The Need to Belong

Soul Trained
9 min readApr 21, 2021

Somewhere between Peter Drucker’s famous notion that, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, Netflix’s culture deck, and the rise of staff canteens so good that the public wants to pay to eat at them, culture has become a hot commodity in the war for talent.

The way I see it, there have been several waves in the commoditization of culture.

The Wave of Freedom

The first wave included the welcome demise of the dress code [I mean, really, who on earth measures the hem length of their dress?], the move to open plan office seating, the gradual dissolution of glass offices [noise cancelling headphones anyone?] and the introduction of increasing amounts of flexible working policies [I want to earn a salary and live my life, thank you very much. Hand me the cake because I am going to eat that too].

Seriously, this was a big deal! I remember the days of working at the retail giant Marks & Spencer where there used to be a silhouetted outline of a perfectly dressed salesperson on a floor length mirror just before the sales floor. Sales floor staff were meant to compare the hem length of their skirts and the correct length of their ties, and woe betide a mismatch! Flash forward a couple of decades or so and it was interesting to see the power dynamic at the top of organizations shift as hoodie- and sneaker-wearing entrepreneurs amassed wealth and influence that rivaled and then outstripped finance people in their suits and ties. Dress codes these days are either not existent or extremely simple [if perhaps a little irreverent: see Google’s “You can be serious without a suit”].

The Wave of Connection & Meaning

Soon Casual Fridays weren’t enough to keep great people engaged and employed and long-gone were the days of being grateful for on-tap-filter-coffee and a choice of two tea bags! The entrance of Gen Y into the workforce heralded the start of the next cultural wave. Here was a group of people who favored outcomes over process and emotional and mental presence over physical presenteeism. This was also a cohort who wanted to connect their life’s-purpose to their organization’s raison d-etre, who wanted to feel good while they did good, and who wanted to invest their care in an organization that cared for them in return.

While at first mocked for their slides, skate parks, and toys, companies like Google and Facebook built workplace cultures that were better fits for the folks who possessed the skills and talent that companies needed in order to successfully undertake digital transformation initiatives and remain culturally relevant. Now, companies needed to both emulate and compete with new expectations — beginning with free food and snacks and then extending into better work/life policies — even if no one could take advantage of the unlimited vacation allowances that became vogue.

Realizing that it wasn’t sustainable to compete on snacks, companies found another angle in order to stay relevant in said ‘war for talent’ and to do so in ways that were meaningful to this new generation of workers. And so organizations that offered the best pantry snacks and self-filling candy jars AND got good at being mission-driven, values-centric, and that went all-in on philanthropic causes started to win.

Moving from Connection & Meaning to Belonging

But cold brew and kombucha, artisanal dried pineapple, and micro-brewed IPA soon became table stakes in a world where one’s identity is at risk and where being yourself can be problematic. As the world began to respond with increasing visibility to issues of racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, and transphobia a new need arose and with it a new cultural wave is, I believe, upon us.

You don’t have to look too far to find research [e.g. McClure & Brown, 2008] on the experience of belonging and how it supports healthy human life. The need for belonging is within all of us.

If you’re reading this, it is highly likely that you survived high school. I use the term ‘survived’ quite deliberately because it can be a gauntlet of tumultuous ups and downs and one of the prevailing quests of the teenage years is that of ‘fitting in’.

As a chubby, awkward, queer teen with a weird hairstyle I was desperate to find my people and, in doing so, I tried to fit in with the boys, the girls, the sporty kids [defo didn’t work], the geeky kids, the naughty kids, I even tried to fit in with the teachers. In order to do so, I would disown, or suppress, an aspect of my capital-S-self, my behavior, or my personality in order to be deemed acceptable by the others such that they would not ‘other’ me. These acts were ultimately futile because that which is suppressed generally becomes expressed leading to my new found ‘people’ backing away from the me they thought they knew.

I have come to the conclusion that there are many parallels between high school and the world of work. Classes have become departments, principals have become CEOs, administration has become shareholders or boards of directors, and the teenage cliques, gangs, and groups into ‘those who you lunch with’ and ‘those who you don’t lunch with’.

These dynamics and parallels can be, at best, a distraction and, at worst, damaging and I believe that they impact individuals, teams, and organizations in unseen and powerful ways. Which is why we’re seeing the rise of a new cultural need — the need to belong.

For organizations to become successful and stay successful they need to invest in creating a culture of belonging — one where people feel as though they can be themselves, where they have the experience of fitting-in, where they feel seen, heard, represented, relevant, and important.

This is, I believe, the single most important things that CEO’s and Chief Talent Officers should focus on from a people perspective right now.

Creating a culture of belonging

Let’s look at this through three separate, but related, lenses — the organization’s lens, the team’s lens, and the individual’s lens.

