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Absence of a Sense of Belonging in Organizations

by Anne and Heather Dranitsaris, PhD and Dranitsaris-Hilliard January 10, 2013

Employees tend to stay in organizations where they are able to be involved and empowered; where the organization is attuned to, and shares in their values, and allows them to participate in a larger system that provides meaning to their lives. As employees can no longer depend on the organization for a sense of belonging, their sense of security must come from other places, in order for them to remain in the work setting and thrive.

The absence of a sense of belonging leaves employees increasingly anxious and uncertain about themselves. This feeling of disconnection causes a multitude of primitive responses in the emotional system of humans, and results in the activation of defenses against anxiety and other emotions associated with an absence of attachment. The emotional energy of employees is channeled into unconscious survival strategies, with their accompanying defensive emotional states and behaviours. This occurs naturally within individuals, as a means of attempting to reconnect. Other emotions that arise out of their inability to connect and identify with the core intention of the organization are those of isolation, fear of abandonment, vulnerability, and shame.

The use of defenses against anxiety can also translate to projecting negative attributes onto one employee, or a single member of an organization, or an entire group. Results of such projections include isolationism, or silo formation. The “good” or idealized qualities are interjected onto the self, or one’s own group. This allows the leader to been seen as a kind, protecting figure, while the person being scapegoated holds all of the negative leadership qualities. Scapegoating is thus a feature of many societies and organizations that enables individuals to deal with internal anxieties as though they originated from the outside, and may therefore be fought against or destroyed.

Organizations often try to create teamwork, collaboration and positive feelings in an attempt to manufacture a sense of belonging, as a way of coping with the loss of intrinsic identity. This tends to result in leaders taking more of a “cheerleading” role with employees, being facilitative and collaborative, and coaching their employees while treating them like peers. This approach, however, does not provide the necessary power structure that employees need to feel safe or to create a sense of belonging, and can result in intensifying the acting-out of negative emotions by employees. Excessive collaboration can never take the place of the reality of authority relations and the cycle of anxiety and defense that come along with it. In fact, organizations that strive to eliminate negative or ambivalent feelings may instead foster the most resentment, mistrust and suspicion.