Seeking to Belong: How the Words of Internal and External Beneficiaries Influence Performance

by Paul Green, Francesca Gino, and Bradley R. Staats

Overview — Employees seek to fulfill a deep and fundamental need to belong at work. Positive words from one’s own colleagues can lead to an increased sense of belonging and can, in turn, create enhanced motivation. Results from experiments involving real-world and laboratory data help support the argument.

Author Abstract

In this paper, we examine how connecting to beneficiaries of one’s work increases performance and argue that beneficiaries internal to an organization (i.e., one’s own colleagues) can serve as an important source of motivation, even in jobs that—on the surface—may seem routine and low on potential impact. We suggest that this occurs because words of beneficiaries strengthen one’s sense of belongingness, a key driver of human behavior. Employees, in fact, seek to belong—and seek to enhance their sense of belongingness in work settings. We conducted two studies using both field and laboratory data from different populations to investigate the psychological consequences and performance benefits of connecting to beneficiaries of one’s work. In a longitudinal field experiment of fruit harvesters, we find that though beneficiary contact with the overall customer did not significantly improve productivity, contact with an internal beneficiary that made connectedness salient yielded a persistent increase in productivity relative to a control group. We validate this effect in the laboratory and provide evidence that the effect is mediated by an enhanced sense of belongingness.

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