Belonging in the Education Workplace
Why ‘belonging’ is so simple yet so powerful
Did you know that something as simple as feeling like you belong can impact your health, happiness, and success? The science is clear – if we feel valued by and connected with our colleagues, then we work harder and more effectively while experiencing more fun and more success at work. What’s more, belonging is contagious – when we’re happy at work, then our colleagues are likely to be happy at work, too.
This is important in any workplace, but it’s of absolute importance in schools where educators have the privilege and responsibility of impacting children’s development. Educators know the power of belonging within the classroom, and they’ll often tell you about the impact small gestures can have on students’ engagement and well-being – things like greeting students at the door and connecting class activities with students’ individual, unique passions. Inversely, educators can also tell heartbreaking stories of students who are rejected or excluded, and the impacts this can have on their engagement and self-esteem.
The same is true in the adult world. Think about the best teams and the best workplaces you’ve ever been a part of. What made these teams and workplaces stand out? My guess is that your first thoughts don’t revolve around comfortable furniture or an environment where you can get a whole lot of paperwork done. You’re probably thinking about PEOPLE, and – if you were to tell me about these people – you’d probably use words related to ‘belonging’ and ‘connection’ such as “family,” “friendship,” and “trust.”
BELONGING IS BASIC HUMAN BIOLOGY
Our need for belonging is wired into our biology. Human beings aren’t the strongest nor the fastest animals on the planet and we could’ve never survived as a species if we didn’t find a way to get along and work together. To survive, we’ve evolved over millions of years to eventually become a deeply social species. Social psychologist Matthew Lieberman, for instance, tells us that our need to belong is so powerful to the point that it’s one of the primary drivers of human behaviour. If you think about the early days of evolution, then this makes total sense. If we didn’t cooperate with each other and form communities instead of hunting each other down, then we wouldn’t have survived. Period.
The Secret to Health, Happiness and Success Together | Gail Markin | TEDxLangleyED
Earlier this year, I did a TEDx presentation about the power of belonging and connection. In preparation, I explored simple gestures that can promote belonging and impact workplaces in powerful ways. For example, did you know that when you perform an act of kindness towards another person, ‘feelgood’ chemicals are released in YOUR brain, in the OTHER PERSON’s brain, and in the brains of ANYONE ELSE who just so happened to witness the interaction? Essentially, we have the power to impact each other’s brain chemistry through our words and actions.
Try this short experiment:
Turn towards someone near you, look directly at them, and give off a big smile. You’ve literally just messed with their brain chemicals!
STRESS IS CONTAGIOUS – BUT BELONGING AND HUMAN CONNECTION ARE ALSO CONTAGIOUS
Just as smiling and acts of kindness release ‘feelgood’ chemicals, stressful circumstances can have quite the opposite effect. An interesting study on stress contagion in the classroom was conducted by UBC researchers Dr. Eva Oberle and Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, who measured teachers’ stress levels and the cortisol levels (i.e. stress hormones) of their students taken from saliva samples. Unsurprisingly, there was a significant correlation between the two – as teachers’ stress went up, so did students’ stress levels, and vice versa. Instinctively, teachers know that if they’ve had a stressful morning at home (or if one of their students has had a rough start to the day), then stressful energy is likely to spread throughout the classroom.
But there’s also good news. If you lower your cortisol levels – through, for example, feeling a sense of belonging and connection with other people around you – then you can actually boost your immune system. Most people already know that when our stress levels go up, then we’re also more susceptible to illness and long-term stress, which can have a huge impact on both our physical and mental health. Yet, belonging and social connection are actually more powerful predictors of life expectancy than other important health measures like levels of smoking and obesity. So, if you want to stay healthy and live longer, cultivate belonging!
SUCCESSFUL TEAMS LEVERAGE “BELONGING CUES” TO CREATE A WORKPLACE THAT ENCOURAGES CREATIVITY AND RISK-TAKING
Belonging and social connection are also powerful predictors of team success. When we feel valued and cared for by our colleagues, then we also feel safe. When we feel safe at work, then we feel empowered to be creative, to take risks, to ask questions, and to share ideas. To be truly successful, we need to know that our teams have our backs and will not embarrass, reject, or punish us for speaking up, trying new things, or doing things differently.
Let’s go back to the classroom again for a moment. Educators want students to know that it’s okay to ask questions, to be curious, to take risks, and to make mistakes. They work tirelessly to setup structures and conditions that create a safe environment for students to do their best work. Once again, we need to apply this wisdom from the classroom within our workplaces.
In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle tells us about certain behaviours which he calls “belonging cues.” These are powerful cues that allow people to know that they matter while having big impacts on how they feel and perform in group settings. Daniel had the opportunity to study some of the world’s highest performing teams, and found that simple things like working in close proximity to your colleagues, eye contact, taking turns, and other small gestures communicate three key messages:
- That your INTERACTIONS matter. You show your colleagues that you’re invested in them and that your interactions are valuable.
- That THEY matter. You show your colleagues that they are unique and valued.
- That the RELATIONSHIP will continue. You show your colleagues that your interactions aren’t one-off and that you’re committed to developing strong relationships with them in the long-term.
This research is compelling and, once again, it fits with what we already know instinctively as human beings – that we crave positive social interaction and connection with other people. Think back again to the best workplaces and the best teams you’ve ever been a part of, and I bet you can remember laughing with your colleagues and having a lot of fun throwing out creative ideas. You can probably also remember times when you struggled through something or messed something up, and how your team was there to support you. These are the types of workplaces that are needed more than ever in our schools and school districts. If we want to engage, retain, and inspire people in the education profession, then – just like students in the classroom – educators need to feel safe in their workplaces and on their teams in order to be happier, healthier, and more successful.
Photo: Adobe Stock
References and Further Reading
Oberle & Schonert-Reichl, 2016, Stress contagion in the classroom? The link between classroom teachers’ burnout and morning cortisol in elementary school students, Social Science & Medicine.
Daniel Coyle, 2018 The Culture Code. Random House Books.
Matthew Leiberman, 2013, Social: Why our Brains are Wired to Connect. Crown Publishing Company.