Two faces of belonging…Possession and affiliation at work

By John Higgins, Megan Reitz and Mark Cole

Mark avoids attending set-piece corporate events, those ritual celebrations of togetherness. They provoke something close to panic in him – and he’s found over the years that anything important that gets said is soon shared through the organisational grapevine (stripped of much of the approved political positioning).

Earlier in his career, when he actively hid his true thoughts about corporate life behind a veneer of “professionalism”, Mark recalls being an assessor on a management development centre. One element of the event was a 1:1 interview with the participants. Mark met with a ward manager at the busy district general hospital where the centre was running.

In the course of their conversation, the manager advised of their method for dealing with memoranda that he received from those above him in the organisation. “When it arrives the first time,” he explained, “I put it straight in the bin.” Corporate Mark tried to suppress the twitch that this generated. This seemed a long way from the organisational citizenship behaviour that this development exercise was built to assess.

The manager continued: “If it comes a second time…I put it in the bin.” He paused for effect. “And, if it comes a third time, I figure it’s important to them and I need to do something with it.”

Mark saw his responsibility as delivering the correct corporate message, which seemed to be that a manager should respond instantly to these missives, because – if they’re coming from “upstairs”, then by definition they are important in the corporation. But he found himself eventually saying, “I can see how this works for you. I can see that it is actually effective for you. But you need to consider how this behaviour might lead others to behave in the same way.” This was hardly a radical response, but Mark recalls the experience as an early instance for him of where the corporate illusion that he’d built for himself began to crack just a little.

These days, Mark knows that many of his colleagues value these corporate get-togethers, that sense of the collective made flesh, whether the flesh is in-person or on-line. Much attention and investment is made in making these events memorable, with the assumption being that they will grow people’s commitment to the mandated organisational cause by nurturing a feeling of belonging.

What goes unexamined is what may get evoked by that word – it is often treated as a natural good rather than a socially constructed term in the service of a particular ideology. In a recent conversation between the three of us we explored what the word evoked in us with two polarities emerging. Firstly, there is belonging as possession, as an act of ownership and being seen (or seeing others) as objects to be owned. Secondly, there is belonging as affiliation, where belonging is the experience of being in a sorority or fraternity, one of the gang.

Belonging as possession

To be seen to be possessed by another has a long-standing historical tradition. It is only in relatively recent times that wives in the Global North were not in the same legal category as chattel and it was seen as rebellious for women not to make an oath to obey their husband as part of the Christian wedding ceremony. The consequences of one people enslaving another still casts a deep shadow and was seen as natural for millennia and permeates many of the works of approved of thinkers – excused away as a sideshow to the main meat of their impressive thinking. Meanwhile children can often find themselves treated as possessions of their parents or the authorities of the state if the parents are viewed as wanting.

Less dramatically, but perniciously, modern workplace contracts are not contracts between equals (as much ‘free’ market thinking wishes into being) but contracts which position employees in a submissive, objectified position – an ‘It’ to be traded, sweated or let go. The worker is only truly free and equal in the labour market in the moment before they sign that contract. However kind and well-intentioned the workplace, employees are legal possessions with contractual boundaries imposed on them.

Some employers look after their possessions well, some badly, but the brute reality of being owned by another never goes away. This is perhaps why those working in “Human Resources” can seemingly disregard the way in which that term subtly shapes the relations between people and the places where they work. Many HR people invest a great deal in looking to the needs of the people in the workforce – but ultimately the rubric under which they undertake this work effaces the human and focuses on the resource. The cover of a recent edition of People Management asked whether HR has a diversity problem. In fact, HR itself is a problem of its own making, which urgently needs its practitioners to speak openly about and courageously come together to address.

This idea of possession is a defining quality of the workplace and explains in part why it is so hard for people at work to escape from the dominant ‘I-It’ relational pattern of our age – which in turn makes dialogic encounters and whole-hearted participation so difficult.

Belonging as affiliation

To counter the structurally induced bleakness of the above comes that other school of meaning that we saw as coming with belonging – the communion of affiliation, where people can experience being more than their individual capabilities and selves and step into the relational reality of growth-in-connection. This is the generative ‘We’ of affiliation, where the big ‘I Am’ gets parked and people can find the psychological safety that comes from being part of a community, where people get pleasure from the success of the whole and find an expression of identity that is not solely a matter of their ego.

This group identification does come with complications, no light without its shadow. The need to stay in the group can overwhelm people’s sense of individual agency – affiliation can trump personal expression resulting in the well documented downsides of groupthink, secret societies and the untrammelled madness of the crowd.

How to belong well

Belonging is always a work in progress, personal and collective contexts and perspectives are always in flux, never still – and often best understood in hindsight while being lived in the present.

The first step in belonging well is to choose with your eyes open. Our first experiences of belonging, through our families and communities of birth, are given and create norms which can live through us well into our adult lives (and sometimes our whole lives). As adults, however, we can always as Viktor Frankl noted choose – if not under circumstances of our own choosing. In workplaces know your tolerance for objectification and affiliation and know what will serve you well. John is for instance always intensely cautious around immersion in group identities after an early excess of military and Public School esprit de corps.

The second step is to let go of the notion of rugged individualism and to embrace your need to experience your identity through your encounters with others. Isolation is not an alternative to belonging, you always have to be in belonging relationships to live. We do not create our own language, society and history but live in the world as existentially social beings. By letting go of the solitary ‘I Am’ so the importance of attending to the experience of belonging becomes figural. One of the most powerful acts that the sovereign individual can commit is to choose to put themselves amongst others to enter into a powerful collaboration – whilst, at the same time, continuously revisiting that choice from their individual perspective, so as to guard ceaselessly against malign collectivism.

The third step is to notice what your current belonging gives and costs. Belonging is not an absolute and we need to accept that it changes over time. Belonging is at root an expression of power-in and power-through relationship and we can choose how we experience and express that power in the first place by noticing its presence in our lives in its many forms.

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