On my Mind
The changing nature of belonging
I’ve found myself reflecting this week on the nature and complexity of belonging. It was triggered by a decision we made not to move house from where we have been for over thirty years to somewhere smaller and easier to manage as we get older.
Although the logic is sound, we underestimated how much we belong where we are. We are fortunate in where we live in Derbyshire, fronting on to the River Derwent, with ancient woodlands to the back of us in a place that has seen the beginning and end of the Industrial Revolution.
What I had not realised was the depth of the relationship we have with the land we are on, and how much we have become part of its rhythm. It’s been a gradual and largely unconscious process, brought into awareness by entertaining the idea of moving, and carries with it the question of who belongs to who. The house has been where it is for around three hundred years, and the land, of course, for rather longer. The idea of owning it seems vaguely ridiculous. I now understand that we have a relationship with this place that is much more complex than that.
The last two years have significantly changed our relationships with people we work with. We have become used to, and skilled in the virtual as it has evolved from being a substitute for “proper” meetings to an often preferred default. It continues to change the nature of teams and leadership and those who think we can just go back to where we were look increasingly ridiculous as they flounder and protest.
It feels rather as though we have been part of some long term behaviourist experiment that has us rewarded for mindlessly accepting that commuting, working long fixed hours, sacrificng our personal lives and putting up with ineffective leaders. Increasingly, we see the experiment for what it is- deeply flawed and increasingly obsolete.
Over the last two years, my close circle has expanded to around thirty people, deepened, and become more diverse. It has brought with it strong relationships, trust, resilience and creative, confident explorations into possibility. The way I communicate with those I work with has been transformed by being part of groups who I do not work with, which removes politics and self interest, and introduces a deep desire to improve the wellbeing of the society we have become. Conventional business meetings seem hopelessly shallow by comparison.
Work in a Capitalist system has always struggled to provide personal meaning or purpose beyond pay, and by its nature produces far more losers than winners as return on capital has outstripped return on work. Perhaps that too is changing.
I suspect I’m not alone in noticing that “work” has moved from being at the centre of my life to a “side hustle”. Something as a way to earn money whilst I set the direction of my life on things that are based on things with far deeper, less transient values. Something it would have been good to understand earlier, but I’m just grateful I have realised it at all.
The relentless pursuit of efficiency has changed work cultures dramatically during my working life. Making and Marketing are much further apart then they were. Metrics are short term and almost exclusively financial. The relationship between Organisations and the society that provides the staff have become dislocated. The organisations themselves have become more like tokens to be traded, with branded “identities” that are so inauthentic they are often decidedly counterfeit. Employee engagement has fallen as steeply as mental health and wellness issues have risen, and most organisations show signs of being distinctly unhealthy places to work.
Play, the foundation of creativity and relationships has been reduced to episodic experiences, and for managers and staff more akin to exercise time in prison, overseen by warders rather than a spontaneous part of everyday life.
In short, the way we work and live has made belonging increasingly difficult, and that’s a problem. Optimism lies in the fact that we can, if we choose, change it.
Without a sense of belonging, we are rootless. Belonging gives us a history. We know who has been here before us, and their relationship with a place to which we are committed, and by whose joint health we assess our own life’s contribution. Without somehere to belong, we are more like tumbleweed blown from place to place by prevailing winds.
I have come to understand that organisations can now rarely provide a place to belong. Their failure to adapt to changing conditions means that they are often transient, either falling prey to more rapid failure, or through being absorbed through predatory acquisition. Either way, they are rarely able to meet our need for belonging.
In the time we have lived in this house, I have worked for five different organisations and been based in four different countries,. During that time my centre of belonging, the place I am literally grounded, has been where I live. Its asset value pales into insignificance in terms of its importance to us.
What I have also learned is that organisations can no longer provide a platform for societies no matter what we, or HR, would like to think. We now have much more powerful and stable ways of creating and maintaining our own society, and the connections that will nurture us independent of the organisation. Somewhere we are treated as s Citizens, more than subjects or just passive consumers. It is something that younger generations now take for granted, but which it has taken COVID for me to come to really understand.
The close group I now value are independent of any work I choose to do or organisation I work with. Work orbits around my group, rather than the other way round. What is something of a revelation for me over these last couple of years is routine for those entering the workplace, and the implications seem huge.
Organisations seem to treat those for whom it is routine as “entitled”. I think it’s different – its just the values by which they are prepared to work, and if the workplace will not provide it, they will find somewhere that will. Perhaps not so much “the great resignation” as “the great realignment”. Perhaps the yonger generations are seen as entitled because organisations are ceasing to be so?
When we have somewhere to belong, we can go anywhere in the knowledge we have somewhere to come back to that knows who we are, what we stand for and who will support us. It used to be a physical space, but now its also virtual.
When we belong somewhere, the power of the organisation to direct our lives is tamed.
That’s quite a thought.
Inspiring me this week.
The opposites game.
This is a powerful short film. A question following it – what is the opposite of work?
The Power of Intuition
We so worship data, we forget about intuition – we shouldn’t. A film trailer to make us think.
A short list of views from authors, and a reminder that if things seem hopeless, we’re probably looking in the wrong place.
The British Academy did some excellent work on the impacts of Covid and the long term strategies we should think about. You may have difficulty spotting them in the current political dialogue, so I thought I’d put a two munute summary here.
Jon Alexander is on tour for the next few months. His ideas in “Citizens” are I think important, and are generating momentum. Details here.
A Closing Thought
Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird