Why we need to belong

Not being picked for a team, public humiliation, solitary confinement: these are some of our deepest fears and harshest forms of punishment. Why? Because human belonging demands we’re accepted and included, we crave being part of a social system or tribe.

Understanding what drives human belonging can help you understand some human behaviours – including those which go against our best interests.

It’s in our genes

Being part of a tribe or a social system is a survival mechanism. When our brains were evolving, back when our ancestors roamed the savannah, the lone wanderers did not contribute to the gene pool, even if they did survive in the wild. So, we inherited genes that tell us to stay in the tribe!

This DNA is still with us, motivating us to belong and to feel: you will die if you are not part of that group!

Even in the 21st century

These days, we still feel good and safe when we know we are a part of a family, a team, a friendship group, a company, an organisation or maybe all of those. In fact, a lack of belonging can lead to mental health challenges. We get the brain chemicals of dopamine and oxytocin when we feel that we belong; without these chemicals we can become unhappy and even depressed.

The implications

There are great upsides that serve us at work. It feels great to be in a team and to co-create alongside others; we thrive when we all feel a part of the same team, heading in the same direction.

But this also means that our brain will direct us to do whatever is necessary to belong and to not risk being rejected.

  • We will avoid speaking the truth to someone who has power to reject us.
  • We avoid giving feedback or having the difficult conversation we know is necessary for fear of breaking relationship.
  • We might violate our own values to be in the in crowd (e.g., working for the cool company) and while we belong, we might also be resentful and quietly destructive.

Those things can destroy teams and collaboration but that is the harsh reality of our need to belong.

What about you?

Everyone is slightly different; here are some thought questions to help you get curious about your own need for belonging and the impact that might have:

  • Where do you get your sense of belonging?
  • How might you avoid the risk of rejection?
  • What does that cost you?

To learn more about how we can help build your team and company culture, please contact us.

Leadership Development