The Genius of Belonging

By Emily Tornquist

I recently observed that cultures might best be measured by the conversations you can and can’t have. This sounds a little ambiguous, but think about the important of feedback to innovative teams. Without the experience of belonging, what culture issues and innovation blind spots are showing up in your team? If you took an inventory of your feedback loops and the experience of belonging across your organization, what might you see?

If you are part of any team, you are likely familiar with the constant push and pull between taking time to talk about the work that needs to be done and actually doing said work. This push and pull is largely due to a scarcity of time, various hierarchical dynamics, and the lack of shared language and understanding in teams. In the absence of a culture of belonging and collaboration, I’m with the teammates who opt to “just get to work”. That said, if you and your teams are taking important steps to nurture belonging, you may be leaving some key belonging boosters on the table.

The teams I have worked with over the years as project and organizational change manager typically have one sentiment in common: “we don’t have time to talk about the work.”

If I were wearing my project management methodology geek hat, I might lay out all the reasons talking about the work up front, during, and after can create improved outcomes and lead innovation. Today, though, I want to emphasis the actionable belonging enablers that are hiding in conversations about “the work.”

For high performance-oriented cultures, belonging is the problem and the solution. There are many statistics about impediments to belonging from a justice (or lack thereof) perspective, but today I invite you to dig in to belonging from a purely mechanical perspective.

Please note that approaching belonging in a mechanical way is not a hall pass to bypass the individual emotional experiences of belonging and the myriad systemic factors that make belonging unattainable.

What is belonging and how would you know if your organization was promoting it or blocking it?

According to Brené Brown, belonging is not about fitting in but about being accepted for who you are. While there are many ways we can practice expanding our cultural and individual capacity for true belonging. Historically and mechanically, however, the systems that drive our culture are designed to emphasize fitting in and compliance. So, how might an organization take on belonging in a way that sticks and what opportunities might be hiding in our conversations about the work we are doing?

To begin answering this question and to find even better questions, let’s take a look at the anatomy of higher performance. If you have sat down for coffee with me in the last year, or so it’s likely that I have scribbled these quadrants on a napkin or written them in the air any time “shop talk” was taking place. I love this diagram as a conversation holder to examine how belonging shows up in terms of culture and in relationship to outcomes and innovation.This slightly elevated napkin diagram is my interpretation of the Henrik Kniberg / Spotify — Aligned Autonomy quadrants.

Take a look at these quadrants and ask yourself these questions:

In the workplace:

  • Where might inclusion and engagement show up (or not) in each quadrant?
  • What might the experience of belonging be in each quadrant and who might be excluded?
  • What leadership styles might support each of these quadrants?
  • When have you noticed your team exhibiting the characteristics of each quadrant?
  • How does your team gather and process feedback to recalibrate as needed?
  • In the Classroom: Which quadrant best describes the desired classroom environment?
  • Which quadrant describes current state classroom environments?

If you look at the “default” corporate environment, where culture is simply made up of outdated and harmful norms that are “permitted”, you will see predictable symptoms of systems designed to support the literal industrial revolution. “Complete a task. Blend in. Don’t ask questions.” No matter how you slice it, the systems around us were designed to reward this compliance culture. This primarily lives in the upper left-hand quadrant above.

We have been training for cultures of compliance for generations, and it doesn’t serve us the way it used to.

When Henry Ford famously said “any color the customer wants, as long as it’s black,” the education system that supplied a steady pipeline of assembly line workers heard “comply or go home” and designed the education system accordingly.

Fast forward one hundred years and our education system is struggling to develop basic proficiency in reading and math, let alone creating or maintaining a pipeline of workers equipped to meet the demand of skills and behaviors that are essential for environments of innovation and belonging.

In today’s economy, where your value is in your ability to process knowledge, the measurable skills that prepare students for success after their K–12 experience are centered on communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. In other words, there is a high demand for individuals who can function in the top right quadrant of collaboration. Compliance is not on the list. Imagine someone with those skills showing up to the Model T assembly line. How quickly would they be written up and sent home? There is no space for genius in cultures of compliance.

While many organizations and leaders are making meaningful culture changes and showing up for the work that matters, we all continue to operate within the default systems that have shaped our perspectives and expectations. How often are your most valuable knowledge assets being shut down and told “comply to our default norms or go home?” To cope, do they stay and disengage? Or do they simply leave?

Change is a constant, but we have opportunities every day to name and interrupt the remnants of old systems and create new ones that serve our values and needs. But attending a workshop and a few team-building activities will not result in meaningful change. I have seen over and over again how quickly the experience of belonging enters the room when a leader and team make the subtle but critical shifts into that top right quadrant. It always starts with a conversation about how a given team is showing up across the quadrants and stepping through the questions above. In other words, when you talk about your work more, you access belonging.

Again, this “anatomy of higher performance” stuff is NOT a free pass to ignore the complexity and responsibility of creating belonging in your organization, but it just might help your team begin asking better questions to figure out how to get belonging right.

Emily Tornquist is an adaptive leadership consultant and the founder of Embodied Systems. She is fascinated by systems and passionate about facilitating impossible conversations in a generative way. Emily continues to navigate the world with new information about her (late diagnosed) ADHD and burnout. She has woven trauma informed best practices and into her work with teams searching for more innovation and belonging. Emily is part of the RISE Indy Circle City Leaders Cohort III and has recently joined Indy Kids Winning as Board President. When Emily is not delving into conversations about the education system or doodling new ideas on post-its she is cooking for her loved ones. Her favorite hobbies are reading books that make her cry and finding innovative ways to pack the perfect snacks for family beach days. Emily lives in Irvington with her 6 year old son, Theodore.

Want to keep up with the latest from Indy Equity Collaborative? Subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter.