Transforming Longing into Belonging

Transforming Longing into Belonging: The Most Impactful Way to Bring Out the Best in Everyone at Work

“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.”
– Maya Angelou

Oh, how we all long to belong.

We yearn to be a part of something.

And it’s completely normal: belonging is one of our most basic needs.

Something inside of us craves a connection with the outside world, to validate that we are a part of it, to let others know we are worthy of being seen, heard and, yes, acknowledged.

I just completed a whirlwind week-long tour of client workshops in five different countries between North America and Europe. Every other time, such a rhythm would have exhausted me physically and mentally.

But not this one.

Why?

Because in each city where I landed, I felt home.

Yes, it helps that I have two passports, children of a third nationality and lots of time working in each of these cities.

But what was even more nurturing than geographical familiarity was the sense of belonging I felt with dear friends with whom I was able to spend quality time in each place.

It’s this depth of connection – this gift of really “seeing” and “hearing” each other – I get to experience with colleagues, my closest friends, and many clients (who often turn into friends) that make my job not feel at all like work.

“You can’t build a society purely on interests, you need a sense of belonging.”
– Valery Giscard D’Estaing

This inner need to belong has shown itself boldly in the workplace, where over-worked, frenzied and worn-out employees want to feel that they are a part of something meaningful. The top leaders I work with are grappling with how to navigate the higher-than-ever rates of depression, absenteeism and attrition befalling their teams and organizations.

The answer lies in helping their people to feel a part of something – to belong to a bigger cause.

As I wrote about recently, this means cultivating a greater sense of meaning in the workplace, yes. But it also means helping people first belong to themselves and then with each other so that they can derive meaning from that meaning.

Before even getting to the place I described above of feeling cozy with the people around me in several different countries, I first had to get to a place of belonging to myself. Having undergone a traumatic childhood which hard-wired me to feel “Not part of” no matter whom I was around, I can tell you this was not an easy task. But it was well worth the effort.

Ever been in a room full of people and still feel lonely? That’s what I’m talking about here. Feeling like we truly belong means interacting with people we jive with, yes. But first and foremost, it means jiving with ourselves. Astute leaders aim to cultivate this for their people.

Show Them the Money – or a Sense of Belonging?

Nearly three quarters of employees feel their sense of purpose is defined by their employment, according to research by McKinsey. Unfortunately, companies oftentimes don’t provide an environment that communicates a sense of community and caring, which leads to employees feeling bankrupt in belonging.

And that emptiness has repercussions. Having just completed writing my master’s thesis about the unhealthy coping mechanisms many of us adopt when we feel we don’t belong, I can say with confidence that not experiencing a sense of belonging is at the root of our acting out with unhealthy coping mechanisms.

This means that, until we condition ourselves otherwise, many of us get lost in addictions, re-enacting past traumas and generally wreaking havoc in our present lives – including at work.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
– Mother Teresa

McKinsey & Company’s research discovered that most employees don’t leave their current jobs in search of a bigger paycheck.

Rather, 54% of workers left because their ideas and contributions weren’t appreciated and 51% didn’t feel as if they belonged at their workplace.

And for those employees that remain in a workplace where they do not feel that they are valued, imposters are born. They create a persona to “look like they matter,” according to Ron Carucci. “Looking smart, put together, competent, and “good” to others becomes the need they pander to when the genuine need isn’t satisfied.”

That, Carucci says, breeds insecurity and falseness. Not to mention a waste of energy and time that could have been put to more productive use.

Or, employees simply punch-in and punch-out in an empty cycle of unfulfillment. This, according to my research, unfortunately becomes the case when we don’t do the inner work to process our resentments and trauma so we can belong to ourselves and take on more fulfilling roles – where meaning and belonging with others comes more naturally to us.

When Longing to Belong Becomes “Covering Up”

That sense of longing to belong can be at the forefront of “covering,” according to Rhodes Perry, author of Belonging at Work.

When our inner selves tell us we don’t belong, we purposely hide particular aspects of ourselves that may cause us to be seen as outsiders.

Covering up sacrifices our authenticity
a foundational element to true belonging and to Bolder Leadership.

In a particular culture, certain traits are valued. And if an employee has attributes that aren’t perceived valuable by that culture, they are unable to be their true selves. They cover up, pretending to be something or someone they’re not – and creating a vicious cycle of falseness around them.

A Deloitte study revealed that 61% of employees hide an aspect of themselves at the workplace. For marginalized groups, the percentages are even higher.

Covering up squashes individuality and expression of ideas – and it naturally inhibits authenticity, creativity and stronger impact.

Why Build a Belonging Workplace Culture?

“True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
– Brene Brown

When workers feel that sense of belonging, companies benefit.

Engagement Multiplier writer Sarah Skerika notes an HBR article that cited a sense of belonging at work creates a:

  • 50% decrease in turnover risk
  • 56% increase in job performance
  • 75% reduction in sick days

How Can Leaders Create That Sense of Belonging?

Writing in HBR, Julia Taylor Kennedy and Pooja Jain-Link offered a measurable definition that notes we feel a sense of belonging at work when we:

  • Are recognized for our contributions
  • Feel a connection with our coworkers
  • Experience a supportive culture
  • Take pride in the company’s values and purpose
  • Derive meaning from the work we do and the relationships we build there

Ways to Cultivate a Sense of Belonging in the Workplace

The authors suggested simple ways to cultivate a sense of belonging that go a long way in making employees feel appreciated.

Consider the following strategies:

When a project is brought to a successful conclusion, make sure to acknowledge each team member for their specific efforts. It’s all about creating a workplace where employees feel they are valued: where they know that they and their contributions matter, and they truly feel as if they have meaning at the company.

Another strategy? Let go. Great leaders in organizations today are those who know that letting go fosters innovation, collaboration, and a sense of -belonging – being a valued member of a team.

These are all simple steps. Yet, as leaders – and their employees – are stretched thin because they are expected to perform 24/7+ in their work efforts, it can seem that a focus on belonging in the workplace has taken a back seat.

We are each overwhelmed digitally…emotionally…physically…as we try to navigate a “new normal” that seems anything but.

Let us strive to never ignore the true, human value that each person offers in the workplace – and beyond.

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Meaning

Meaning: The Inspirational Thread Running Through Only the Most Impactful Cultures

“If you know the ‘why’, you can live any ‘how’.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

Recently I led a CEO Roundtable in Lyon…the topic? Creating Meaning at work for leaders and their teams. And it was a lively discussion – this despite the fact we were all nearly strangers at the start of the meal.

Indeed, with the lingering effects of two years of COVID and now new, hybrid working models, the ever-present Ukraine upheaval and resulting dispossession from home for millions of people and drain on world fuel options, etc. – all of them are facing the unprecedented at-work crisis of depressed workers.

Absenteeism and resignations are at an all-time high. And these CEOs – already dealing with their own sense of chaos and loss – are simply out of ideas for what to do.

The Meaning Quotient: a New Concept for Leaders

That’s where meaning comes in. That’s why our discussion was so energizing.

Even in a country like France which most professionals would agree is behind the curve in understanding what it means to develop leaders, Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is now a known factor for creating better relationships at the office.

But MQ – Meaning Quotient – was completely new to them. And, in my experience working with leaders across the world, they are not alone.

In their 2011 business strategy book Beyond Performance, McKinsey Senior Partner Scott Keller and Leadership Expert Colin Price point out that when MQ is low, employees put less energy into their work…they tend to see it as ‘just a job’/ paycheck.

But with high MQ, there’s a strong sense of excitement and challenge, a belief that “this matters” and “I can make a difference,” and a freedom to innovate and adapt to do “what’s never been done before.”

Clearly, then, meaning is worth learning more about and embedding more deeply into the day-to-day of our companies.

Leaders, we have the power to give our lives and careers meaning.

“When you’re surrounded by people who share
a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible.”
– Howard Schultz, Starbucks

As with the Lyon CEOs with whom I met, the route we choose towards a fuller life begins within each of us. Not only is this the only way to truly embody meaning in all that we do, but also role modeling what we would love to see more of in our organizations is a sure-fire way to get it.

Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries cites an example common to many leaders I work with:

As CEO of a large and profitable company, to the outside world, Philip {seemed to} ha{ve} it all.
But all was not what it seemed: his inner world was falling apart.
He felt that life was simply an endless task and felt he was drowning in a sea of other people’s needs.
And because he was never present on the home front – physically or emotionally – his wife left, and his children more or less ignored him.
He felt without hope and wanted a new life.

It’s a hopeful truth that several of the highly successful leaders I work with – partners in upper-end consulting firms, VPs in tech companies and global humanitarian professionals alike – all reach a point of no return when they realize that the “why” they had been working so hard to fulfill up until now far from satisfies their inner longings for meaning.

Yes, the titles of status, multiple homes, and walk-in closets filled with designer goods can feel good – up to a certain point.

But when that’s all we are shooting for, we are setting ourselves up for emptiness indeed.

In his discussions with senior leaders, Kets de Vries found that a common thread emerged: most had a desire to become the best version of themselves.

But how do we get there?

Moving past our current selves and take control by targeting things that we can act on like defining and living our values and purpose is the only way to accomplish this.

Kets de Vries further writes that “life can only be meaningful if we give it meaning.” He breaks it down by noting that meaning applies to how we experience life by our valued goals: does whatever we are doing truly matter to us?

Here are some suggestions Kets de Vries offers on leading a more fulfilling life:

  • Define what makes us feel alive
  • Release the unpleasant relationships or situations around us
  • Convey empathy and compassion by kind deeds
  • Create more meaning at work
  • Be grateful for what you already have

What Predicts a Meaningful Life?

“The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others,
devote yourself to your community around you, and
devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
– Mitch Albom

Research has found that meaning in life is closely linked with a sense of purpose and direction. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. As Arash Emamzadeh writes in Psychology Today,

“…despite engaging in activities you consider meaningful (e.g., volunteering or teaching), you may feel your life as a whole is not meaningful.

In addition, people may perceive certain aspects of their worldview or self-view (e.g., occupation, talents, abilities, intimate relationships) as more meaningful than others.”

Meaning is Very Subjective

What may look meaningful to some people may not feel meaningful to us. It’s all about the meaning we give to, well, meaning.

My two little girls are the lights of my life. But I have also set a strong intention to be very present in their lives, which can be challenging at times. If I hadn’t had such a clear intention, then I could easily be one of those folks who claims to be Mom, but who also secretly feels resentful about the time and energy any sweet little being requires.

And while I definitely have my moments (lol), instead, I get to enjoy tremendous meaning with my daughters through actively living out my values of family and motherhood and my purpose of helping these bright lights live their own purposes.

And so it is with all of us: to what degree are we actually giving our attention to what matters most in our lives?

Believe it or not, research has come up with some predictors of a meaningful life, even if as mentioned above, how we each define meaning is indeed subjective.

These predictors are:

  • Existential mattering
  • Coherence
  • A sense of purpose

To Enjoy a Meaningful Life, Ask Deep Questions

“To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there.”
-Kofi Annan

We all deserve to experience a deeply meaningful life – in the workplace and beyond. In order to enjoy meaning at work and in life, we must first be willing to look within.

We may not think we have time to slow down for the space such contemplation necessitates. But as a single mom and successful business owner completing her second Masters (and buying her first property abroad!), I can promise you that none of these things would be possible for me without my daily quiet time. I would be too off-centered and veering in all directions otherwise. Once we are able to create some quiet moments for ourselves, Emamzadeh proposes a contemplation of some deep questions to gauge where we are on.

  • Existential mattering: If you had never existed, do you think the world would have noticed or cared? Do you believe your existence has value? What impact(s) have you made?
  • Coherence: Does it feel like you’re always in the middle of a windstorm, tossed to and fro in an endless cycle of confusion? Or does it usually seem that all the pieces of life fit together?
  • Purpose: Where is your life headed? Are you aiming for (and committed to) clear goals? Or does life feel fuzzy, like you’re not striving for any particular target?

These questions aren’t meant to be answered once then forgotten.

They are meant to be chewed on, creating space for realizations to come and then more chewing, deeper realizations, etc.

By regularly (and honestly) asking ourselves these questions – through mere reflection or through journaling – we can gain clarity on how meaningful we perceive our life experience to be in the present moment – and over time.

And clarity gives us the power of choice: we can then choose to shift where we put our attention so we can gain greater enjoyment – and meaning – through how we spend our time.

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
-Viktor Frankl

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Trust

Trust Building: the Long, Slow, Unavoidable Process to Truly Bolder Leadership

Trust is the highest form of human motivation.
It brings out the very best in people.
But it takes time and patience.”
-Stephen Covey, Speed of Trust

In nearly every team I work with, trust – or some form of it – proves to be the missing link. Consequently, the real conversations aren’t had, people say “yes” when they mean “no”, and things generally don’t get done in the most optimal way they can. A break in trust is also the number one reason why individual leaders I work with feel blocked or unmotivated to carry out their work at the highest level of which they are capable.

And all of them are absolutely right: trust is at the very core of any – in and out of work – relationship worth having. Who wants to work with anyone who acts unreliably, out of congruence, or in a cagey, uncaring way? Not me. Neither does any leader I know who wants to do their absolute best work.

But many companies don’t yet see the value of distinguishing trust as the essential element in their operating models.

Impactful Leadership Starts with Trust

Indeed, trust is the foundation for just about everything meaningful we do, in leadership and in life.

This simple, 5-letter word can offer an impressive breadth of benefits to organizations large and small:

  • Enhanced productivity
  • More optimal results
  • Deeper meaning and sense of purpose
  • Greater creativity and innovation
  • Stronger collaboration
  • Higher levels of employee retention

Even better, those working in high-trust workplaces typically experience lower stress levels and greater happiness – which in turn fuels all the benefits above.

It makes sense: just ask yourself where you would rather work – in an environment that emphasizes a culture of trust and support – or one where trust is just another empty buzzword-of-the-moment? It’s a no-brainer for most of us.

Even though, sadly, many toxic cultures – and relationships – abound.

Bolder Leaders Know This Isn’t Just A “Feel-Good” Concept

“Trust has to be the highest value in your company,
and if it’s not, something bad is going to happen to you.”
– Marc Benioff

Trust has very real impacts at every level of the organization. Check out the results of a 2020 global survey, “Trust in the Modern Workplace,” of nearly 4,000 employees and business leaders in 11 countries. Commissioned by The Workforce Institute at UKG and conducted by Workplace Intelligence:

  • Employees who do not feel trusted are less productive: two-thirds (68%) say that the perception of low trust hurts their daily effort.
  • More than half (58%) of employees say a lack of trust affects their career choices, including nearly a quarter (24%) who left a company because they did not feel trusted.
  • Half of all employees surveyed globally (55%) feel a lack of trust impacts their mental health.
  • Low trust even hurts talent pools: one in five employees (22%) intentionally did not refer a loved one or acquaintance to an open role because they did not trust their company.

On the other hand, consider these powerful stats that compare people working at low-trust companies versus those at high-trust ones. In stark contrast to their counterparts stuck in a low-trust company, those at high-trust organizations reported (amongst other benefits like fewer sick days and way more energy):

  • 74% less stress
  • 50% greater productivity
  • 76% more engagement,
  • 29% more satisfaction with their lives

And I can attest to this: ever since I became part of a global network of transformational facilitators who walk the talk and embody trustfully relating at every turn, my life, career and business has never been the same. Not that I or the system have always been perfect, but because I have felt held in my development by highly competent and deeply caring people, I have had the courage to overcome my limitations, to flourish and to give back to this community in whatever way I can.

This is how trust can be a virtuous cycle for all of us: the more we become trustworthy, the more we build healthy, more productive relationships, the more inspired we are to take ourselves and those we’re in relationship with even further in our skills and talents, then we become even more trustworthy at a higher level, etc.

There’s no way to lose with trust. And although bringing it about can at times require a focus of time and energy, once it’s there, the rewards are endless.

Simple Strategies to Cultivate Trust in the Workplace

“Trust is a currency; you can’t afford not to invest in it.”
– Juliana Vergara

In The Neuroscience of Trust printed in HBR, author Paul J. Zak shares several key strategies that leaders can implement to encourage a culture of trust. These were the result of Zak’s neuroscience research efforts, and if you care to understand the science behind his concepts, I highly recommend checking out the HBR article.

Here are some of Zak’s top tips for encouraging trust. The best part? Any leader can start right now to integrate these strategies into the workplace environment:

  1. Acknowledge excellence – and consider making it a public display. That’s because we can leverage the “power of the crowd” while also inspiring others to strive for their own version of greatness.
  2. Give others the benefit of following their own unique path. Once someone is trained in their role, give them the opportunity to figure stuff out. Why? It’s a powerful motivator when we let others know we trust them to figure things out.
  3. Be transparent. Cliché? Yes. But most people aren’t truly transparent – still withholding their truth. Furthermore, being transparent emphasizes a very real issue in many workplaces: a lack of clear direction. One stat suggests 40% of employees said they were “well informed about their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics.” For the other 60%, this can increase stress levels – and send productivity plummeting.

And this isn’t even mentioning the potentially lost opportunity in building trust even further with teams by co-creating the team’s/organization’s goals, strategies and tactics. Even better, co-creating our common purpose and vision is one of the most effective trust-building activities a company can engage in. Yet, most don’t think of these.

Another key trust building move which Zak doesn’t mention is being vulnerable to those around us – yes, even at work. In Brene Brown’s Power of Vulnerability Ted Talk, she reveals how showing who we really are to others – our thoughts, emotions, values and needs – can build trust in a flash. Indeed, choosing to remove the layers of protection so many of us armor ourselves with can convince others of our approachability, care and trustworthiness.

Navigating the Leadership Journey in Our “New Normal”

It seems the “new normal” that we all talked about for so long is finally here. In most places around the world, life has moved on: kids are back in school, employees have returned to the office, and life feels…well, anything but “normal” (if it ever existed at all).

Instead, most of us face mounting stressors in a rapidly evolving world. Our employees may be facing significant financial impacts, strained relationships, increasing roles and responsibilities…even food insecurity and long-term health concerns.

That’s why this is precisely the time to develop a high-trust workplace. The Center for Creative Leadership gives a strong, simple assertion: “Our research underscores the need for trust in organizations.”

Unsurprisingly, they cite many of the same reasons we’ve already covered – and then some. Think:

  • Alignment around a shared purpose
  • Confidence in taking risks
  • More authentic communication
  • A sense of community support

If we aren’t yet convinced, we need to be: trust should be the very foundation of our “new normal.” Our world, with its every-increasing ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty just can’t wait any more for real, dependable and meaningful relationships to develop.

Oh, and one more important tip before you go: Bolder Leaders know that trust begins within: we can’t give what we don’t have. Today, explore your inner feelings more deeply to connect to your intuition. In other words – trust yourself first. Then go out there and lead boldly 😊

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Listening

Deeper Listeners, More Impactful Leaders: How Really Listening is a Leadership Game Changer

“The quality of our attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking…
Attention is that powerful:  it generates thinking.  It is an act of creations.”
– Nancy Klein

It always amazes me how very simple acts can be the most powerful.  Like giving someone my full attention when she speaks.  As simple as it might seem, depending on my own levels of stress or fatigue, this can be the most challenging for me at times.

We’ve all been there: checking our phones for messages or in our minds jumping ahead to the next meeting or next part of the conversation.  First thing might just be understanding that we diminish our own impact when we “check out” of the conversation.

