Humans are social creatures. We want to be part of a group. This innate need to belong arose from our primate ancestry, as it served us better to organise and live in groups than it did to live alone. First, it was safer as together we could ward off tigers and other dangers. Second, we could pool our resources to achieve more than what one person could do alone. Finally – and most importantly – we could learn from each other. The ability to learn from each other and pass this knowledge down through the generations has been instrumental in our development as a species.
We can see these benefits of living and working in groups in outcomes we value in today’s world. We’re safer when we work together to respond to threats and to care for each other when we’re sick or elderly. We pool our resources, allowing us to build skyscrapers, advance technology and solve complex problems such as the treatment of illnesses. And, of course, we continue to learn from each other especially as so much of our work is now organised through a team structure.
It is not surprising then that belonging has become a fundamental human need. We are hard-wired to belong and to be part of a group, as it serves our basic human needs of safety, affiliation and uncertainty reduction. But being part of a group also bestows other benefits1 and two are particularly relevant for our career: self-knowledge; and self-continuity.
First, we describe ourselves through the groups that we belong to, and in doing so we reinforce how we understand ourselves, that is, our self-knowledge. Groups are particularly useful because they give us objective markers to describe ourselves. When we introduce ourselves to someone for the first time we typically describe ourselves in terms of who we belong to such as “I am a nurse” or “I work for Google” or “I manage logistics”. Part of our sense of who we are is derived from our membership to a social group and the value and emotional significance we place on that membership.
A poignant example is being retrenched from an organisation, which can challenge our self-view across time. I’ve had people say to me things like: “but I’ve always been a good worker and good workers don’t lose their jobs” or “I had one more corporate gig left in me before I retire, so now what do I do?“. Often it’s only when we lose our connection that we realise how important belonging was to us.
Our careers provide us with a range of groups to belong to (see endnote on career communities) yet most people remain passive and do not proactively look to join other groups. The most common group is the organisation we work for, and organisational identification with a raft of positive outcomes such as cooperation, effort, participation and decision making.
Another common group to which we belong is our occupation or profession. Occupations are important as they give us metaphorical shelter in the labour market by providing us with a place to work and advocating for the importance of our work. They also give us access to knowledge. For many of us we’ve spent years, decades even, studying and practicing in a particular field. We go along to conferences to further develop our skills and meet other people doing similar work. For many professionals, their network is almost entirely comprised of people in and around their profession. This is good in the sense that it provides a sense of belonging to a collective but problematic when we are forced, or choose, to leave the profession. For some people their profession is like the proverbial golden handcuffs: it pays good money, but they don’t enjoy doing it anymore and don’t know what else they could do.
The world of work is changing resulting in a gradual diffusion of boundaries. For example, organisations are increasingly blurred at the edges as individuals engage through different employment arrangements such as part-time, casual, contract, or contingent. Occupational boundaries too are increasingly permeable as individuals move in, through, and out depending on their work activities. It is increasingly difficult to see where one occupation finishes and another begins. The rise in blended occupational degrees highlights this trend. Think digital forensics, biotechnology ethics, and legal technologies.
No longer can we sit back passively in our career and let groups form around us. The company we work for will change, the country or city where we work will change. Our occupation will probably change. And every time it does our group changes and we have to start again.
Instead it’s time to be proactive. To craft our own diverse group from which we can derive a sense of belonging. There is a great deal of value in a network of contacts, who can share new ideas, different opportunities and allow us to be more adaptable to change. These are people who we have met in the past that are important to us in some way. The key is to keep relationships current by maintaining regular contact. There is great satisfaction to be had from a good conversation with someone we like and respect.
Polly Parker and her colleagues identified ten different types of career communities. Each of these represent opportunities for us to feel a sense of belonging:
company; industrial; occupational; regional; ideological; project; alumni; support; family; and virtual
 Ashforth, B. E. 2001. Role transitions in organizational life: An identity-based perspective. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Ashforth, B.E., S.H. Harrison and K.G. Corley (2008) ‘Identification in organizations: an examination of four fundamental questions’, Journal of Management, 34(3), pp. 325–374.
Parker, P., M.B. Arthur and K. Inkson (2004) ‘Career communities: a preliminary exploration of member-defined career support structures’, Journal of Organizational Behavior, 25(4), pp. 489–514.
This blog is part of our Meaningful Work series. Click here to read the first two blogs in the series.