1. The Organization Lens

‘Cultural fabric’ is the collective noun I use to describe the wiring that powers organizational culture. In short a cultural fabric is the vision, mission, values, behaviors, motifs, customs and rituals that comprise an organization’s culture. Cultural fabrics remain as relevant in today’s organization as they were in the 1950’s when Peter Drucker first started talking about the topic. Values systems act as the moral compass of a company and behavioral frameworks become the means by which these values are expressed and brought to bear in the day-to-day interactions of employees.

Relationships and the way people treat each other are the wellspring of any culture. To that end, our behavior — how we interact with each other as we do our work, how we talk to each other, what we say about other people when they are not in the room, and particularly how we treat each other in times of stress, conflict, and overwhelm all impact culture in deeply profound and systemic ways.

To that end, the first step a company who wants to foster a culture of belonging could take is to review what’s included in their values systems. Of course the perennial favorites of ‘teamwork’, ‘collaboration’, and ‘personal responsibility’ [or less corporate-ese versions thereof] remain important when groups of people come together, but perhaps they are no longer enough. I’m suggesting that now is the time for organizations to make a brave statement about what’s important and what’s not by evolving the ingredients of their cultural fabrics to include different qualities for example vulnerability, courage, patience, curiosity, empathy, acceptance to name just a few.

2. The Team Lens

In the 1980’s Dr Meredith Belbin famously pronounced that “Nobody is perfect but a team can be”. While significant at the time, today this seems a bit “Thanks, Captain Obvious!”, doesn’t it? But let’s take a moment or two to consider a leader’s unconscious biases which might cause them to build a team in their own likeness. It can be very tempting, if we are not careful, to surround ourselves with like-minded others; those with similar skills, backgrounds, and experiences to us. After all, it feels safe, warm, and comforting to be with ‘people like us’.

I was working with a leader recently who told me they wanted to be the least skilled person on their team and that they wanted to be the person who knew less than anyone else and who had less idea about what to do and where to head than anyone else. I was in awe of the ease at which they explored an experience of not-knowing-ness; it seemed to me that they had let go of something in order to make space for something greater.

It has been shown time and again that teams of diverse individuals are smarter that homogenous teams. And we’re not just talking about diversity in skills, backgrounds, or experience, we’re talking about diversity in sex, gender, ethnicity, race, ability, sexuality, socio-economic, age, religion [and so on]. Difference is strength and an acceptance of difference opens the avenues towards belonging and inclusion.

3. The Individual Lens

Speaking of diversity, in an article entitled “I’m a Straight White Guy, What’s Diversity Got To Do With Me?” Walt Hopkins says, “Diversity begins with me. I need to understand myself before I can understand you” — it is from this quote that I take inspiration for this third lens of a culture of belonging.

Over the last 12 months I’ve had the honor of working with groups of people in India, the UK, the USA, and Singapore to go beyond unconscious bias and explore the topics of identity and privilege [see Privilege: A Reader by Kimmel and Ferber for a solid exploration of what is meant by privilege and how it shows up in society]. Time and again group members have found strength in recognizing that, whoever they are, different aspects of their identity can, in some way or another, carry privilege and have realized that instead of being ashamed of that privilege they can instead own it and use it to support, elevate, and advocate for those people who could otherwise be marginalized, oppressed, or ‘othered’ because they are different.

Once you know yourself more, then there is the job of knowing others. Here I counsel some caution — it is not the job of people who are different than us to educate us about their struggles and experiences…that’s on us.

It’s crucial that we find ways to grow our own awareness and wake-up to the experiences of people not like us. There are tons of resources out there beyond the book I mentioned above and I would particularly recommend Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility as well as the podcast Scene on Radio [which has two series — Seeing White and MEN].

I got a top tip from a good friend of mine recently — she asked me who I followed on Instagram and how many of those people I followed were like me and how many were dissimilar to me. It’s surprising how many messages of reinforcement and conditioning we can receive through the app! In asking this very simple question my friend opened my eyes to the extent to which I was reinforcing my own worldview and restricting my awareness to difference and diversity. Now my Instagram feed is no longer just my favorite waste-of-time, it is also an important source of education.

To conclude…

My hope in sharing these perspectives is to encourage CEOs, CTO’s, and people teams to engage fully in conversations about belonging and inclusion. I know how worrisome these conversations can be; they are messy and they are likely to cause disagreement, discomfort, and dissonance. But not having them is no longer an option, because this, I believe, is where the corporate world now needs to head — from connection and meaning towards belonging and inclusion.

References

Hopkins, W. (1999). I’m a Straight White Guy, What’s Diversity Got To Do With Me? In A. L. Cooke, M. Brazzel, A. S. Craig, & B. Greig, Reading Book for Human Relations Training (Vol. 8th Edition). Washington, DC: NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Sciences.

McClure, J. P., & Brown, J. M. (2008). Belonging at Work. Human Resource Development International, 3–17.

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