Have you ever felt you needed to prove yourself? Prove your worth? Prove you deserved to be at your company, church, or organization?
I guess that’s more of a rhetorical question, right?
We’ve all felt the sense of performance-based acceptance at play in our heart. It’s part of the human condition. We’ve all wondered if we really belong. If we are worthy of our role.
As leaders, we have to look outside of our own experience to see the bigger problem: The internal battle to belong isn’t isolated to us. If we have felt it, most likely everyone in our organization has felt it — or is currently feeling it. And it’s a problem on several fronts. I know, because like you, I’ve been there.
The Internal Battle to Belong Creates:
1. Sideways energy: When people are trying to prove their worth, their misapplied motivation moves their energy away from the good work and toward a good pat on the back. When people are focused on being noticed, their efforts cannot be fully dedicated to something bigger than themselves.
Before we move on, just a quick reminder. We all have a limited amount of energy to dedicated to life’s tasks. Energy management is more important than time management. Spending energy on non-productive mental hurdles limits our ability to be fully productive and fully alive.
2. Unintended frustration: When our desire for recognition goes unfulfilled, we quickly begin to fill our cup of frustration. Often times, we aren’t even certain of where the fountain of frustration has formed. All we know is we are upset and unsatisfied. Battling to belong is frustrating.
3. Burnout and exhaustion: Burnout comes in many forms. The most common might be physical burnout, but just as dangerous (and more difficult to diagnose) is the emotional burnout that can grow from our striving to belong. Working to prove our worth is an exercise in exhaustion. If left unchecked, it becomes a debilitating lifestyle that some can never fully recover.
4. Hypercritical of others: People who are fighting to find their value easily slide into overly critiquing those around them, if only as a means to find value in themselves. It’s insecurity 101. When we feel insecure, we attempt to define security by any means available. Being hypercritical of others is an easy, albeit unproductive, means of achieving a false sense of security.
5. Hyper-competitive with others: The need to fit often leads us to compete with our peers for recognition and praise. When people are striving to belong, the competition for recognition can feel like a war for limited supplies. People feel the need to “beat” their competitors (also known as peers and coworkers) to gain the a portion of praise. Recognition should not be a scare resource, but when battling to belong, praise can feel like an endangered species.
6. Positively forgetful: Compliments and encouragement aid in our personal value, but neither can be fully received when questioning feelings of belonging. In fact, for a person battling to belong, ten supportive moments can be completely torn down by one negative critique. Worse, we tend to store up the negative while allowing the positive to pass through our memory unstuck.
Any one of these problems would be serious enough to derail a person within an organization, but combined, they are destructive to both the person and their team. Luckily, there is a way for every leader to release great people to be great:
1. Develop and Extensive Interview Process
Your interview process should be so extensive that only people perfectly suited for your organization survive. If the process is more of a gauntlet than a few meetings, every new surviving hire should already feel wanted and deserving of the opportunity. That’s just the beginning.
2. Start Off Right
After a newly hired staff member experiences a daunting vetting (interview) process, your first assimilation task should be to remind them they were chosen. Remind them they survived the gauntlet of interviews. And tell them boldly they are being released to be great, because we only hire great people.
Don’t underestimate this moment. Great people need to be reminded and released to be great.
3. Encourage Humility
With the understanding team members have nothing to prove, remind them overtly and covertly (though your actions) that humility is possible when belonging is settled. “I’m sorry,” “It’s my fault,” and “I don’t know” are statements based in security — statements that can only be shared outside of battling to belong.
4. Remind Everyone Again…
A new team member will never be more unsure of themselves then at the beginning. Say it again: “we only hire great people, and we hired you — so go be great.” Current team members will forget, especially as the team grows or adjust to new members and structures.
5. Evaluate Performance, but Separate Person
Even the greatest people make mistakes. In fact, they should make mistakes, lest they become too safe and risk adverse. The first mistake a new team member makes is critical. It’s never in the best interest of the team member or the organization to allow a mistake to go uncorrected. However, how and when you coach people will determine the team member’s feeling of belonging. Leaders must be for people by releasing them to be great, then coaching them as they move forward.
Side Note: Coaching is always better than critiquing. Coaches work to get the best out of the players on their team. Critiquers sit outside the team relationship, throwing stones from the sidelines.
6. Foster a Real Relationship
Since relationships are by nature two-way interactions, relationships create the perfect mechanism for leaders and team members to have honest conversations — in both directions. It’s only within a relationship people in an organization are willing to be candid, open, and honest with their performance and their feelings.
Of course, leaders always go first, and in this case, leaders must initiate the relationship by being vulnerable about themselves. When a leader is willing to share a failure and ask for help, it opens the door for those around to be fully themselves. In a healthy organization, you should have nothing to prove, either.
7. Keep Fighting for Freedom
Finally, leaders must remember insecurity comes with humanity, therefore, it will never be fully dispatched from a team without an ongoing fight. As a leader, you must continually fight against the gravitational pull of insecurity. Never stop cheering on your team members. Always be honest about your own failures and hopes to improve. Ask for help. Ask how you can help. Actively listen to your team members.
This is a topic near to my heart. I’ve been on the wrong side of the battle at times, and as a leader today, I’m working hard to rid our staff team of this negative emotion so they can all be free to life fully engaged. The battle is just beginning, but I’ve already seen the fruit of the effort.
How about you? What are you doing to fight to battle to belong personally? As a leader? I’d love to know your tactics to fight against this gravitational pull. And I’d love you to share this post to engage more people in the belonging conversation.