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Blog: A Sense of Belonging

Impactful Research on the Newcomer Experience and Advice for Leaders and Firms

Professor Tianna Barnes
Professor Tianna Barnes


Fostering a culture of belongingness is central to the mission of the Initiative on Workplace Inclusion. Professor Tianna Barnes is an organizational psychologist who recently joined the faculty at the Tuck School of Business and is leading important scholarship in the field. IWI Fellows Holly Mowbray T’24 and Marisa Baglaneas T’24 recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Barnes about her work, discussing how newcomer’s sense of belonging shapes the way they interact in the work environment and what this means for the broader workforce.

Barnes has long been passionate about the field of organizational psychology.  She earned a PhD at the University of Minnesota and did a post-doc at Wharton before becoming an Assistant Professor at Tuck. During her studies, she has developed a particular interest in the experience of the underrepresented newcomer. In her recent scholarly work, “A Sense of Belonging: How Perceived Leader Dissimilarity Threatens the Expression of Newcomer Proactive Personality,” Barnes examines newcomers to organizations and their perceptions of similarity with their supervisors. She argues, and her results confirm, that when newcomers feel similar to their supervisor, they experience a deeper sense of belonging and this sense of belonging has an impact on their proactivity. Belongingness not only makes newcomers – who, by definition, do not know many others in the organization – feel less isolated, it also fosters a sense of psychological safety and self-efficacy that enables them to be more proactive and adjust better to their new role. The result, she finds, is that employees who feel similar to their new supervisors are more productive and perform better.

These findings were developed through three different studies – the first sampling on average, 37-year-old, highly-educated, entry-level hires at a university in the Midwestern United States tracked cohorts of over 900 incoming hires through survey data. This study looked at variables including newcomer proactive personality and their proactive behaviors (e.g., feedback seeking, relationship building), as well as supervisor perceived similarity. The second study built upon these findings, investigating the relationships of proactive personality and perceived similarity with additional indices of newcomer adjustment, including psychological safety, social isolation, role clarity, and role-related self-efficacy. This study recruited new doctoral students in the areas of management, human resources, marketing, and industrial/organizational psychology. The third study sampled a group of working adults through an experimental and simulated three-phase onboarding program.

In discussing her findings, Barnes explained that a newcomers’ early perceptions of similarity with their supervisor can be informed by personality, values, life experiences, and related interests. The outcome is that based on their early perceptions of similarity with their supervisor, newcomer’s ‘tune’ their adjustment efforts according to their sense of belonging. To what extent they feel belonging can determine their proactiveness and overall adjustment as new hires. The results should not lead us to behave inauthentically to foster connections, but to highlight that the primary tool for newcomer success as identified in research (i.e., proactive behavior) is largely contingent upon their sense of fitting in with their direct leadership at their new jobs.

Three key takeaways emerge, which are equally important for newcomers, leaders, and allies looking to foster belongingness as a means to enhance productivity in their organizations:

To newcomers: As upcoming MBA graduates, Holly and Marisa were interested in how they could apply this research in the next stages of their own careers. “It’s important to understand that your relational environment at work matters extensively and may weigh on your agentic behaviors more than you think,” Barnes said. When you’re in a workspace that’s unfamiliar and you’re learning tasks that may or may not be directly in your wheelhouse, an emotional taxation can accrue because of that vulnerability. There can be a lack of confidence or assuredness in oneself, while you’re simultaneously trying to get your footing. But through a sense of belonging, particularly on factors not always readily visible – and especially with your new boss – can help tremendously. Finding points of similarity with others is integral to maximizing your own productivity and adjustment as a newcomer.

To leaders: We don’t emphasize the importance of relationship building just for the benefit of employees; it’s important for firms to understand that without strong relationship building, it will be difficult to optimize new employee potential. There are simple ways for supervisors to foster belonginess amongst direct reports who do not share similar backgrounds or identities. Barnes explains that supervisors too must take on the responsibility for identifying those similarities; asking a newcomer, “How are you doing? What do you need or want?” – these conversations can go a long way in building rapport and a sense of belonging. Research also shows us that what happens in the first 30-60 days of a newcomer’s arrival can have the most substantial impact on their tenure at the workplace. It is in the best interest of supervisors who want to maintain and maximize new talent to ensure they feel connected to their direct reports. Firms thus need to take accountability as it relates to the proactivity of newcomers, and put thought into mentorship, advising relationships, and team building early into onboarding.

To allies: It’s important to acknowledge and be aware of how belongingness impacts a newcomer’s sense of security and their experience, Barnes shared. Helping new colleagues by sharing information facilitates their sense of belonging, even if you are not their supervisor. Newcomer status gives people license to ask questions and foster a culture of information sharing. Colleagues should also lean into these opportunities to build bonds with new hires, contributing to their sense of fitting in.

This scholarly work is laying exciting groundwork for further research, as Dr. Barnes continues to pursue key questions around identity, diversity, and socialization. As a newcomer herself at Tuck, she’s found her new home in the Upper Valley to be full of warmth, support, and commonalities with her students and colleagues alike.