What matters most: a grounded theory of belongingness at work (2021)
In a world that is still adjusting to the realities of a global pandemic and its impact on the modern workplace, organisations are being forced to reckon with employee wellbeing as an ethical imperative. This is highlighted by the emerging trend of “the great resignation,” with individuals choosing to leave the workplace at unprecedented rates (Cook, 2021). A recent McKinsey study revealed that 51% of departing employees attributed their resignation to a lack of belonging (De Smet et al., 2021). The extant literature suggests that belongingness is a human imperative, a necessary element of a fulfilling life (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Much of the organisational research has focused on mitigating negative relational outcomes such as loneliness and depression and to a lesser extent on exploring ways to maximise positive factors like belongingness (Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2018; Park & Baumeister, 2015). While belongingness and its proximate constructs have been explored in a variety of contexts, a rigorous operational definition remains elusive, and gaps exist in the development of a nomological network that elucidates its precursors and outcomes. Thus, it makes sense to overlay the concept of belongingness on the workplace, a complex social environment where we spend much of our waking lives.
To frame the research, a review of the extant literature explores the historical underpinnings of belongingness and considers how the construct is understood in a variety of contexts, including the workplace. Two qualitative studies investigate employees’ experiences of belongingness at work. Data were collected from in-depth interviews of fifteen participants in the United States and New Zealand. Twelve participants were from large-scale organisations, and three additional participants were added in the second study to explore the emergent themes in the context of small enterprises. A constructivist grounded theory approach is utilised to develop three theoretical categories identified as the unveiled self, the relational self, and the seen self. These ‘dimensions of self’ illuminate the importance of authenticity, meaningful workplace relationships, and recognition of unique contribution as pathways to belongingness at work. The data further reveals the ways in which employees covertly survey the organisational environment for cues and moderate their behaviour accordingly. Limitations of the studies are identified, in addition to recommendations for further research. Finally, this research offers practical implications for organisations seeking to cultivate and maintain cultures of belongingness.
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