“We must develop and encourage that sense of belonging because it is a part of who we are in organizations. Belonging is essential for our identity as humans and, especially, as humans in organizations. Organizational managers and executives must create that sense of belonging in a good way, a positive way.”
Dr. James (Jim) R. Barker
As part of Dalhousie’s 200th Celebration, Dal has been running a series of public events called Belong Forums. These Forums bring us together to build a community that is facilitated and developed by intellectual thought and academic learning. What can we learn from our intellectual pursuits that help bring us together to create that sense of belonging? The Belong Forums are fundamental to Dalhousie’s 200th Celebration because these dialogues ask us to consider, as we enter Dalhousie’s third century: “What would it take to create a world where we all feel like we truly belong?” (quoted from Dal’s Belong Forum Website.) That quote, and these forums move us to ponder the importance of belonging and the implications belonging holds for our organizations and for us as managers.
Let’s start by restating the question in organizational terms: What it would take to create an organization where we all feel like we truly belong?
My thoughts on belonging reflect back to my last post, in particular why a sense of belonging is vital for our organizational well-being. In my last post, I discussed the three reasons why human beings form organizations:
- The first is to create value – this is the reason most commonly referenced. We create organizations for the purpose of being able to work together, as a collective, to create more value than if we were working separately. That becomes our core rationale for why we form organizations. We gather together in organizations to create markets and engage in sophisticated tasks to create some sort of value that benefits us.
- The second reason we form organizations is simply because that is what we do as human beings. We are social animals. And our very nature demands we get together with other social creatures. Dogs bark, cats meow, human beings form organizations. That’s what we do. Our organizations form a core pathway for us to be social and to bring out our social side. For as much as we might struggle in our organizations, and for as much as they may become oppressive, we do like being in organizations because they become a key social part of our lives.
- The third reason, which is linked directly with our need for belonging, is the reason that we think of least. We form organizations because they become central to our identity. We have more than an individual identity. We have a collective, organizational identity. And that collective identity is formed and honed within organizations. Now, this concept is not new – that is, the idea of the importance of a human being’s identity being mediated and integrated into an organization’s identity is an old concept that has been studied since the 1930’s. Today we find the strands of this reason for forming organizations in the work of scholars who study organizational identity and the formation of individual identity mediated by our organizations. This line of research points to the importance of why organizations are key to us as human beings. Organizations become part of our identity and we integrate our identity into those organizations.
That brings us back to belong.
Integrating our identity into an organization responds to our need to belong, to participate. One of the key points about complexity theory that I have studied and currently use in my classes, is that complexity theory operates on the assumption that human beings do want to participate. Now usually we say we want to participate because we want to contribute to the value that is created within the organization. But we also want to participate because we want to belong. And that sense of belonging, that sense of being a part of the organization is very important to us. We like to be an active member within organizational activities, social activities, associating with the organization’s brand by the wearing a t-shirt or displaying other bling given to us by the organization. Why is that important? Why do we tend to wear them? Because we have that sense of identity with the organization.
Okay, where does management fit into all this?
We have only a few attributes of management that we know with a clear certainty, that have held up as useful knowledge year after year. One of those resilient knowledge bits is that subordinates in our organizations only ask two things of their immediate manager:
1) They ask that manager be technically competent.
2) They ask that that manager treat them with dignity and respect.
There is a tremendous amount of research that coheres and co-relates around those two points. If a manager is technically competent and treats us with dignity and respect, we are generally satisfied with the circumstances of our employment.
Think about that for a moment – dignity and respect – what does that cultivate? What does it build? It builds that sense of belonging. It helps us to integrate our identity with the organization in a positive way. Why does it stand out so important? Why has it been so important, year after year, that idea of dignity and respect? Why do we feel this so intensively when it is missing in organizations? When we are not treated with dignity and respect? Because it threatens that key sense of belonging that we need to have in the organization.
A couple of other interesting things come out our reflections on belonging.
First off – there is a fascinating connection with this idea of belonging to some of the original work that was done in what is now called corporate social responsibility, particularly in sustainability, which predates corporate social responsibility. Looking back to the mid 2000s when the sustainability movement in organizations was beginning to emerge, a key element that we talked about then at the corporate level was the need to deal with stakeholders from the standpoint of empathy and solidarity. Empathy – trying to understand the organization so we could treat all stakeholders with dignity and respect. And solidarity – the sense that we were all in it together. That we belonged together in the organization. We are going to covenant together to create value within the organization in the spirit of mutual dignity and respect. There is that sense of belonging.
Daily news these days also gives us an interesting tie-back to the general understanding about the importance of participation. We now readily see articles on how our basic community organizations and governmental institutions recognize that participation is falling, and that people are becoming disillusioned. Why? When our participation declines, we lose sight of how to be civil, how to treat each other with dignity and respect. We forget how to belong. We must develop and encourage that sense of belonging because it is a part of who we are in organizations. Belonging is essential for our identity as humans and, especially, as humans in organizations. Organizational managers and executives must create that sense of belonging in a good way, a positive way.
So, what would it take to create an organization where we truly feel like we belong? I’ll wrap up by going to the words of David Kelly, past CEO of a company called IDEO – one the most celebrated product development companies, known for its innovation and forward-thinking aptitude. When you maneuver a computer “mouse” you are using something developed by David Kelly.
David Kelly said these words when he formed IDEO:
“I want to create a company where my friends work.”
Think about that! “I want to create a company where my friends work.”
When we are friends, although we might not agree all the time, we treat each other with dignity and respect. In an organization of “friends,” we have the confidence to participate at the highest level of engagement. We belong. This sense of belonging enables us to envision an organization in which we all work together to instill purpose, champion innovation and create positive value.
Dr. James R. (Jim) Barker is a globally recognized expert in complex organizational behavior, ethics, and strategy who holds specific expertise in leadership, safety, change management, and stakeholder engagement.