Benefits of feeling like you belong

Not the actual Olympic Marathoners

Not the actual Olympic Marathoners

I love it when a story pops up that connects with my work.


This past weekend, the US Olympic marathon trials occurred.  This event is the selection process for the team that the country will send to Rio in August.  During the women's trial, two training partners' experience inspired a story in New York Magazine

From the gun, two runners stood out in the women’s race, Shalane Flanagan and Amy Cragg. The two are friends and training partners, and on Saturday they matched from head to toe: identical racing kits, identical visors, even identical running-shorts tan lines. The pair kept toward the front of the pack, eventually breaking away from the rest for an impressive lead toward the end of the race. And then Flanagan started to flag, her slowdown especially apparent next to Cragg’s consistently strong strides. But instead of leaving her friend in the dust, Cragg stayed by her side. She ran ahead and got two water bottles — one for herself, one for Flanagan — and didn’t leave Flanagan behind until the very end of the race. Even as she eventually pulled away, she kept turning her head, as if to make sure her friend was still chugging along.


Flanagan went on to finish first, Cragg third.  Both made the Olympic team.  The author of the article goes on to point out a sports reporter suggesting that Flanagan would not have made the team without Cragg, and to argue that there is some science that supports this claim. 


The supporting science is research on motivation, social identity and minimal cues.   Stanford researchers Priyanka B. Carr and Gregory M. Walton ran a series of studies that found that feeling like part of a team made individuals work harder on tasks, even when the goal was unachievable.  Now, this finding in itself isn't that surprising.  Most of us have been on a team and felt that motivation as we work side-by-side, suffering and succeeding as a group. 


The interesting thing about this research was that the participants were alone.  Some were just told that they were part of a team, and some were not told anything.  Just being told they were part of a team increased effort by almost 50% in the experimental group. 


Research on groups shows that this isn't a fluke.  When we feel like a part of a group, huge benefits follow:



Each of these experimental results happened without extensive 'team building'.  The experimental conditions were often implicit - a seating arrangement or reports of a fictional personality test - and still resulted in group effects.  It seems, as humans, we want to feel part of a group, and we see the opportunity to group in the smallest of details. 


So people want to be a part of groups, and seeing yourself as a part of a group has benefits in multiple arenas.  What can a leader do with this information?

  • Find genuine connections with people that become cues you are in the same groups: shared hobbies, experiences, other uncommonalities.
  • Make opportunities to come together - even eating together has benefits. 
  • Because small cues matter, and small cues are forgotten over time, keep in touch with those you value your connection with, even if it's just a small reminder of your connection.