Sacrificial Belonging: Always a Trick, Never a Treat.

In September’s newsletter, I focused on the newly identified types of belonging. As a result, I heard from hundreds of you that you felt seen and heard and that this new language gave you a voice you didn’t know you needed. The most overwhelming sentiment conveyed is that people felt that they experienced or are currently experiencing sacrificial belonging. That makes sense because when employees feel misaligned with company values, they are willing to sacrifice their own well-being to align with the company leading to negative well-being.

Sacrificial Belonging occurs when one consciously or subconsciously gives up what they value, including their physical and mental health, for the sake of a company believing that this disequilibrium equates to an authentic experience of belonging. 

In this exploratory study (no specific predominant demographics), participants reported struggling to belong, experienced workplace trauma, and had no one to turn to for help. When this occurred, 65% of said participants sacrificed even more of themselves to the workplace to feel authentic belonging. Ironically, individuals with sacrificial belonging aspire to bring their whole selves to work; they want to be part of something bigger than themselves and earn a paycheck. Data around sacrificial belonging tells us that this type of belonging is experienced on a continuum, meaning that while engaging in sacrificial behavior may seem positive and even noble to some participants, for others, sacrificial behaviors led to adverse personal outcomes.

The Wide Spectrum of Sacrificial Belonging Within the realm of sacrificial belonging, a wide range of perceptions, reasoning, and behaviors occur consciously and subconsciously. Here are some examples expressed through sentiment that will help you (as a company or individual) know and identify some of the signs of sacrificial belonging:

Perception 1: When you work for a company, you have to put the company first.  Example from the study: “I think everyone would say that you would love to spend more time with their biological family. Uh, but the reality is, everyone needs to work. You know, there are bills to pay […] When you join this company, you take on an understanding that you put the company first.” 

Participants described putting the success and well-being of the company over everything, including their own. Some expressed this as wanting to be willing or wanting to do this, ok to sacrifice for the “greater good,” and others were adamant about needing to do this for their livelihood, to support their families. 

Perception 2: Sacrificial belonging makes me feel like I matter. Example from the study: “We have a culture of immediacy, and it is only growing. At one point, I did establish boundaries and set better expectations around my response time, and then I noticed that my boss started assigning juicy work to other people, and that really stressed me out. So, I went back to my old ways, and while it is exhausting, I’m less stressed this way. Now, I find myself finding happiness through being needed. I give up my time, but I am happier to be giving all I can to the company.”

This participant acknowledged that he sacrifices for work (without calling it sacrifice) and associated it with reducing his stress, getting meaty assignments, happiness, and feeling like it makes him feel seen. He said that while it sometimes makes him feel bad about himself, the highs give him the greatest sense of mattering. Ultimately, in the end, we know this can’t be sustained, but in the short term, this feels like a win.

Perception 3: Sacrifice is part of the culture, we’re in it together.  Example from the study: “We stick together because we are all workaholics, we are all sacrificing family time and self-care because we love Company A so much. It makes us feel like we belong together since we are all together at midnight closing deals or working the weekend before a quarter-end close, we are all in it together, giving the company our all. And the company rewards us with stocks and bonuses for what we give up, so it all works out in the end.” 

Everyone’s doing it, my manager expects it, it’s part of the culture, and so on. Truthfully, some don’t know they are sacrificing, and others are well aware and see it as camaraderie. They see it as the quickest path to promotions or feeling valued. When looking at the same study, those with sacrificial belonging more frequently tended towards values alignment that indicated a preference for the company’s values over their own.

How can companies help/do better?  If you are waiting for your employees to tell you that they are sacrificing too much or experiencing sacrificial belonging, think again. One of the worst assumptions that companies make is that employees have the language and vulnerability to express their feelings about belonging. Another mistake is to assume there is only one type of belonging. In this recent study, 34% of employees experienced misaligned belonging that was not defined in prior research and has come to light: dissimulated and sacrificial belonging. 

Belonging is a critical priority for workplace well-being. If you have not already seen it, please read the Workplace Well-Being report from the office of the U.S. Surgeon General. Companies have a responsibility for their employees’ well-being, safety, and security, making belonging an essential focus for the workplace.

Companies need to listen and be clear on their advocacy for employees. 43% of the participants in this exploratory study (no specific predominant demographics) reported that they were struggling to belong. When this occurred, 43% of participants chose to do nothing because of their confusion about where to go and the impact it may have on their livelihood. Make it clear where employees can get the help that they need.

Companies need to be mindful that employees model their managers’ behavior. Managers are the number one influence on employee sense of belonging at work and have a tendency to fall into what Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee refer to as sacrifice syndrome, “a vicious cycle of stress and sacrifice, resulting in mental and physical distress, burnout and diminished effectiveness.” If managers exhibit sacrificial belonging and sacrifice syndrome, so do their employees. They proposed that “because emotions are contagious and people take their cues from leaders, it is all too likely that such personal dissonance can easily spread to the team or even the organization.” 

The magic of caring. Although there are many things managers cannot control, managers can control their empathy, connection, and care. Of these variables, care is the number one factor in a manager-employee relationship that influences an employee’s sense of belonging. Care can look like a lot of things. It can mean I care to know more about you, your aspirations, and your life outside of “the office.” Care can be a manager stopping employees from over-working, especially when they see said employees sacrificing mental and physical health. I’m sure you can think of way more examples. 

When managers model care, you can see employees pay it forward. Likewise, the manager’s attitude and behaviors often manifest in subordinates’ performance. When a manager is closed off, doesn’t make time to connect, and doesn’t show care.  Employees tend to be more cynical about their work and workplace, which causes decreased productivity, belonging uncertainty, and, ultimately, thwarted belonging at work.

What else? I’d love to hear from you. What other examples of sacrificial belonging exist? Tell me in the comments section.

Next month, I’ll dive into dissimulated belonging….stay tuned.

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