Then we can choose to listen more fully. With time, we may even notice that in addition to drawing people toward us more easily, we are actually also deriving more meaning from these exchanges.  At this point, we are probably also helping to create more meaning for the person with whom we are in conversation.

How well do you really listen when someone speaks?

Listening is a skill that we all could stand to deepen, not only to become more effective and successful leaders, but to enrich our lives as well.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
-Stephen R. Covey

Listening is a Basic Leadership Skill

Research says most of us will draw a blank on about half of what was said.  Do we really want to lead like that?

Good listeners are like diamonds – rare finds.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes in Fast Company that not only is quality listening an often ignored ability, but the skill of listening – and how effective we are at it – can determine our leadership potential.

He cites a study that revealed those who listen well oftentimes are better workers and have a greater sense of wellbeing. They are viewed as empathetic and interested.

We all might benefit from reflecting on these questions:

  • How much do I remember what my team says?
  • How often do I often interrupt?
  • While the other person is talking, where is my own mind (already focused on my response? somewhere other than what they’re actually saying, etc.)?
  • How often do I secretly harbor the feeling that I’ve got so much on my plate as a leader, no one could possibly offer anything that’s worth listening to?
  • To what extent do I believe that being the dominant speaker (rather than the listener) is what constitutes an effective leader?

It might be time to take a step back.

And truly listen.

Deeper Listeners, More Impactful Leaders

Julian Saipe brings up valid points in Forbes: young executives can sometimes be hesitant to admit they don’t know everything, while long-time senior executives may become confined in a rut, and do things simply for the reason that ‘they’ve always been done that way.’

As a result, a limbo exists: each maintains his/her own position without seeking new avenues, new opinions, new thoughts about doing things better. They’re not listening to anyone but themselves – and, even then, I would argue that they’re only listening to the fear voice and not the one of wisdom.

Additionally, society too often grooms us to push our views onto others. There seems to be a (scarily) widespread perception that great leaders are loud, opinionated and live by a “my way or the highway” mantra.  Just look at one of them who recently got elected to the highest position in the US…scary stuff.

Neither promotes creative or healthy work environments.  And neither leads to impactful leadership.

Listening to diverse opinions or perspectives encourages more inclusive work environments and higher performing teams, ones where workers know they are valued.  Innovation and productivity often flourish as a result.

“I only wish I could find an institute that teaches people how to listen.
Businesspeople need to listen at least as much as they need to talk.
Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions.”
— Lee Iacocca

Learning to Really Listen as a Leader

Listening makes better leaders.

Writing in Forbes, Jonathan H. Westover, Ph.D. cites research that proves listening and better leaders go together.  Effective listening within a business setting has many positive effects:

  • Develops deeper levels of trust
  • Builds stronger team collaborations
  • Encourages greater levels of creativity
  • Engenders higher productivity

Every human wants to feel that we are important enough, worthy enough, to be listened to.  When we sense that what we are saying has little meaning or value to the other person, we become disengaged.  Imagine, therefore the effect on the people at work when they don’t feel listened to.

But how does one begin to listen more effectively?

Tami Corwin and Donato Tramuto writing in Fast Company offer a few tips:

  1. Be focused and present. Avoid distractions. Make a conscious choice to set aside time for genuine, authentic Simon Sinek suggests ‘be the last to speak.’
  2. Be curious. Ask many questions. Make listening an opportunity to learn.

Chamorro-Premuzic offers additional suggestions to becoming a more impactful listener:

  • Learn to see things from another person’s perspective by being empathetic.
  • Exercise self-control. Stop interrupting. Let people make their point.
  • Develop a reputation for being a good listener. Include everyone.

Like any other skill in life, listening is one from which we all can benefit by intentionally choosing to put our focus there. Today, I invite you to challenge yourself to listen with intention – the positive results may ripple out far beyond the experience of the moment.

“When we listen, we hear someone into existence.”
― Laurie Buchanan, PhD

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