How to Feel Like You Belong No Matter Where You’re Working

Feel Included from Anywhere in a Global Organization

Aug 20, 2020
As Featured In 
Journal of Applied Psychology

When an organization’s employees are far flung – at outposts around the world in a multinational company, or, more recently, working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic – one of the best ways for individuals to feel connected and included is through efforts of their own, finds new research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

The research, forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology, shows how employees scattered around the globe can initiate networking activities, in conjunction with support from managers, to create their own sense of belonging in an organization.

Hui Liao, Smith Dean’s Professor in Leadership and Management, and Debra L. Shapiro, the Clarice Smith Professor of Management, worked with Smith PhD candidate Zhishuang Guan and two Smith PhD alums, Crystal Farh, now at the University of Washington, and Jiseon Shin, now at Sungkyunkwan University. They used network data from more than 350 workers dispersed across 33 multinational subsidiary sites of a Fortune Global 500 company. Their findings demonstrate how employees scattered around the globe feel more tied to their organization by making their own efforts to network with others.

“That disconnected feeling can be particularly acute for employees in subsidiary countries, who feel they are ‘out of sight; out of mind’ for their headquarter counterparts,” says Liao.

The findings could be transformative for teams across multinational corporations (MNCs), say the researchers. The findings also suggest a role for managers who value inclusion.

“Those leaders can lean into their own social capital to jumpstart the process for employees who might otherwise feel adrift,” says Shapiro.

The researchers say employees should focus on building professional career advice ties with others in the same global functional area because they can develop virtually and span distances. For example, a data analyst located in India working for a U.S.-headquartered company could give advice to a U.S. colleague headed to a Bangalore assignment. Or an employee in the United Kingdom might share technical guidance with a colleague in China.

The researchers find that being the one giving the advice, rather than receiving it, is better for building a personal sense of inclusion with the company. They say this is because people who take the initiative to give professional advice get noticed.

“When many others in their functional network name them as the ‘go-to’ person for professional advice, they feel more valued and respected as an ‘insider’ and consequently feel more included,” say the researchers.

The research shows that an employee’s sense of inclusion is particularly strong after giving professional advice to colleagues located in the headquarter country. They speculate this is because the home country is the center of the company’s activities and where most high-status employees are located.

The researchers outline strategies for employees, whether located in the headquarter country or outside, to enhance their own inclusion, and ways for their managers to help:

For Employees Located in the Headquarter Country:
Build positive relationships with well-connected site leaders in the headquarter country, say the researchers. That person provides legitimacy and increases the likelihood that an employee will also be seen as a trusted source.

“Having coffee with one senior leader can yield better results than being connected to a roomful of college interns,” says Liao. “And having a positive relationship with a senior leader who is a source of career advice to many HQ-country colleagues is better for building your own inclusion-enhancing relationships.”

For Employees Located Elsewhere:
Find ways to facilitate professional advice ties to boost your own profile and create opportunities to connect with headquarters, say the researchers.

“One of the best ways to do that is to engage in boundary-spanning through cross-border work – that is, work on projects with people outside of one’s own country,” says Liao. “Such cross-border work can occur in person – for instance, through traditional expatriation, short-term assignments, and frequent visits to other countries – or through virtual collaboration, especially now, given the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic.”

But it takes effort, she says.

“Some people go to mixers but don’t mix. Instead, they huddle with people they already know and then leave early. Expatriates do something similar when they travel abroad but fail to immerse themselves in the local culture.”

She says employees located outside of the HQ country have to take the risk of diving into unfamiliar situations and potentially making cross-cultural blunders in the process.

Having a site leader who works to boost employees’ visibility also helps.

For Managers:
Site leaders usually have clout at headquarters and can play a central role in building up their employees as viable sources of professional advice, finds the research.

“These managers can tap their global networks and ‘loan’ their clout to less visible employees by serving as references, sponsors or brokers for them,” says Shapiro “They can also design projects that cut across departments, job functions and time zones. Then they can recruit participants and make introductions.”

Site leaders could also make participation in cross-border projects the default option, forcing subsidiary employees to opt-out, rather than opt-in. They can design those projects to promote collaboration within functional areas.

The researchers say managers should also think about dispersed team members in their diversity and inclusion efforts.

“Ultimately, everyone wins when people in global organizations feel included,” the researchers write. “Diverse viewpoints that otherwise might be stifled instead cross oceans, change minds and drive innovation.”

Read more: “Out of sight and out of mind? Networking strategies for enhancing inclusion in multinational organizations” is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.


About the Author(s)

Hui Liao

Dr. Hui Liao is the endowed Smith Dean's Professor in Leadership and Management at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. Before joining Maryland, she was on the faculties of the Rutgers University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She received her Ph.D. with concentrations in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and her BA in International Economics from the Renmin University of China.

Debra L. Shapiro

Debra L. Shapiro (Ph.D. Northwestern U) is the Clarice Smith Professor at the U of Maryland (UMD), formerly the Willard Graham Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill where she was 1986-2003. Debra has led UNC's and MD's business schools' PhD Programs (as Associate Dean at UNC from 1998-2001 and UMD from 2008-2011).

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