My husband is a martial arts teacher. He teaches Hapkido, a very challenging Korean Martial art. He has a father and daughter who faithfully attend his Saturday morning class. For a couple months the daughter kept asking her father for an official Hapkido uniform. Due to her size, she is just 10 and petite, it would need to be ordered and due to COVID and shipping, etc. it would take my husband many attempts to get a response from the official organization. Last week she wore her new uniform to class. The response from her classmates was unanimous: she looked great! My husband said that the joy she exuded during the class was priceless.
This story is about belonging. Where ever we humans go, we seek a felt sense that we belong, we are a member of the tribe. I am sure at some point in our long evolution, it was strongly linked to survival and safety. Belonging, and the cooperation of a tribe meant back up if trouble arose and that we were more likely to live to see another day. The roots of belonging are deep and when we forget that in organizations, it creates all sorts of problems, and sometimes contributes to deadly consequences.
Yet we forget it all the time. We forget that we need to be intentional about building systems and organizational rituals that make it easier and more likely that people we invite in, feel as if they really belong.
Inclusion is so different than belonging. It’s also important but I am more and more skeptical of inclusion because it means that someone else creates, or has the power to include us, or not. I am completely up for creating inclusive systems and structures. But I am not okay with it being up to someone else to include me, because by my very presence, I already belong. Whether I feel that or not, is more complicated because it’s largely based upon my own life experiences and needs.
My observations are that inclusion puts the power to invite in someone else’s hands. Belonging is something that we all have the power to nurture and create together. However, belonging requires that I feel safe to express what I need and that my manager, team and organization create space and the safety for this to happen. When done right, it’s messy and can be uncomfortable and I expect it to be so. Because sometimes to create a space where others feel like they belong, I have to give up or adjust some practice, ritual or language that I enjoy and that makes me feel like I belong.
Markers that evoke a sense of belonging in each of us are grounded in culture, family, traditions, rituals, and even our biology. I am thinking of the recent research that found stress and anxiety experienced by a mother during pregnancy is associated with short- and longer-term consequences for the health of her child (see the links at the bottom of this article for more information).
And if an organization wants to work on creating a greater, more shared sense of belonging, then they have to teach and facilitate practices for compassion and forgiveness. And you have to be equally rigorous about this because people will make mistakes. They will say and do the wrong thing. This is a part of the process and you have to plan for it. The moment someone gets blamed, demoted or fired for trying, and offending someone or making a mistake, then you will create a space where no one will speak up or try because it is too dangerous.
From my work with so many teams, I have lots of stories about belonging. If you listen, you probably hear them all the time too. A new member of an all-male (yes, there are still plenty of these) executive team I was working with was invited to their annual retreat. He told me that during the retreat, there was a lot of drinking and that the discussions about women were extremely uncomfortable. As a married man with a young daughter, the client told me he found the interactions offensive and uncomfortable. He pointedly asked, “I am a heterosexual white man and I find it uncomfortable. Can you imagine how someone who didn’t immediately fit in would feel?” Yes, as it turns out, I absolutely can! This is a blatant example but there are many more subtle examples. Most of the time they are not intentionally trying to be offensive. But that is no longer an excuse if it ever really was one. If you want more people to feel a sense of belonging, you have to include them in creating a place where that is possible.
This is the only way it happens. And there are no short cuts.
Moira Clarke founded Leadership Consulting Partners 21 years ago to collaborate with leaders, teams and organizations to create more productive, effective, and human people systems and practices. If you are reading this to the end, and you find value, please say so and share with others on LinkedIn and Twitter. Thank you!
Welcome to Moira's blog. I write about the work of building better work places: people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.