A Storytelling Serial
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For several years, I worked at a company committed to the principles of disruption and change. All our employee meetings began with announcements of upcoming organizational shifts, closely followed by an invitation for any of us who weren’t comfortable with that workplace culture to find new jobs.
Many of us struggled, usually with little guidance, to handle the frequency and extent of top-down requirements for adaptation. Still, I always understood we couldn’t expect stability in our positions and recognized we were being regularly encouraged to consciously choose whether we belonged in a place where belonging was not valued.
I didn’t remain in this job out of a sense of loyalty to that company, its leader, the industry, or even my specific profession. I stayed because of my co-workers and my immediate supervisor. They were my work tribe, and they made me feel as if I belonged.
We managed to maintain our close connections through multiple reorganizations, and I never seriously considered leaving until my supervisor was laid off, I was required to start policing my long-time colleagues, and I was expected to work closely with recent hires who shared neither my values nor my work ethic.
In a very real sense, I lost the only type of job fit that truly mattered to me: my work family. I finally resigned.
Belonging: our basic human need
I often read articles in which sociologists and psychologists explain the human need to belong as an age-old survival instinct.
From the beginning of time, pack membership has helped us withstand life’s constant threats. That tribal tendency seems permanently built into our emotional DNA; today the longing for belonging still influences much human behavior.
Across cultures, we strive for a sense of membership in our families, groups of friends, political affiliations, hobbies and enthusiams, sports loyalties, religious settings, and social media connections.
And because our work holds significant meaning, we also seek belonging in what we do for a living, whether in traditional employment or from a solitary office at home.
Humans continue to define themselves in terms of insiders and outsiders; we maintain a constant dance of inclusion and exclusion. This worldview contributes to everything from group cohesiveness—even in the face of dysfunction—to violence against the “other.”
There’s nothing like a perceived outside threat to unite the pack in attack.
What happens when we lose our tribes?
When sense of belonging starts to fray, instincts often bypass brains. We can act and react without understanding why.
Adolescents who feel alienated from or rejected by their families tend to create their own families—for better or worse—out of friends, clubs, jobs, sports, or gangs.
College students might avoid loneliness by joining causes and campus organizations without thought to the personal authenticity of their commitments.
Adults may leave former lives behind and then rush into unlikely work or unbalanced relationships to fill a newly unmet need to belong.
And always, the online world stands ready to help us fill any tribal gap we might perceive.
What does belonging mean for work?
No matter how we feel about our jobs or our careers, they provide familiarity, identity, connection, status, grounding, and identification with a place, an ethos, a culture. Leaving that behind, voluntarily or not, can easily lead to a sense of disconnection, a lack of rootedness.
Without the work we’ve been doing, we may feel unmoored, perhaps lost.
If that happens, ingrained fear of going it alone often sends us running, in some desperation, to the first home base we can find. All our lives we’ve intuitively believed that belonging anywhere is better than not belonging at all, so we set out to convince ourselves—and others—we’ve found a new work situation that’s a perfect match.
Sometimes we’re right. And moving toward a new clan doesn’t always cause anxiety, particularly when we know we’re leaving a place we no longer (or never did) belong and we already have a true tribe waiting for us.
We might also make a smooth work transition when we’re able to retain membership in one group while simultaneously joining another, such as when we pair a new side gig with an existing full-time job.
But at other times, new-job interviewers or references, old-job coworkers, families and friends, teachers and mentors, fellow members of professional groups or classes, even potential clients, see better than we do that we’re too quickly trying to jam our square-peg work selves into round holes that don’t truly reflect our values, abilities, goals, and interests.
And if we discover that repeated efforts don’t get the job, make the sale, or convince others to feel the enthusiasm we’ve generated to convince ourselves, we’re crushed by the same sense of rejection and knee-jerk panic that our ancestors (or adolescent selves) experienced when ostracized, excluded, banished, and shunned.
This very real fear isn’t just about making a living. Work transition can trigger deep questions of how to exist in the space between who we were and who we will be, in the formless void separating those who previously claimed us and those who will once again take us into their midst.
Job change can force travel through the dark unknown of loss.
Five questions to ask when neither here nor there
So when our age-old struggle for survival collides with the need for a new work clan, how might we separate inevitable—and possibly unconscious—emotion from rational thought? I suggest asking these questions:
1. Can I recognize a primal instinct to belong as the source of my urge to jump blindly—and instead consciously choose to act rather than react?
2. Would it be possible to keep one foot in my current work while firmly establishing a new place of genuine work fit elsewhere, to ease the transition?
3. If I realize my work-seeking activities are strongly motivated by a need to fill the hole of not belonging, how can I slow down, listen to myself and others, pay attention to the way events are unfolding, and make sure I’m heading toward a tribe that truly fits my values and all I bring to my work?
4. If I must pass through the unnatural disconnection of not belonging with any work tribe, how can I peacefully acknowledge and accept that type of discomfort for as long as the solitary crossing requires?
5. While I’m on the way to a good work fit, where can I find and focus on places of healthy belonging outside of work?
When facing a significant job or career change, pausing to reflect may help us understand how the instinctive drive for belonging affects our choices. That instinct is important, but we’ll be better off in the long run if we don’t allow it complete control over our work decisions. I hope we can all pause long enough to stay in charge of important job and career transitions.
Has the longing for belonging ever caused you to make a work choice you later regretted? Please tell us about it in the “Comments” section below.
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