Humans are innately social species which means that we have a strong motivation to be part of a group – or to belong. And this motivation begins early in life. From our earliest days when we are dependent on dedicated caregivers, across our years of schooling, and beyond into the workplace. But how do we foster a strong sense of belonging within groups?

Omid Fotuhi of WGU Labs recently spoke about building belonging on campus and in the workplace and two recent meetings. The first was at a faculty workshop at Lehigh University in February focused on fostering student belonging. The second was at the 2022 Kansas Workforce Development and Education Summit in March where he spoke about the importance of fostering belonging in the workplace.

Fotuhi, who has a PhD in psychology with a specialization in motivation and performance, shared a wealth of knowledge about what belonging is, how to foster it, and how to get messaging right. These key evidence-based takeaways lead to actionable strategies that education and company leaders can apply to improve the sense of belonging and community in their own organizations.

Key Takeaways

  • Belonging is a fundamental human need. The fundamental need to belong has long been the subject of academic and professional research. Counterintuitively, the need to belong is most salient to us when we experience an absence of belonging and don’t feel like we belong to a group. Because education and work are highly social endeavors, an absence of felt belonging can negatively impact performance.
  • Higher belonging is good for retention – both for students and employees. Research is clear that higher perceived belonging is linked to goal persistence. Among students, feeling a sense of belonging is linked to greater retention and academic outcomes. In the workplace, employees with a higher sense of belonging are similarly more likely to be retained and have greater productivity.
  • Cues to belonging uncertainty where one is unsure if they belong can be particularly impactful to marginalized groups. Research has shown that seemingly small environmental cues that signal a person or group may not be included, such as women seeing stereotypically male décor in computer science classrooms or first generation college students experiencing unnecessarily frustrating college paperwork, can decrease belonging, and ultimately their outcomes.

Actionable Strategies

Luckily, there are actionable approaches to reducing underperformance and ensuring a strong sense of belonging for students and employees. The key is getting the belonging messaging right. Here’s how.

Avoid deficit model framing. Belonging has gained popularity in recent years, to the point where many students and employees will be explicitly told dozens of times that “they belong” before stepping foot on campus or the workplace. After a while, they might actually start to question why they are being told that they belong so many times. Why is the institution going to such lengths to convince them that they do belong?

Effective messaging is critical to change the framing from a deficit model to an asset model. One way to approach this is to bring students in as collaborators and subject matter experts on the feelings and experiences of the transition to college to gather their input.

An important point here is that students are asked to reflect and share about the common challenges and uncertainties they might have experienced during the transition into the new environment. By contextualizing the challenges and uncertainties as qualities of the transition, students are able to see that those feelings and experiences are common, caused by the transition itself, and that they will pass with time. This is a direct contrast to what many might be feeling and thinking during those difficult times, which is  that they feel uncertain because of an innate deficiency in them or their group.

Internalize the message through conversation. Another limitation of common belonging messaging is that the messaging is commonly one-way. The experts – college leaders or employee managers – constantly convey  what the “correct” experience is.

This fails to foster a conversation about their experiences by not taking advantage of their insights about the kinds of feelings and struggles they anticipate encountering as they find their place. To counter this, you can first share examples of others’ belonging experiences to normalize any anticipated challenges they themselves might experience. Then, ask about their own experiences to create a two-way conversation. They are also able to generate potential solutions about how they might resolve any future feelings of belonging uncertainty.

Get the timing right. Early conversations about belonging and belonging uncertainty are critical for shaping perceptions and mindsets about new environments. Students or employees with early experiences that confirm belonging uncertainty can quickly become solidified and resistant to change.

Conversations about common experiences that many face when entering a new group or experience, as mentioned above, can equip newcomers with an alternative narrative that better allows them to suspend, even if momentarily, the conclusion that they don’t belong.

When the negative conclusion about one’s belonging is delayed, it opens a person up to stay engaged with the resources and people around them to make those meaningful connections and boost belonging over time. But to have those large effects, we have to get the message right early on.

The College Innovation Network at WGU Labs is dedicated to supporting institutions throughout the full life cycle of EdTech implementation, from needs identification to research evaluation. Interested in joining? Find out more: