Belonging web

Sep 15, 2021

Are we longing for belonging?

We all need to belong. And the pandemic has accelerated and amplified our need for social connection and a sense of purpose and belonging.

And so it began this week, in earnest. Back to school, back to the office. The rush hour in some cities back to pre-pandemic levels, the tube and buses in London their busiest for 18 months, expectations for the return to the office so varied.

The pandemic has offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to reflect, reimagine and reset how we’re all going to work together. I talk more about this in my article Leadership in a hybrid world: Stop dehumanising, start reconnecting
And the response from businesses has varied from really quite simple – the Martini approach of you can work ‘any time, any place, anywhere’ - to somewhat more complicated, complex or indeed chaotic working arrangements, with people in the Financial Services sector in Canary Wharf being sent home due to security passes not being ready. Not quite the energising experience and reconnection expected or indeed aspired to.
People will never forget how you made them feel. How right was Maya Angelou when she said: 

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

We have learned so much technically, talent wise and together. But one thing’s for sure; we’ve learned that we crave human connection, and the subsequent need for more investment in the human aspects of work.
Add in the spontaneity and importance of social interactions back in the office with known colleagues, different colleagues, different teams. Face-to-face social interaction offers so much; sharing ideas, different perspectives, diversity of thought, a sense of community and belonging, a shared sense of purpose.

Reconnecting for wellbeing

This isn’t anything new. But what is new is the realisation and acceptance that connection and belonging are the universal sources of true wellbeing. To be truly successful, our brains need to express emotion, achieve, connect through relationships and networks, learn from others and hope – and much of this requires physical presence. 

A longitudinal study of adult development conducted by Harvard since 1938 found that social connection and relationships are the single greatest predictor of long term health and happiness. And that loneliness can kill.

Before the pandemic, workplace loneliness was already growing. Now, more than ever, we need to reconnect. But without a new approach to connecting people at work, in person, employee isolation and disconnection will continue to increase in a hybrid model. Leaders need to put the right structures, incentives and rewards in place to ensure a connected workforce that has a sense of belonging and purpose.

The longing to belong

Connection and belonging are basic emotional needs. Belonging is essentially an affinity for a place or situation, whether that’s a sense of belonging to our ancestry, a social group or workplace.

As a performance coach, Owen Eastwood has worked with leaders of some of the most elite sports teams in the world – most recently with the England football team and British Olympic teams. In his latest book, ‘Belonging: The Ancient Code of Togetherness’ he talks about the human need to belong as a ‘wildly undervalued condition’ for building high performance teams. 

“If our need to belong is unmet, we leak energy and focus by obsessing on the unsafe environment and relations around us.”
Owen Eastwood

My question to my clients is a simple one: Where’s the performance benefit in that? How is that going to give you the competitive edge you need as a business?

Eastwood talks about Whakapapa, meaning ‘you belong here’; a Maori idea that embodies our universal need to belong. It’s a spiritual and emotional belief within us that we are each part of an unbroken and unbreakable chain of interlinked people. This concept is at the core to maximising a team’s performance and includes a focus on finding your identity story – I call it personal narrative, it’s about owning your own story. It's also about defining your shared purpose, visioning future success, sharing ownership with others, understanding the ‘silent dance’ that plays out in groups, creating the conditions to unlock talent and success, and using diversity and difference for competitive advantage.
He believes that high performing teams are ‘vision driven’, that they convert their sense of purpose into a compelling vision – what success looks like and how to achieve it – which in turn drives the strategy and team culture. Driving high standards, a compelling vision and connecting to a team’s authentic beliefs and heritage are key.

Beware the cliques

Staying in the field of sports for a moment, I had a conversation with Eddie Jones, the England Rugby Union Head Coach, late in 2019 and I asked him what three things constituted great leadership for him. His response? Firstly, to confirm where we are going and what the future looks like? Secondly, to attract the best assistant coaches ensuring he has access to the best coaching techniques in the world. And thirdly, it’s then for him to create the conditions for the team to flourish.
As we talked, Eddie asked me about my leadership business and we talked about the need for role models. Rugby and results aside, as a leader he was impactful, he connected and he was absolutely clear on the need to organise his team for success.
And his best but most unusual hire? A Trauma Coach from Edinburgh. Why? Because she broke down the cliques. She instilled a sense of togetherness, of belonging to one team. Eddie said he had underestimated the existence and impact of the cliques within England – North versus South, middle versus working class, public versus private or state education, Man Utd versus LFC. More so when the Coaching team weren’t there and the players were on their own in the evenings. Cliques can be counterproductive; they can create a sense of belonging but limit inclusiveness and individual as well as team potential.

Belong with authenticity

For me, having diversity of thought and access to different perspectives creates opportunities for rich social interactions, greater diversity and inclusion and a sense of togetherness and shared purpose. A truer sense of belonging, where people are human, present and vulnerable, without sacrificing the authentic you. As Brene Brown puts it:

“Belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are;
it requires us to BE who we are."

Mind the generation gap

But purpose can highlight generational differences. Whereas the leader generation might align a sense of shared purpose and belonging to an organisation, younger generations are increasingly entrepreneurial and independent in their thinking and ambitions. One 21 year old design graduate recently told me:

“I don’t want to work for the man who owns the company and I don’t want him to own me.” 

Professor Tamara Erickson of London Business School has carried out surveys of younger people and finds that view isn’t uncommon. What they increasingly want is to be entrepreneurs themselves and to work for entrepreneurial businesses. In addition, their hearts increasingly lie with the kinds of business that can satisfy their need for a sense of identity and belonging at work. 

Attraction versus attrition

As people return to office working, it’s about attraction and attrition. How to make office working attractive, when people have had time at home to re-evaluate and rethink how and where they want to work? And how can we attract people back and retain our best talent when our competitors are fishing in extended talent pools offering flexible and hybrid working?

If we don’t create a sense of belonging and shared purpose in the workplace, watch people leave. Recent research by McKinsey found that 40 per cent of employees are at least somewhat likely to leave their current job in the next 3 to 6 months. Similarly, 53 per cent of employers are experiencing voluntary turnover and 64 per cent expect this to remain elevated or increase in the next 6 months.

McKinsey calls it the ‘Great Attrition’; it’s happening, it’s widespread and it’s likely to persist and accelerate.

So what can we do now to lure people back to the office, re-engage and retain our people? If leaders make an effort to understand why employees are leaving and take meaningful action to retain them, the Great Attrition could become the Great Attraction.

The purpose hierarchy gap

Many people expect their jobs to be a significant source of purpose. Research by McKinsey found that 70 per cent of employees said their sense of purpose is defined by their work, and they expect their jobs to bring a significant sense of purpose to their lives. 
But McKinsey describe a stark ‘Purpose Hierarchy Gap’, finding that 85 per cent of executives and upper management agree that they are living their purpose at work, yet 85 per cent of frontline managers and frontline employees are unsure or disagree that they live their purpose in day-to-day work. And a sense of purpose is closely linked to a sense of belonging.
For me, leading beyond Covid is about energising your people and organisation, seizing the opportunities and creating that shared sense of purpose and belonging. 

Being in the flow

I often think back to my time as a corporate leader when I was absolutely in the flow. I was clear on the vision and where we wanted to be and we were organised to succeed. I had the budget, autonomy, a great team and the support of a great boss who wanted us to win, win well and celebrate our successes.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the psychological state of being absolutely in the flow – that state of concentration and deep enjoyment where a high level of both skill and challenge exists – and the impact that being completely absorbed and ‘in the flow’ has on achieving happiness.
I often refer to those times in the flow as ‘purple patches’ in careers, points in time when you were totally immersed in your career. Knowing your purpose and being in the flow with those around you creates a shared sense of belonging and purpose and, in turn, a high performing team.
As a leader, when were your purple patches? When were you so immersed, you belonged, you felt part of a team with absolute clarity of purpose? How do you replicate those conditions, that state of mind, that happiness, with your teams? 

Inclusive leadership

Connection leads to feelings of inclusiveness and belonging. American author Renee Ahdieh says: 

“It’s never about belonging to someone, it’s about belonging together.”

Inclusiveness is essential for thriving in the diverse new world. Juliet Bourke, author, speaker and Deloitte partner in Human Capital consulting, talks about inclusiveness as the new leadership capability.
She identifies the six signature traits of inclusive leadership; commitment, courage, cognizance of bias, curiosity, cultural intelligence and collaboration. Also, the 15 elements that inclusive leaders think about and do. For example, inclusive leadership requires collaboration; having the empowerment and voice to form teams with commitment, shared values and belief in the business case and purpose.  

Togetherness not otherness

In his book, ‘People Like Us: What It Takes To Make It In Modern Britain’, barrister, broadcaster and author Hashi Mohamed talks about belonging to groups of people like us/not like us and the feedback he received when he entered the legal profession.  Well intentioned people saying “We need people like you",  immediately he heard "you’re not like us" and once again encountered that feeling of “otherness”.
For me, belonging is all about togetherness. It’s not just about developing a sense of belonging with similar people. It’s also about surrounding yourself with unlike-minded people, and that difference and diversity of thought is important for sustainable competitive advantage.
In a sporting and rivalry context, it’s about belonging and ‘us versus them’ in fiercely competitive situations. But in business, belonging is about togetherness. As leaders, we need to ensure togetherness isn’t an excuse for exclusivity, otherwise we solve one problem and cause another. In sustainable business, it’s not finite, it’s not about winning vs losing. It’s about using a sense of identity and belonging for better business performance and competitive edge.
Great leaders make it about belonging, about togetherness. Be clear on your personal narrative, define your story, your vision and shared purpose and engage your people with that most basic human need; to belong.