As social beings, we all have a fundamental need for a sense of belonging. This need is a crucial aspect of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a psychological motivation theory that presents a set of human needs, explains how they may be interrelated and arranged in an orderly, hierarchical flow. The theory assumes that once lower-level needs are met, individuals can then focus on satisfying higher-level needs such as safety, security, self-esteem, self-actualization, and, importantly, sense of belonging. Figure 1 presents a graphical summary. 

Figure 1. Modified version of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs (Strayhorn, 2019). Source: Author.

Interconnectivity of Levels

However, it is important to note that the levels are not strictly discrete, with a clear differentiation between one level and the next. For instance, humans need food to live (physiological) but approximately 13.5 million (10.2%) of U.S. households faced food insecurity (safety & security) at some point during 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To be sure, the different levels often interact with one another, and satisfying needs in one might lead to fulfillment of needs in other levels or vice versa. There has been healthy debate about the order and flow of needs up-and-down the hierarchy, as well as criticism about the underlying worldview that gives rise to hierarchy in the first place [2]. In my opinion, this interconnectivity is exciting–not just culturally-responsive (although that’s true). It also suggests the importance of organizations developing programs, practices, and services that cut across multiple levels simultaneously (even at the institutional level), thereby boosting sense of belonging among individuals. Figure 2 illustrates this point.

Figure 2. Mapping mentoring programs on workplace sense of belonging. Source: Author.

For instance, an organization that offers a program that allows members to connect with others who share similar interests helps fulfill their need for belonging. Trust-building exercises, get-to-know experiences, sharing advice, and cooperative “doing” (not just learning) have proven effective. Additionally, if this program also provides opportunities for members to volunteer and give back to the community, or learn more about themselves through evidence-based personality assessments and personal interest inventories (e.g., StrengthsQuest) it can fulfill their need for self-esteem, as they self-reflect, contribute to a greater cause, all while also experiencing recognition and respect from others. Furthermore, promising practices can help individuals achieve self-actualization by providing them with opportunities to develop new skills (i.e., upskilling), pursue their passions, or challenge themselves in new ways. One commonly used effective strategy that I’ve seen in my own research and consulting work with businesses and corporations is employee mentoring programs using one-on-one, reverse, group, peer, and up-chain pairing approaches. 

Achieving the Bottom Line

By incorporating these different levels of Maslow’s hierarchy into evidence-based, equity-minded programs and services, organizations can boost workplace belonging, facilitate personal and professional growth, ensure organizational health, improve morale, and provide individuals with a sense of accomplishment and purpose, which translates into higher job satisfaction, lower work-related stress and burnout, as well as fewer sick days and non-medical leave. In turn, members of the organization are more likely to stay engaged, loyal, and committed to the organization’s mission and goals. This all helps companies hit their “bottom line” while people realize their fullest potential, as shown in Figure 3. It’s a “win-win” situation.

Figure 3. Satisfaction of basic human needs, realizing one’s full potential. SOURCE: Sketchplanations.

In conclusion, organizations should develop programs and services that cut across multiple levels of Maslow’s hierarchy to truly enhance sense of belonging among individuals, especially in school and work contexts. Doing so can help foster personal growth and fulfillment, leading to increased engagement and commitment among members. As people recognize and experience true sense of belonging, they are also more likely to connect, make friends, collaborate, cooperate, and innovate, leading to stronger networks and a better sense of community. So, don’t pick one. Rather let’s create conditions, build programs and practices, formulate policies and plans at the organizational level that address employee’s needs at the individual- and group-level using this multi-level view.


The author expresses sincere gratitude for the incredible ideas and feedback shared at his recent keynotes and invited presentations. Front-line insights and contributions from practitioners and leaders have truly enriched my thoughts about workplace belonging. Special thanks to leaders and conference organizers at William & Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Diversity Officers in Higher Education, Bucknell University, and the Learning & the Brain Conference, to name a few.

Author(s)

  • Terrell Strayhorn

    Consultant, DEI Expert, Professor

    Virginia Union University

    Terrell Strayhorn is a professor, public speaker, writer, entrepreneur, and influencer in the fields of education, psychology, corporate training, and community engagement. He contributes to Entrepreneur, AllBusiness, Huffington PostDiverse IssuesThrive GlobalThe TennesseanCharlotte Observer, and more. Dr. Strayhorn is a leading DEI expert, consultant, and life coach who specializes in helping corporations and institutions build cultures of belonging that truly unleash human potential. He is Professor of Education and Psychology at Virginia Union University, where he also serves as Director of Research in the Center for the Study of HBCUs and Principal Investigator of The Belonging Lab.