Belonging

What true leadership is all about.

I’ve had the chance to see how the world of work is shaping up from the inside, as a member of organisations on their payroll, and from the outside, as a freelancer brought in for specific reasons on short term assignments.

And from being outside, I have experienced something I never realised when I was on the inside. That belonging is what counts.

Belonging in the sense of the purpose of the organisation, the people around you and the people you are doing things for.

Belonging in the sense of things that truly matter to you. Socio-political ideologies; humanitarian causes; interest groups — whatever the belonging may be, there is an individual need being serviced by that belonging.

In our search for good things in organisational life — be it that you wear a fluorescent jacket, an apron, a shirt or a uniform — we have leaders in those places telling us what’s the point of it all and what they expect of you in service of the cause. In return, there will be rewards both economical, societal, physiological, psychological. Yet if you don’t belong to something it all feels a bit pointless, vacuous and false.

You may enjoy the work you do — but do you belong to the reason that work exists in the first place? If not, there is something missing. If you enjoy the people’s company around whom you work with, that could be just what you need to belong. If you like the company, the work and the people you do things for, but detest the people you do it with, you don’t belong to something as strongly as you could.

Belonging is something we don’t talk about much in the world of work and yet, it appears to be something that really does change the mindset of fulfilling work and purpose or trance-like existence and a rush to the weekend to come alive.

Belonging is defined in a number of ways by our friends over at Wikipedia as

  • The property of — and perhaps too much in the working world, people feel like they are the property of;
  • Be a member of — and increasingly we are seeing the increase of membership — even if it is sadly the extremes we’re seeing in the socio-political world — we are increasingly defined by what we’re a member of
  • Of a thing — have a place, be situated, be found, be categorised.

It’s being a member of that I think we’re seeing a big leadership deficiency. That leaders have the responsibility and the opportunity to create belonging for people. To avoid the zombie-like existence of underwhelming jobs, dull work and pointless efforts, leaders are in a position to understand what it is people want to belong to.

We all have a number of desires in the world — be a kind person, good citizen, make money easily whatever it may be — and those desires are part of who we are and what we want to be doing with our life.

In the world of work, we talk about key performance indicators, goals and career ambitions and development needs. We often avoid asking the questions like

  • Who are you?
  • What do you believe in?
  • What do you stand for?
  • What brings you to life?
  • What needs are you servicing by working with us?
  • What help do you need that you don’t get?
  • What influences do you want to have in the world?

If this feels a bit existential then it is meant to be.

Wikipedia helpfully distills this down to “a philosophical theory or approach which emphasises the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.”

I’m not advocating that we all need to take a course on philosophy and psychology but we should expect more of our leaders, and of ourselves, in understanding more about belonging.

I sense — and see — that when people really belong to their cause, their work, their company, their enterprise, their relationships, their values, their mission in life — amazing things happen.

Where there is a noticeable lack of belonging it seems to be one of the major contributors to societies problems and human suffering.

Of course there is a downside to belonging. Mystical cults and extremist movements all create a sense of belonging that causes suffering to people and the world. Yet this ill-gotten belonging only surely exists because there is no other more just, fair and humane belonging in their lives?

A lack of belonging leads to frustration, and anger, fear and the need for retribution at those who belong to things that others don’t, can’t or won’t be a part of.

So back to leaders. Where the belonging has been crafted to deliver evil deeds, it’s largely because others have taken a leadership role in creating a sense of belonging for others to join in their crusade no matter what the morality or danger involved.

If this is prevalent in evil, we need countering with good. And this is where leaders are letting us down.

We need more leaders who can create the best form of belonging for people at work. We need more people to expect this of their leaders. For when this is found, we are allowing ourselves to experience more joy, purpose, sanity, sanctuary even.

Political leaders are struggling to create the right kinds of belonging and this is also found lacking in the world of work, education, science, and doing good.

So I guess this little blog post is urging us all to do something about this.

So if you’re a leader of any sort — job title; position or attitude:

  • What do you belong to?
  • What do you know about the people you lead and what they belong to and want to belong to?

If you’re a follower

  • What do you want to belong to?
  • What do you look for in others to belong to the things they also belong to?

I belong to a number of groups, cliques, communities, professional bodies, friendships, social groups and more. Some I fiercely belong to. Others I’ve tried to belong to and they’re not really for me. Some people I have a belonging with. Some people I don’t want to belong to anything they’re part of.

I most definitely belong to the philosophy of self-organised ways of working and the concepts of people being involved and influential in the work they do.

I belong to the concept of next stage organisations.

Overall, I belong to doing good for the people of the world. To belonging to a profession that has the chance to influence people’s lives at work for the better. To belonging to changes that will humanise work and bring more joy to people through their endeavours, feats and crafts. I belong to a better world that, at the moment, is being masked by a poorer version.

I want to belong to a brighter place, with a brighter future and a brighter outlook.

Mostly, I want more leaders to understand what they belong to and what they can do to create a feeling of belonging in other people.

Ultimately we all need to belong to the creation of a more just, kind and positive world.

With thanks to Tonja Blatnik for asking the questions that led me to this post.

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