While most agree that belonging is a fundamental human need, few agree on one reliable and accurate way to measure belonging. Belonging has been measured as a sense of community, a feeling of connectedness to others, a sense of being accepted, valued, or included by others, perceptions of social support, feelings of being respected, a sense that one's presence in a group matters, and on and on. Belonging has also been measured directly using the word belonging in survey items.
Of the many different approaches to measuring belonging, one thing is clear -- the words we use to drill into what it means to belong in any organization or setting -- are imperfect at best.
The Engineering CAReS study has not set out to identify which of these measures is the best, the most accurate, or the most applicable to engineering, but instead to ensure that items we use to measure belonging are conceptually related to common themes among these different definitions of belonging. While statistically exploring which survey items from the CAReS study are suitable for understanding belonging and which are not may seem like an necessary but mundane exercise in data analysis, interesting insights can emerge from such exploratory factor analysis.
In Phase 1 (our tool development phase of Engineering CAReS), we used the following survey items to measure belonging:
While these items seem to cover many of the ways that belonging has been defined and measured (in previous research studies) and seem like they should come together as a single measure, they do not -- at least when engineers and computer scientists are reporting their experiences about their jobs. Instead, only three of the above items seem to capture belonging:
In our Phase 1 analysis, sense of community within an organization is distinctly different from sense of belonging. While sense of belonging may influence sense of community or vice versa, they remain distinctly different measures. The items that measure sense of community are:
Feeling supported (Item #1) and perceiving that people in an organization are friendly (Item #5) had significant cross-loadings in our Phase 1 analysis. This means that both of these items are measuring more than thing and couldn't be used in future surveys.
So, what's the big deal here?
Well, for one, no matter what we label it, feelings of being accepted and comfortable at work are different from feeling a sense of togetherness and community at the organizational level. While they may be correlated to one another, they are distinctly different.
Put another way, while an organization may draw its employees together toward a common goal and put together regular evens to bring employees together, that does not necessarily mean that all employees will develop a sense of belonging as a result.
Have you ever gone to a company party that is well attended and still feel like a fish out of water? Our data says that's a perfectly normal possibility.