A sense of belonging

We may have – with the exception of some devoted and dedicated environmental protestors – come down from the trees, but evolution goes only so far. We’ve written about a number of human instincts and urges here, but one we’ve not previously considered is our desire for a sense of belonging. Phrases like ‘birds of a feather’ may be trite, but the feeling that we are flocking with those with who we have some sense of identification is a reassuring, comforting and strengthening one for most of us. There are, after all, few perceived upsides to a sense of alienation, isolation or disengagement. Solitude is only a positive experience when it’s one that we consciously choose; when it’s merely something that happens to us, we tend to call it loneliness.

Creating a sense of engagement in others is never an easy task. Even at prosaic levels, you have no doubt witnessed actors or musicians struggling to hold the attention or attract the interest of their audiences: even those who make their living literally (as opposed to merely by extension) through performance know it can be a challenge. And at least actors can shelter behind the difficulty of achieving the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. Which isn’t, it turns out, merely a phrase that’s been wheeled out too often, but a quote from the poet and philosopher Samuel Coleridge:

It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us …”

Most of us, in our working lives, are therefore following in Wordsworth’s footsteps, trying to excite feelings analogous to the supernatural from the things of everyday. Little wonder Wordsworth wandered lonely as a cloud, you might think …

But that urge to belong has common currency. Seth Godin, American marketing guru, speaks and writes about ‘Tribes’, exploring marketing and especially social media as a means of being communities of shared usage or interest around goods or services (understandably in some cases – as spontaneous online communities discussing motorbikes, cars, guitars and so on might testify, but not universally: I don’t have a sense of community with people that use my brand of toothpaste). Ian Duncan Smith is seeking to address social attitudes to welfare as emerges from a period spent avidly exploring the issues of ‘social inclusion’. And the HR and Management press is awash with articles about ‘employee engagement’.

It’s worth pondering how the perceived lack became so pressing. One posting from the blogosphere that made a real impression on me was by ‘TheHRD’, the anonymous author of ‘My Hell Is Other People’. (To whom our advance apologies if we appear to be taking his pseudonym in vain.) That a senior HR professional should be able to ‘speak’ as follows should sound alarm bells at senior levels in organisations and businesses across the land:

I’m incredibly loyal to the companies that I work for as people who know me would testify.  But I’ve never really joined an organisation and felt that I was in the place that I wanted to be for the long-term.  Maybe that is a thing of the past?  Work is more disparate these days too, we have portfolio careers.  Maybe I ended up in the wrong career and should be doing something else (as an aside, I am totally in awe of people who change their careers because they are unhappy).

Maybe everyone feels a little like this, we are all trying to find something, someone or some place that we can identify with.  Maybe I’m just never satisfied with my lot.  Maybe I’m making something of nothing.  More questions than answers.”

The world doesn’t lack for people in search of the answers to conundrums such as the one TheHRD poses. At the HRZone website, Georgia Kerr recently posed the question ‘Who owns engagement?’. The piece looks in turn at the CEO, CFO, HR director, Line manager and Employee. Yet her review of HR directors speaks of looking beyond silos and creating visions and strategies. The kind of questions posed by our actual, if anonymous, HR director have their closest fit with Georgia’s review of Employees, where the diagnosis suggests a healthy dose of self-medication:

What can the employee do? Is it enough to duly fill out the engagement survey year in year out, however honest the feedback? Put simply: no. Employees need to take a share of the responsibility for their own engagement, using the tools available to them both inside and outside of the organisation such as training and career opportunities, one-to-one discussions with the line manager, colleague and family support, performance feedback. And with these tools, the employee needs to be in a constant state of self-examination of their own career aspirations and goals.”

I can’t imagine TheHRD – a blogger of many words, mostly wise but sometimes blunt (and occasionally barely repeatable) – being much impressed by that.  The fact that they are ‘employed’ way above this level and still struggle to feel engaged would, I’d imagine, be only part of their probable discontent – although the fact that a sense of engagement can be a challenge much above lower middle management level is surely a taboo we would all benefit from demolishing. (I can’t see how a bored, anxious or disengaged boss can be a good thing for anyone.)

There’s also an implicit message that if we can’t adjust to nomadic lives where our sense of community and security is dependant on every transient economic or market whim, then that’s our problem and we should do at least part of the work of solving it. I can see TheHRD saying something quite brief in response. “S*d off”, for example.

One possible response to Georgia Kerr’s question – Who owns engagement? – has to be ‘All of us’. And that ‘us’ matters too: it’s inclusive. We are none of us likely to have a sense of belonging to something shows no real sign of recognising our existence beyond a role specification, pay roll entry and a sheaf of performance statistics.  Leadership and management styles have a role to play here, most especially in their impact on others. To quote from the website Psychlopaedia to evidence the importance of leaders’ ability to cultivate and use more than one style:

Recent research indicates, however, that charismatic leadership-often regarded as a specific facet of the broader concept of transformational leadership-is not effective in all contexts. Charismatic leadership, for example, is not as effective when individuals feel a sense of belonging to their organization.”

An affiliative style (by contrast) may not be the answer to every situation, but it – more than any other style- sends a message there is a ‘something’ to belong to, however ultimately temporary that might be. Styles that implicitly or explicitly recognise the important of individuals – as human beings as well as in the sense of being distinguishable from one another – all have roles to play in this regard.

The MacLeod report and the efforts of the Work Foundation to provide not just media coverage for employee engagement but detailed thinking and review of how it can be realised in deed as well as word are to be applauded, although we have a long way to go. Let’s hope this heightened level of interest in the topic doesn’t parallel the history of environmentalism, where it would all too easy to conclude that our efforts at energy management have too often consisted of turning our minds off and leaving our appliances running.

Our workplaces are increasingly like our new towns: places where few of us grew up, where we find ourselves almost by chance for unspecified periods of time, and where we unlikely to conclude that we intend to finish our days. If we are increasingly a nation of suburbs where we ignore our own neighbours and then wonder where the sense of community went, it might to be time to ask ourselves if we aren’t treating the jobs that led us to our latest homes in much the same way.

Unless you really are Mick Jagger, feeling you’re living your life ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ really isn’t that glamorous.

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