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With great power comes great … belonging?

February 3, 2022 - 7 min read

Managers feel a greater sense of belonging than individual contributors

Depending on your perspective, the US is currently experiencing a labor shortage or a quality job shortage. But the upshot is the same: lower-paying jobs are becoming harder to fill and to keep filled, and people are finally asking why. 

Long hours, low and stagnant wages, and insufficient benefits are clearly major contributing factors to this exodus. Sadly, none of these are new or recent developments for individual contributors in the modern American workplace, whether on the frontlines of serving customers or keeping the wheels of the organization turning. Recent events have simply exacerbated already stressed systems, pushing these issues to the breaking point. 

One thing that has changed — and is also contributing to the turnovers, resignations, and reshufflings — is our sense of being connected, seen, valued, and accepted, being an important part of something bigger. 

Belonging in our work lives appears to be on a steady downward trend.   

According to our research, one in four employees don’t feel a sense of belonging. 46% of employees feel less connected to their company now than before the pandemic. We were curious to see if dropping rates of belonging were felt equally between individual contributors (ICs) and those in management. Could lower belonging be contributing to lower intent to stay among ICs?

To find out, we analyzed data from 9800 BetterUp members and grouped them into three categories based on their responsibilities: individual contributors, frontline managers, and managers of managers.

What the data say:

The data reveals clear differences in several measures of belonging based on the respondents status within their respective companies. Across all measures, ICs report the lowest on measures of belonging while managers of managers are consistently the highest.

While the difference between each group was pretty consistent in each facet of belonging, two areas stood out from the rest.

When asked how much they agreed with the statement “I feel valued at my organization,” managers of managers answered affirmatively far more than either group, nearly double the difference between ICs and frontline managers. 

One reason could be that as their responsibilities shift from leading people to leading strategy, managers of managers contribute in ways that are felt more acutely in their organizations. The impact attributed to them is visible and significant. They also typically receive credit for the positive results achieved by those beneath them. 

Standing out can be harder for ICs. Their work is often a small part of broader initiatives, making their individual contributions harder to spot and celebrate. Ultimately this leads to both a perception, and an actual tangible experience, of being valued far less than those higher up.

The second major discrepancy was the degree of agreement with the statement “I feel connected with members of my team.” Both frontline managers and managers of managers answered affirmatively far more than ICs. 

One reason for this could be that due to the nature of their roles, direct reports regularly interact with their superiors, even in remote work environments. Whether it be check-ins, 1:1s, or quarterly reviews, communication happens on a fairly routine basis. This isn’t necessarily the case with ICs. Unless their work requires them to collaborate with others, they often don’t enjoy the same level of interaction with their peers on distributed teams. This can contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness. 

All of this suggests that, among other benefits, with more power comes a greater sense of belonging.

Why this matters:

When people feel a sense of belonging at work, they aren’t just happier, they’re more productive, confident, and efficient. Research shows that a sense of belonging leads to a 56% increase in job performance and a 50% reduction in the risk of employee turnover. Fostering belonging even brings down sick days by 75%—in other words, it keeps employees engaged and excited to show up to work. And engaged employees are good for business. Gallup research found that engaged employees are 22% more profitable.

The problem is when feelings of belonging are only felt by those in management positions. A greater sense of belonging for those higher up sets off a virtuous cycle that allows them to achieve even more success, power — and belonging. The inverse — low sense of belonging leading to lower job performance and lower engagement — does not bode well for ICs or the organizations that need them.

While there seem to be several reasons for the high attrition rate among ICs, there is a strong  correlation between a low sense of belonging and a low intent to stay. If companies want to retain and attract strong IC talent, they must make building a culture of belonging a priority.

Fortunately, professional coaching has been proven to help. We found that people who start out low in belonging see improvement of 52% in just 3-4 months of using BetterUp. When belonging improves, intent to stay moves up by nearly 10% on average. Additionally, coaches help build skills in related areas that support belonging including improving work life balance by 46% and stress management by 90%. 

And don’t forget the role of managers on whether employees experience belonging. When managers receive coaching in inclusive leadership skills, the entire team benefits from an improved culture of belonging. 

Feeling included or part of a group is a basic human need. 

With the rise of hybrid work, a shaky economy, and the pandemic still hanging over our heads, it’s more important than ever for people to feel connected to each other and their work. Companies have an incredible opportunity to help everyone in their organization gain a sense of belonging so they can feel and perform their best.


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Published February 3, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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