Mayo Clinic Health System. https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/is-having-a-sense-of-belonging-important

Tulshyan, R., & Burey, J.-A. (2021, February 11). Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome

Van den Heuvel, M., Demerouti, E., Bakker, A., Hetland, J., & Schaufeli, W. (2020, December 21). How do employees adapt to organizational change? The role of meaning-making and work engagement. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 23. e56 https://doi.org/10.1017/SJP.2020.55

Walton, G. M., Murphy, M. C., & Ryan, A. M. (2015, April). Stereotype threat in organizations: Implications for equity and performance. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 2(5), 523–550. https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032414-111322