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Leading with psychology: belonging is the first competence

Posted on: October 11, 2009

We can only change successfully when we belong

As a young work psychologist, I was lucky. I graduated just as Zimbabwe achieved Independence and I joined the work force when investment was high and change was rapid, far-reaching and positive.  Everything was being turned inside-out and upside-down, but in an climate of hope & expectation.

The business conditions of today are not that different – except that there is little hope & expectation. Other than Barack Obama, we don’t have leaders who are able to point us in a general direction and say “that way guys”.   And we don’t have investment flooding in. Times are tough. Failure and blame are in the air.

This bring us to a little-talked-about issue in change management. We can only change successfully when we belong.

Rethinking the work of managers

This week, McKinsey published a report on re-energizing senior managers. I almost didn’t read it. Why do I care about senior managers who created this mess, I thought?

That is precisely the point. They can’t think straight when no-one cares about them.

  • Yes, it is clear they made the mess. They know that.
  • Yes, it is clear that whatever business models they used in the past must be wrong. They know that.

But, they can only “step-up-to-the-plate” and help us work out the new rules when they know that we will accept them as they are – not all-knowing.

Remember for a long time we’ve treated managers as if they are all-knowing. We’ve given them conspicuous lifestyles because we wanted to reward this all-knowing.   And now they are not all-knowing, who are they?  What do they contribute? How are they supposed to function?

They are paralyzed.  The only way to unlock the paralysis, the only way to gain access to the skills and know-how that they do have, is to give them permission to be sort-of-knowing.  They cannot function unless we show them as they belong – as they are.

Where does belonging begin?

McKinsey write their report for CEO’s which leaves a second point unspoken. These are hierarchical organizations. The junior people do not decide who belongs and who does not. We don’t give permission to anyone to be anything.

In hierarchical organizations, the process of signallng belonging begins with the Board, goes through the CEO, through the senior managers to the managers and, only then, to the front-line.  Of course, this begs the question of who soothes the Board.  Well, we’ve hit on the fundamental weakness of hierarchical organizations.

Until we have sorted that out, the lesson for senior managers and change management scholars is that change will never happen unless everyone feels they belong. The first competency required of managers in a hierarchical organization is signaling that belonging. I have never seen that competency in an assessment center. It should be there.

How do we communicate belonging?

The American psychologist, Baumeister, can demonstrate in a lab that we are all up-ended rather easily.  He asks people to play a computer game.  Half are treated nicely by the computer.  Half get snubbed.  Those who are snubbed don’t look in a mirror as they leave.  We are that sensitive!

Should we develop thick skins?  I haven’t seen any experimental work but I’d be willing to bet that ‘thick-skinned’ people feel snubs more deeply.  They just pretend to themselves that they don’t and become even more boorish.  We’ll let the lab rats test that for us.

The point is that in give-and-take of life, we do get ‘up-ended’; we do get snubbed.  Our internal equilibrium is upset.  At that moment, reassurances that we belong are invaluable.  Leaders who can accept our misery for what it is, without making it worse by threatening us with expulsion, are invaluable.  From that starting point, we can figure out what to do next, and spread the sense of belonging along to the next person.

How can develop resilience?

Not by being thick-skinned, that’s for certain!

Probably in three ways:

1.  Understand our deep fear of being ‘cast-out’.

People who need to cast-out others are deeply worried about their own status.  We need to reassure them of their worth before they will be more compassionate towards others.

In plain language:  Ask, why is this person being such an [insert your favourite word here]?  What is s/he worried about?

2.  Work with others

We are human!  When we have had enough of someone’s carping & complaining, get people who believe in the person to work closely with them.  Build the teams that form naturally and step-back to make the links between the groups.

“To be clear”, as politicians seem to have become fond of saying, I am not advocating you put up with bad behavior or subject yourself to hours with someone who depresses you.  I am suggesting proactively putting together those people who reassure each. Then when the group is positive, link it to another positive group.  In that way, you remove yourself from provocation and provide positive alternatives.

