Authenticity, Love, and Belonging in the Workplace
- POSTED ON AUGUST 16, 2023
“A generous heart is always open, always ready to receive our going and coming. In the midst of such love, we need never fear abandonment. This is the most precious gift true love offers — the experience of knowing we always belong.”
— bell hooks, All About Love
Whether it’s Frances Frei and Anne Morris educating us on the importance of tough love in the workplace, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy sharing that love is the world’s oldest medicine, or countless studies that find that love impacts workplace wellbeing, the working world seems to be finally catching up to what bell hooks wrote nearly 25 years ago — even in the workplace, it is indeed all about love. And here, I define love as hooks does, a sensation that offers “the experience of knowing we always belong.”
Belonging is Biological
The desire to belong is hardwired into our brains, and we don’t check that biological need at the door when we enter the workplace. We want to know we belong at work just as much as we belong in our families or on our bowling teams or with our social circles. And that’s because our brain doesn’t really differentiate based on the socially constructed context, we’re in — it sees all this information about our status as data. We naturally sort our world into “us vs them” faster than we can be consciously aware of, and we receive neurobiological rewards when we are part of an “in group.” All this is to say, the literature is clear that when a person knows they belong, it creates conditions for them to thrive. When a person feels they do not belong, it creates conditions of adversity, strife, and stress.
But don’t just listen to the literature. Take a moment and think about how it felt when...
- You were part of an amazing team that accomplished something meaningful together.
- You shared a laugh or an inside joke with a colleague.
- Your manager remembered your birthday, your favorite movie, or another important aspect of your life outside work.
These social cues of belonging are so impactful that it’s likely even just remembering them brings up the warm and fuzzies for you.
The Importance of Authenticity
But now, take a moment and think about how it felt when...
- The whole team made social plans at 8pm on a weekday, and you couldn’t go because you’re a caregiver for your family.
- The first 10 minutes of a meeting is spent talking about a sporting event you know nothing about.
- Your manager books a team offsite on a religious holiday that you observe.
For most people, experiencing just one of these cues won’t signal that you’ve been rejected by your workplace. Yet even in isolation, each one clues your brain in that a part of you — be it your identity as caregiver, your lack of interest in sports, or your religious observance — doesn’t (as hooks says) “always belong.” In other words, you’ve been alerted that your belonging to this group is conditional based on certain factors of your identity, and that status could be threatened if you express too much of that part of you.
This lines up with the research of Dr. Gabor Maté, who found that for us to truly experience the benefits of belonging (or as he names it, “attachment”), we need to feel the freedom to be our authentic selves in our group. We need to know that our group will accept all parts of our identity, unconditionally. In other words, if I have to hide a meaningful part of myself away to fit in, then in my heart I know I really don’t belong at all.
Build Spaces Where We All Belong
Here is where the work waits.
At CTI, our Co-Active model teaches us to focus on the whole person. And this maps to what the research tells us — if we know the experience of love (with belonging as a proxy) in the workplace is important for well-being, and we know that true belonging is present only with full-permission authenticity, then we need to create working spaces that embrace all aspects of identity and focus on (bringing) the whole person to work.
Focus on the whole person is a philosophy that requires so much more than corporate-sponsored employee resource groups or external mental health benefits. It is not enough to put values on a poster on a wall that states “Everyone is welcome.” If an organization truly advocates for focus on the whole person, that ethos permeates the lived experience of the employee. This is a commitment to wholeness at an organizational level that cascades through the workplace in such a way that every employee knows they belong. When an organization is truly focused on the whole person, it creates a felt sense for the employee that they are safe.
How Organizations Can Focus on the Whole Person
Here are some ways we’ve seen organizations we’ve partnered with embody the philosophy of focus on the whole person:
- Listen, Deeply: Individuals are the best arbiters of their own experience, and organizations that want to focus on the whole person listen to the whole person. For some organizations, this shows up as thoughtful and evidence-based surveys. For others, it means targeted focus groups that seek to understand and solve for day-to-day employee experience.
- Build Human-Centered Policies: Whole-person-focused organizations start with philosophies that guide their approach to employee experience. From there, they build policies that support those philosophies and, in turn, processes that enable those policies to be upheld.
- Train Managers as Coaches: Front-line managers are some of the highest-impact points of contact for employee experience. By training managers as coaches and rewarding coach-like behavior, organizations are able to scale their efforts more effectively than when they simply rely on external benefits.
- Strengthen the Muscle of Disagreement: Disagreement doesn’t have to be a signal of not belonging when done well.
What steps are you willing to take to create a space for authenticity, belonging, and love in your workplace?