Belonging, by Owen Eastwood

Why I read it: I recently connected with Rebecca Levett, a brilliant sports psychologist who also happens to be a distant relative, as we put together some thoughts for an event. During the conversation, Rebecca recommended Belonging; 3 minutes later, it was in my basket, and 48 hours later, it was perched atop my reading pile. Throughout my reading and thinking about teams, I’m most drawn to the sense of belonging, trust, and unity that can be galvanised in a group or workplace. I often wonder if it’s being adopted that sharpens that knife for me, or whether it’s just a natural curiosity; but what could be more important when establishing a team, than making sure it is a safe place that welcomes and looks after all in its care?

In Summary:

Owen Eastwood considers our ancestors throughout the book, reflecting upon how they understood our primal need to belong – to work together, to thrive in groups. Over the course of Belonging, he poignantly considers his own childhood, one in which his Maori heritage helped him to understand the past, and shape his identity. This book, then, provides reflections, research, traditions, anecdotes, and plenty of thoughtful musings, as Eastwood explores why we need to belong, and how we can achieve it. He asks thought-provoking questions of us, such as what is the optimal environment for this group to perform to their best? And it soon becomes apparent that the group will only thrive when they feel a sense of belonging.

Some books about culture and workplaces feel cynical. Belonging seemed heartfelt. Authentic. Eastwood has found deep connection with his past, present, and future, and uses this sense of perspective to aid others in doing the same. It’s a quotable book, but also stacked with practical ideas and a huge range of examples. One that will stay with me.

Key takeaways:

  1. Us Story: Eastwood spends significant time explaining the importance of storytelling, and particularly in creating an ‘Us story’. In other words, exploring who the group is, why they exist, and what their history is. Eastwood helps organisations and teams look at their past (ancestors, origins, legacies), then the future (where are we going, what do we need to do this) and finally the present (do we have a sense of identity that flows into everything we do). There are many examples in the book of how groups have created their own ‘us story’, but something of note is that we resonate more with everyday traits, actions, moments of synergy – ordinary people working hard to achieve excellence, rather than ‘superhero’ stories of individual brilliance.
  2. Belonging is not a fixed state: we constantly evaluate whether or not we belong. Environment, and behaviour of those around us, are key factors, and we require consistency to feel safe. Therefore we must make sure that we establish behavioural norms and values that are lived; gestures, speeches, or meetings won’t cut it to build belonging. If our people are constantly evaluating this, we must be consistent. ‘Once a strong culture is set, it’s essential that its foundations and relevance are regularly revisited by the team’.
  3. Belonging before performance: in our high-accountability working culture, sometimes workplaces don’t accept people until they have proved themselves. But this is a false economy: people will only thrive when they feel accepted and safe from the outset; we must offer true belonging before we have ‘proof’ of someone’s work or output.
  4. Extrinsic motivation weakens a team: while extrinsic motivation can help motivate individuals (usually in the short term) with things like money and status, this emphasis on the individual weakens the team. The team needs to have a strong sense of collective intrinsic motivation: a shared story and set of goals that everyone is striving to reach.
  5. A visual, shared vision: Eastwood proposes that visualisation can be a powerful tool; imaginging a successful future and believing in it. This can also become a literal vision, with displays, videos, and other visuals being utilised to constantly remind the team of how they belong, and the story they are part of. It’s vital to get input from others so that the vision is genuinely shared. This culminates in his description of a beautiful project he worked on with Ford as part of their desire to galvanise their Le Mans 24 team.
  6. Trust: the Seattle Seahawks motto is used to good effect: ‘years of building a relationship can be ended in seconds’. Eastwood discusses how trusting others reduces stress and gives us a sense of peace and belonging. But it’s a calculated risk: how do we know we can trust someone or a group? As well as warning of how delicate trust is, he outlines some ways to build trust: authenticity in what we say and do being the same; loyalty; competence; consistency in our behaviours and performance over time; adaptability; emotional availability.
  7. Control and Autonomy: Eastwood refers two of his own ancestral concepts: tapu and noa. Tapu describes aspects of life that are sacred, prescribed or non-negotiable – in a workplace, these could be values, or even protocols that everyone must abide by. By contrast, noa are areas of life that do not share these rules and allow more self expression. The idea is that to create true belonging, we should clearly understand what in our lives is tapu, and what is noa – the balance is important, as too far one way could be demotivating, controlling, or chaotic.

Favourite moment: sharing pain

We often share the good moments and results with our teams. We nailed this. We succeeded in that. So and so is doing great work in this. But do we discuss the bad? Do we share pain and learn from it?

Social Anthropologist, Harvey Whitehouse, says that sharing difficulties or pain can create ‘identify fusion’, and have two tangible benefits for the group. Firstly, the group creates more intense togetherness through the sharing or a mistake or a difficult moment; secondly, reflecting on the painful moments often creates practical lessons for the future.

A maori spiritual adviser adds that a healthy culture would take a moment of pain, and then ‘carve the story into our walls’, so that the current group, and future descendants, can learn from our experiences.

Favourite quote: ‘we lived it together’

I’ve written before about communication, candour, and conflict, and we know that it is vital for a group to disagree, or give each other feedback, in order to develop and grow. The question is always: how do we do this constructively, so that people give and receive feedback well, and can therefore act upon it?

Eastwood talks about being explicit that, within the team, feedback is part of what we do, how we help each other. It should be included in the ‘us story’ of the team so that there are tangible links to how those before us gave each other feedback.

He gives an example of how a sports team created a safe framework for how players could give eachother feedback with a type of script that might help begin the conversation. For example:

‘Hey, can we chat? Today I think I saw something out there (name it) which looked below the line we’ve set. I could be wrong, so just tell me if I am – we are just trying to grow together’.

The sentiment above says: we are a team, we have high expectations of each other, how can we improve together?

How does this link to my favourite quote?

One of the players from this team spoke about the benefits of being open with each other and how their culture began to change. He mentioned the importance of targeted, specific feedback and only focusing on the things that would ‘make the boat go faster’.

But the quote I liked most was his reflection on how the team grew. ‘What was important was that we lived it together’.

Key questions and reflections:

Do you feel you belong at your workplace?

How do you help others to feel a sense of belonging?

What is your workplace’s ‘Us story’ and how could you improve this?

How do you review the sense of belonging and trust at your workplace?

Read this if:

You lead teams

You want some ideas about how to create groups or teams where belonging, trust, and aligned vision are the core of what you do

Support bookshops and buy it here

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