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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Discover New Meaning During This Time of Dis-Ease

We were flung from our comfort zones and thrust into strange and unfamiliar territories. No more evening get-togethers, dining at our favorite restaurant with friends, or even quick trips to the gym and blissing out in yoga class.

That’s all coldly labeled now as non-essential, “risky” behavior in many parts of our world.

In its place, a new way of life is demanded from us: social distancing, shelter in place, and lockdowns in cities.

Our Collective Consciousness is Grieving

We feel uncomfortable. Empty. Lost. Alone.

And we’re grieving. Yes, grieving. Our world has changed. Grief expert David Kessler, who co-wrote “On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss” with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, says our sense of normalcy is gone.

“…the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively.

We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”

Kessler offers reassuring words. This too, shall pass. He’s learned from history that the steps we’re taking now, while uncomfortable, are what needs to be done. “This is a time to overprotect but not overreact,” he asserts.

And it’s a time to re-think – everything. Some employers are discovering that working from home may become integrated into their new norm; learning institutions are realizing that online learning can be efficiently done.

“One is never afraid of the unknown; one is afraid of the known coming to an end.”

~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

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­­­­Changing the Old “It’s Always Been Done This Way’ Mentality

Americans work about an hour longer each day than their European counterparts: a third of Americans work more than 45 hours a week; about 10 million work more than 60.

Mark Wilson, writing in Fast Company about the global crisis, cited those statistics and asked a profound question: “How do we watch and educate our children while also clocking in the current 47-hour workweek?’

He proposes we don’t.

He cites more revealing data about the non-stop, 24/7 economy. More than half of US employees are hourly – working 8% more hours than in 1978 – but making only 11.6% more – even though they’re 6 times as productive compared to the 1970s. It’s called “The Productivity-Pay Gap” – meaning employee compensation hasn’t grown alongside corporate profits.

During this crisis, he wonders how can we work 40+ hours a week and teach our children too? How can we be there for them during this crisis, calming their fears, listening to their worries, and get our work done, too? How can we address our own needs in such uncertain times?

His answer was simple. We can’t.

Wilson says we need to slow companies down, no more business as usual. “We need to ask less of ourselves as professionals and less of each other as coworkers. It’s time to phone it in, literally and figuratively, to both protect our world and nurture the next generation.”

Learning to Let Go of Status Quo & Let Change Happen

It’s human nature to resist change, to keep the same old ways. Yet to grow, to do things in a better way, means we must learn to embrace change.

And now, during these chaotic times, thinking outside the box is key to not only getting through these challenging times, but soaring above – and doing things in a better way.

Yes, this is a time where we must challenge the status quo, to re-define how we do things and to come into greater alignment with our own core values.

World events have forced just about every one of us to step outside of our comfort zones – and though disconcerting, we also know that’s when profoundly impactful, lasting change can happen.

How can you, as a leader, go forward and challenge the status quo? Stacey Engle offers 3 suggestions:

  1. Encourage and invite all. Inclusivity brings fresh inspiration.
  2. Ask questions. Why isn’t something working? Engaging with your employees can lead to more meaningful insight.
  3. Be prepared to assist change – keep an open mind. Don’t automatically say ‘no.’ Be radical. Stay curious.

Remember, no one has all the answers. This is a collective journey we’re on. A good leader learns to listen loudly – put ego out of the way – and let success blossom.

Find Meaning in the New “Normal”

Undoubtedly, our lives are different.

But slowly, some of us may begin to realize that we have time now for things we always said we never had time for before – in our ‘old’ lives. Time with our children. Walking the dog. Reading. Discovering new hobbies. Working around our homes.

We can use technology to connect with family and friends, so we can still feel a sense of connection, if only virtually. And we can learn to have more compassion.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”

-Plato 

Let’s always remember to be kind to ourselves, too. When we’re kind to ourselves, we’re kinder to others. And the world needs kindness and compassion, not only now, but always.

What if the “new” and uncertain that lies ahead has gifts we haven’t even begun to unwrap yet?

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