We’ve been talking a lot this week about this study from McKinsey, which provides some fascinating insight into why employees are leaving their jobs in droves, and how businesses can turn ‘The Great Attrition’ into ‘The Great Attraction’.

A lot of our clients ask for our help with maximising attraction and minimising attrition. It’s a competitive marketplace right now, and in many sectors prospective employees are in the driving seat. Attraction and attrition are useful bellwethers of business health and employee happiness, because they’re rational, objective-led things that can be monitored, measured and tracked over time. But it’s easy to forget that we’re also talking about people – individuals with needs and attributes as unique and complex as their fingerprints. The minute we reduce them to numbers on a spreadsheet, we fundamentally de-value them.

The McKinsey study tells us that employers think the reasons their employees are fleeing for pastures new are also rational, functional things – salary, benefits, perks. Conveniently, these are all things that are quick to fix – a hike in salary, a retention bonus, maybe free Friday cupcakes and a beer fridge. Or if you don’t have deep pockets, they’re easy to shrug off as just market forces, nothing we can do about it.

But actually, that doesn’t bear out in the research at all. According to McKinsey, “The top three factors employees cited as reasons for quitting were that they didn’t feel valued by their organizations (54 percent) or their managers (52 percent) or because they didn’t feel a sense of belonging at work (51 percent).”

I mean, that’s quite a sad indictment on the leaders of US corporations and UK Plc, isn’t it? So let’s talk about belonging, because lots of employers are not. The reasons are obvious – it’s vague and intangible, it’s about emotions, it’s not something you can calculate or measure on a spreadsheet. Facts don’t care about your feelings, and in many cases, neither does your employer.

But a sense of ‘not belonging’ at work is real, and sometimes the impact can be deep-seated and damaging. My personal experiences are miniscule in the scheme of things, primarily because I’m a cishet middle-class white woman with sharp elbows. There was one job that felt like a record scratch from day one – my manager was detached and absent, my teammates clearly didn’t want me there, the office culture was weird and oppressive and uncomfortable, nobody listened or supported each other. I slogged it out for a few months before handing in my notice, explaining exactly why I was going. My manager offered me more money, which very much proved my point. I’ve never driven out of a car park so fast.

So what IS belonging, and how can businesses be better at nurturing it? Let’s start with a definition – belonging is a feeling of security and support at work, when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion and identity. It helps people form and maintain lasting, positive relationships with their colleagues, their employer and even their work. It drives people’s commitment, motivation, pride and advocacy.

What’s interesting about having a sense of belonging is that it matters to everyone, regardless of age, gender, gender identity, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation. But studies also show that that correlation between belonging and employee engagement is stronger for underrepresented groups. The McKinsey study backs this up – employees who classified themselves as non-White or multiracial were more likely than their White counterparts to say they had left because they didn’t feel they belonged at their companies”. This is no surprise – a culture of belonging comes from the top, and more often than not the top does not reflect the essence of diversity and inclusion. I would love to think that I won’t have to write that line for many more years, but here we are.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of business leaders who are brilliant at making employees feel like they belong – there absolutely are. And here’s the thing: the things that employees want – the things that make them feel like they belong and want to get out of bed for their job every day – cost nothing. And more importantly, they have more longevity than short term bonuses and salary increases.

Employees want to feel part of a shared vision and purpose; they want to be listened to and included, they want to be trusted to do their job, they want to form collaborative and positive relationships with others. They want to be able to bring their best selves to work every day, and be respected as unique individuals, regardless of their background or demographic profile. Fundamentally, they want to feel like they matter. If I think back to the jobs I’ve moved on from over a long career, I can easily remember which of these factors was the catalyst for change. As with everything else, being valued is about so much more than what’s on your monthly payslip.

Obviously you’ll never get 100% of people to feel like they belong 100% of the time…but that’s no reason not to try. Change must be conscious – an acceptance that if we’re not actively inclusive, we’re probably being unintentionally exclusive. It starts with acknowledgement and understanding, followed by listening initiatives and open and honest channels for feedback and collaboration. It’s an eternal commitment that flourishes and grows over time, rather than a tick box exercise, because our people – real people – will not tolerate management by numbers.

Done properly, it will benefit productivity, growth, workplace wellbeing, absence, attraction and attrition – all those things you can measure on that spreadsheet. So everyone’s happy, right?

What do you think? Get in touch, we’d love to know.