In plain language:  When you cannot deal with someone, find someone who can.  What counts is getting along, not demonstrating our right to a temper tantrum.  Indeed, when you throw a temper tantrum, we have to ask the question under #1 – what are you afraid of?

3.  Take casting-out very seriously

We aren’t running a TV reality show.  We should only cast someone out when it is very clear that we will really be able to achieve a positive state and knowing that once the positive state is achieved, that we can invite them back in.  Tough criteria but the only criteria that tests whether or not we just throwing a self-indulgent wobbly.

We should make casting-out such a serious event.  We should document it and hold people accountable for getting it right.  I once taught with a Professor from West Point. He told me that if a student there fails, there is a full scale inquiry. The students are bright.  The Professors are good. They have the resources they need.   System fail – what went wrong?  The ethos, I was told, is that you don’t choose who you go to war with.

When we make casting-out difficult, then we are motivated to find other solutions and we may be well pleased with what we find.

In plain language:  Make casting-out rare and hard, so you can’t treat it as a cop-out.

4.  Look after your ‘interiority’

We have to keep ourselves emotionally fit.  Just as we eat, sleep, wash and exercise [do you?], we need to keep ourselves in emotional balance.  It sounds silly to say that our first job is to be happy.  The truth is that emotion is contagious.  When we are miserable, we make everyone around us miserable.  When we are in a good mood, we much more able to make space for others and much more likely to find unusual ways to get along – even if we don’t like each other very much.

But happiness takes hard work, and ironically, discipline.  We are happier when we take time to reflect on the day and get to the point that we are summing up and thinking about what went well and what we should do more of. We are happier when we spend some time in the morning thinking about what is important in life and allowing the pressures of the day find their smaller place under the greater umbrella.

In plain language: We are much more likely to be knocked off-balance when we are too busy to find the time to be happy.

5.  Build a strong positive network

And we do need to remember that we are all sensitive to rejection.  We need to cherish the social support that we get.

A neat trick that most people don’t know is that giving support is almost as good as getting support.   So when your support networks are thin, help others.

Help the person who is obviously stressed-out-of-their-heads at the airport or railway station.  Smile at the rude guy in a paroxysm of road rage (while you are wondering why his wife stays married to him).  Fake like they are human, as the saying goes.  You feel better.  And they calm down.

In plain language:  Don’t network for gain.  Network because it is fun.

Belonging in plain words

We can only function when we belong.  We can only lead positive change in awkward times when we like the people we lead. Sometimes they can be hard to like.  So our friends help us out and work more closely with the people they can bond with and we can’t.   Then we can link positive groups to each other.

We have always known this, but it takes the ‘crisis of capitalism’ and a ‘McKinsey report’ to bring it all home.  Remember that senior manager may still have a big car, but he (or she) no longer knows whether s/he are coming or going.  Someone has to settle them down.

In the meantime, connect with people who are positive.  Connect people to each other.

We will succeed in direct proportion to the amount that we trust each other.

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20 Responses to "Leading with psychology: belonging is the first competence"

[…] Leading with psychology: belonging is the first competence […]

great article really enjoyed it

Thanks, Tommy. I’ve slowly come to believe that belonging is the neglected concept in understanding work.

Where are you taking your own blog?

“I’ve slowly come to believe that belonging is the neglected concept in understanding work.”

I found that statement really powerful Jo. when I think about times when I did not feel good at work this was usually at the heart of it.

…and really like your “in plain language” summaries !

Add to it please! I read Baumeister’s work on rejection in New Zealand where I did not feel welcomed. At the same time, I was teaching a class of 850 students in an entry level class and I figured the most important characteristic of the class was at ‘class level’ -a sense of being part of a group. Forget small groups was advice I had got via the internet – think Mexican wave. We even did one once in class. We need to be part of a Mexican Wave to orient our contributions and unleash our individual contribution …. something like that. Not quite clear yet.

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