Photo by Amer Mughawish on Unsplash

I’ve heard — and used — this word a few times this week. Once in the review of a client’s work on their next stages of employee engagement; once in a very sage blog post by Julian Summerhayes here — even though the word wasn’t used in the latter example. This quote stood out for me from Julian’s post:

I’m now, or at least I feel this way, a person who does legal work but not a lawyer.

It says to me that Julian has a sense of belonging to himself doing legal work. Yet he doesn’t describe belonging to the collective noun lawyer nor it is solely about his employer.

It also got me thinking about my disdain for Job Descriptions and their attempt to codify a role for someone to step into. You see, I’ve never belonged to a Job Description which explains, partly, my disdain for them. I understand their need to bring a fair, defined and focal point to a role that helps you go to an open market and recruit someone you don’t know who may have the skills, behaviours and aptitude for that role.

It’s unlikely we see any references to belonging in any recruitment process — or even selection for a promotion position. All are based on evidence of past achievements or attainments which may hint to belonging to a professional niche, studied area of interest or a political or ideological belief.

Yet, when we look at engagement — as a concept for how much an employee is connected to their work and their organisation — we now see a transformational chain — from

  • Engaged (which, whilst better than transacting or being disengaged, implies some degree of passivity or being in receipt of something in the process of exchanging work for reward) to
  • Experience (how things feel to you) to
  • Included (what influence you have on your own agency) and then to
  • Belonging (how much you truly and deeply are connected to what you do and who you do it for and with).

So if that IS the ultimate in how deeply connected we can be to the fictions and realities of the organisation (its brand, IP, heritage, products and services, mantra, mission, vision, culture etc), how come we don’t even look for that in hiring people, deploying them, developing them and ultimately getting them to their state of eudaimonia (human flourishing)?

I’m not saying we start from that point — after all, to some, a job is economic needs and therefore they are belonging to the cause of financial safety to themselves. I am saying that we rarely, if ever, seek to understand what people do belong to.

I’m also not talking about tribal, political, faith-based belonging either. Though we are seeing some people belonging to divisive political ideologies which affect their relationships with their fellow humans.

I’m talking about the statement Julian made in his blog post. At a point in time, we find who we are and we can define that in words and ideologies we live and work to. Once we’ve done that, a job description — that may be attempting to create a professional manifestation of that belonging — fails near enough every time.

I recall being a little reigned-in by an employer. Well someone in that company. It was 2010 and the use of social media. I was being asked to not post in the name of the company. I checked my feed. Not ONCE had I mentioned the company or anything it did. So I challenged back. The response I got was ‘well, people know where you work so that can be construed as impacting on the company reputation.’

My response was ‘I’m posting as a practitioner in HR, OD & Change who merely happens to work for this company’.

It was my first stated definition of what I belonged to. Not the company or its mission per se. But to my practice field. Which I took beyond merely an accreditation, a reputation and a classification. I took it to a near-transcendent level of what I believed I was here to do and belonged to.

So I belong to this cause: Helping people flourish through their work. Not defined by anyone, any movement or collective.

It helped me connect my own desires to see a world of fairness, inclusion and responsibility.

Troubled — even as a very young person — that people can be willingly cruel to other beings and things. Troubled that some held so much power over others they could insist they do cruel things to others and that people complied.

In my advancing years, I found political ideologies and references that I felt I could belong to. Truth it, most of those have failed and shown their flaws.

I found psychological explanations for why people behave in a cruel sense. And whilst some psychosis renders people out of their own control spheres, it still left me frustrated that even explained circumstances behind criminality, violence, greed, persecution — rendered us unable to move into safer, more just ways.

I then found societal and systems-based reasoning behind the reason we form into clans, factions and groups — or found ourselves co-opted, coerced or even conscripted into those groups — and understood even more why good people can do bad things.

So my belonging to political, even psychological and societal groups left me wanting and adrift. Maybe, I deduced, I belonged to that — being a nomadic, tribe-less, independent soul?

Well, I’ve experimented with that and it’s harsh, lonely and difficult.

So over the last few years, I’ve created a belonging. Under the guise of the independent entity that is a micro-consulting enterprise. That exists as an extension of that belonging I have: Helping people flourish through their work. I realised (using Adam Grant’s Givers and Takers see his TED talk here) that I derive pleasure, meaning and belonging from giving.

Now to be clear of humble-brags or virtue signalling — I’m not some altruistic, philanthropic (oh the chance to have so much financial wealth I could be one) overly-generous soul — I do the giving because of me. I like it. It is about me wanting to do this. It just looks like it’s a generous gesture of selfless offering.

So I belong to that. Giving my all to help people flourish through their work.

People I’ll never meet, won’t agree politically or ideologically with, people may even be a bit cruel to others. Yet I still belong to that ideology. I hope that with people flourishing through their work, they won’t be so cruel, divisive and even those with psychotic challenges will be able to get the help they deserve to overcome those chemical and emotional imbalances.

I happen to have curated a place where a small group of others have come to belong to that too. Hence now having 9, 10, 11 of us working on things that are in pursuit of that ideology and in some way, belonging to their version of ‘it’.

And we’ve been grappling with the test of faith in that through COVID-19 responses and conditions. And through our belonging — now to each other as much as the cause — we made some decisions that enhanced that bond and belonging.

Cancelling a trip to Italy and standing down a collaborator (from a then unaffected part of the country for their, and our safety), at the height of their early stage of coronavirus impacts.

Going into lockdown voluntarily immediately on realising there was a UK-based problem and seeing friends home to Australia, Romania and Mexico under difficult circumstances.

Rallying around the collapse of work orders due to COVID-19 reactions. Offering, showing willing and being open about how we felt and what we wanted to do.

Taking the decision to go 100% virtual in what we do to keep ourselves safe, included and connected. With some of the team remote, we felt this brought more equality to how we were.

Adapting our business offer to be 100% virtual — which, despite lock-down restrictions now lifted for pubs, restaurants and hairdressers, we believe we can sustain and is the right thing to do for the nature of our work and impact we have through it.

Building our own internal systems, processes and ways of being to enhance our belonging and remove frustrations through ineffective or inefficient systems. We didn’t want to optimise to get more client work or do it more profitably, we wanted to do it so we had more harmony that wouldn’t jeopardise our belonging.

OK, at the risk of this seeming like a marketing pitch, it’s merely to show what happens when people belong.

People find ways to manifest that belonging that may look like processes, products and services yet they’re more — they are how belonging is made visible.

Belonging has no doubt shaped the togetherness of a dispersed, flexible and different group of people that just happen to work together under the PTHR banner.

Belonging was the reason we started working together anyway. Not a job description being filled.

Belonging helps us challenge each other, be transparent without fear, be comforting with ease.

Belonging is our next step surely?

Professor Clare Graves and his Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theories which inspired Spiral Dynamics and the existence of a state of harmony or in Frederic Laloux’s work on a Teal Organisation —and its state of ‘wholeness’ seem to say that belonging can become a more transcendent, cult- and fear-free way of belonging through realisation, choice and a higher sense of calling.

My sense is that belonging could become the key to our reinvention post-pandemic. Belonging to a better world, a fairer society, a more just way to live, kindness to others, the planet, and self and more harmony and wholeness in our ways of being.

Of course, this is all a bit nirvana-esque, and that in the age of divisive politics, selfish reactions and prejudice on display may seem more unlikely than ever.

  • We can all start to think a little more — as Julian did — what do I belong to and where do I belong?
  • Leaders can ask why would people belong to that which I lead?
  • Researchers might build the most compelling cases of causality between belonging and sustainable, ethical success.
  • Academics and Educators can look at teaching more about belonging so we have a chance to shape and experience this as soon as we can.
  • Societal and community groups can focus more on belonging as much as they do their mission and goals.

Whilst belonging is a very individual thing, its power comes in the combination of ours and others belonging.

It’s not homogeneity we seek, it’s an aggregation of difference that converges on a sense of belonging and whether paid or otherwise, is our work as our belonging made visible.

CEO PTHR |2x TEDx speaker | Author: Transformational HR + The Energized Workplace | HR Most Influential Thinker 2017–2021 | Soulboy + Northampton Town fan