Social Psychology - Motive One 'Belonging' - Part One - 'Belongingness' and 'Social Cohesion'

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Social Psychology - Motive One 'Belonging' - Part One - 'Belongingness' and 'Social Cohesion'

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Published by Laurence Nicholson in Change · 17 October 2023
Tags: #change#socialpsych
The Core Social Psychology Motives in Change Management Series
Core Social Motive One – Belonging

By Laurence Nicholson

Part One - ‘Belongingness’ and ‘Social Cohesion’

(For the audio podcast, click HERE)

People (individuals) have a natural drive to form social bonds and expend effort to maintain them, primarily because of being social animals. Through such social connections (connectedness) people can be, and are, unified, and this unification is stimulated by goals and interests they have in common; a common interest or a common enemy elicit the same stimulation of the desire to be unified.

In 1954, Gordon Allport, one of the pioneers of social psychology, defined Social Psychology as “..the scientific attempt to understand and explain how the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of other human beings” (Allport & Lindzey, 1954, p.5). Why am I quoting this? Well if you consider the aforementioned desire and drive for unifying with others, and the title of this piece, “Belonging”, it should be clear that if this, the most fundamental of the core social motives within organisational behaviour and change, is to be achieved it can only be aided by an understanding of the psychological, emotional and physical effects of the presence of others, actual or perceived, and conversely their absence.

Whenever there is a cohesion, even if it just perceived, it has an influence on the behaviours of the individual persons, and the group persons, through the seemingly simple sense of belonging and the intrinsic boost to both individual and group morale it brings.

Within the change management theory ‘need-to-belong’, self-esteem is explained as the personally established (internal) measure of our individual chance of having good relationships (Van Lange et al., 2012, p.121). This presence or lack of belonging, ‘belongingness’ if you like, generally has a profound effect on our cognitive processes and emotional patterns, which is often easy to see and feel; just think back to a time when you felt ‘outside’ of the social group in a past situation, and remember how you felt and what the foundations were to any decisions or thoughts you had as a result.

Establishing an environment within any change management that offers this sense of belonging, will be a positive contributor to the journey, especially when we know a shared vision (both between the group individuals, and sometimes more importantly as communicated by the leaders of the change) or some collective sense of mission, is a positive factor in realising the change desired. Walton, Cohen, Cwir & Spencer (2012) showed in their research that even the merest sense of a social connectedness can lead to better acceptance, and even adoption, of the goals and drives of others, in this case the leadership.

What is interesting is that there are a number of social psychological theories and concepts that can be seen operating within ‘belonging’, including

• Conformity (individuals will conform to a certain degree so as to fit into a group)
• Group think (desire to maintain harmony and conformity within the group)
• Social identity (being part of the group)
• Social exchange (this primary desire to be a group member drives people to search for social contact and to maximise the value of such and minimise the risks)

Belonging(ness), as described, plays a key role in organisational change key themes such as shared vision or mission (as mentioned previously), organisational culture and change capacity (to adapt).

As a consequence of change within an organisation, the sense of belonging can be tested at both individual and group levels, which can easily influence social identity (including identity within the organisation), and thus the social cohesion. If the change also leads to a reduction and subsequent scarcity of resources, this will further impact social cohesion and reduce prosocial behaviours, from the perspective of the organisation leadership. It could simultaneously increase cohesion and prosocial behaviours within the individuals and groups, however, due to a collective sense of a common enemy or challenge as understood within the theory of ‘terror management’.

Now we have looked at 'belongingness' and its application to change, let us now consider what is meant by social cohesion.

Social cohesion, a concept from the days of Emile Durkheim (late 19th and early 20th centuries), is often analysed within the life-cycle of social integration, stability and subsequent disintegration (Chan, To, & Chan, 2006). It is seen within social psychology as a trait that combines with others to influence the way a group operates, and has been defined by three core dimensions, these being:

• Quality of social relations (trust, diversity acceptance, and participation)
• Identification with the social entity
• Orientation towards the common good (social order, responsibility, and solidarity)

When thinking about social cohesion, it is important to note the concept of social norms, which are the generally accepted ways of thinking and behaving agreed upon by the group in respect of the dimensions, and the glue that can maintain the performance of the group overall.

Within organisational change, social (or group) cohesion is generally found to be more positively associated with performance, due to the findings that a cohesive group will be more motivated to be successful and thus participate more fully and enthusiastically in its activities (Evans & Dion, 1991), which is why it is at the core of change and performance as an organisational activity, so much so that Connor (1992) stated:

“Successful change is rooted in commitment. Unless key participants in a transition are committed to both attaining the goals of the change, and paying the price those goals entail, the project will ultimately fail. In fact, most change failures trace back to a lack of commitment, with obvious symptoms like sponsors terminating projects, and more subtle signs such as target apathy as leading indicators” (p. 147)

He also went on to say:

“Given that committed people will devote the time, money, endurance, persistence, loyalty and ingenuity necessary, it is easy to see why commitment is critical for successful change. It is the glue that provides the vital bond between people and change goals. It is the source of energy that propels resilient people and organisations through the process at the fastest, most effective pace possible - the optimum speed of change” (p. 148).

So we have seen how ‘belongingness’ and ‘social cohesion’, part of the superior element of Belonging, are crucial parts of change management, and need to be included as foundational dimensions to any change activity. In the next article, ‘’conformity’ and ‘social identity’ are explained and their impacts on success in a change programme are considered.

As always, leave me comments, good bad or indifferent, by email or against the article (on the ‘blog’ page if you are listening to the podcast), and watch out for the next topic in a few weeks.



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