2 THINGS TO START (AND 1 THING TO STOP) DOING NOW. HAPPINESS THROUGH BELONGING AND AUTHENTIC CONTRIBUTION.
August 27th, 1997 is a date that my family will never forget. The minute we exited the airplane and entered Frankfurt International Airport, we set off a chain reaction of events into motion that reverberate to this day. We had left our home in Ontario, Canada at the ages of fourteen and sixteen in order to migrate to a country we knew quite little about: Germany. The consequences of the events of said day led me to constantly question two things about myself for decades, while desperately trying to obtain a feeling of familiarity in a new country. Firstly, I questioned my sense of belonging. Secondly, I doubted my ability to make an authentic contribution to the community I was now living in.
Turns out, I wasn’t the only one asking such questions and I won't be the last.
YOUTH EXPERIENCES INFORM ADULT DECISIONS
Today, all sorts of facts concerning migration are known. Research shows that youth migration, for example, can lead to the postponement of educational endeavours (formal degrees and diplomas, for instance)in order to allow those affected by migration to dedicate their attention to familiarising themselves with new languages and cultural systems. Furthermore, facts have been collected that suggest that migration experienced by youth in lieu of one of more parent-figures can lead to something I’ll call “growing up too soon” - a condition occurring when tasks and responsibilities typically taken on by parents are assumed by the youth themselves. Time needed to position themselves within smaller social groups of peers who are in similar situations is instead occupied with "adult" and/or "grown-up" tasks. Time with peers is however, absolutely essential, in order to help them avoid or offset the feeling of vulnerability commonly felt as being the one who was “left out” or “left behind”, and develop a sense of belonging. (For more Information on vulnerability and why we need to get comfortable with it, please watch this TED- Talk by Dr. Brené Brown).
The fact is, whether we have experienced migration or not, we all have our struggle. And that struggle will inform the way we make both professional and private decisions. The phenomena described above (taken from this research by the UN) have been true to my own migration story and those of countless of people I have met during my last years of work in migration studies and social research. They share two common elements of human condition that I want to talk about in this article: firstly, the very basic human need to belong to something that is greater than ourselves as individuals (belonging) and secondly, the desire to make a contribution to a greater cause that feels authentic (authentic contribution). Both conditions are central to choosing where we want to spend our time every day and especially, with whom. Hence, both conditions play a significant role in how we choose our workplaces and occupations: In other words, how we decide what it is we want to be "when we grow up".
BE HAPPY AT DOING LIFE. DO THESE TWO THINGS.
We have all read that article somewhere (for me it was a series in O Magazine awhile back). You know, the one about the New-Yorker who ditched a stressful, draining but high-paying corporate job in order to become a novelist or a baker or a circus trapeze artist to finally be happy, instead of just rich?
We have all been there. Assessing our professional situation, sighing and thinking: How do I get there? Wherever there is (If you haven’t had this experience, please write me an E-Mail, I must meet you.) More often than not, it seems like many people believe that trading a demanding, higher paying job for one that caters more to what you love is a necessity in order to find professional freedom. I began to listen to coworkers, who constantly told me that what they loved to do in their "private lives" had little or nothing to do with what they were tasked with "at work". As a matter of fact, work seemed to be the necessary evil which they would undergo, in order to engage in more pleasurable undertakings at home or outside of office hours. For years I performed in the same manner, thinking that work was just something I needed to get out of the way so that the real me could then take the stage. I did this for about a decade. Until the amount of time I had wasted by being someone I was not and doing things that meant nothing to me sunk in. Today, I like to think we can have both. The secret, I believe, lies in understanding concepts of “belonging” and concepts behind making an “authentic contribution”.
Often, the desire for authentic contribution and belonging seem to outweigh the desire for a higher paycheck. Many people seem ready and willing to make a trade-off. As long as they are in a position of a basic stability, (meaning that their bills can be paid, food is in the fridge and they have a form of job security) many individuals I have spoken to are willing to take a pay cut in order to be happy. I have seldom heard anyone tell me that they would rather be better paid but fundamentally unhappy.
Which trade-off between money and happiness would you be willing to make? Are you already in a position where both elements are balanced?
To assess your current position ask yourself these questions:
- Is it vital to you that your work has something to do with your personality, your hopes, your dreams and/or your worldview?
- Are you interested in finding meaning behind your work?
- Is your job solely a means to provide for yourself and for others?
- Are you someone who would rather leave your “personal issues” at the door when you enter the office?
- If so, how do you still bring your full-self to the table?
- Is their something that you are protecting or hiding when you seperate your work you, from your private you?
- Do you believe that vulnerability is vital to great work?
- Can you be vulnerable in front of others?
Happiness is in the workplace often translates as a) belonging to a team that allows you to be yourself while b) being in a job that allows you to make a contribution that aligns your personality with your talent. In other words, the following two things seem most important to happiness at work:
- When we work with people who validate and empower us, we feel happier (belonging).
- When we are able to contribute something that we both love to do and are talented at, we feel happier (authentic contribution).
For many of us, these two things are the goal to a successful professional life. But do we really need to strictly separate our work-life from our private one? My answer would be no.
Especially not if you are a workplace leader.
WHAT IS STANDING IN YOUR WAY? STOP DOING THIS.
Stop trying to separate your “work-you” from your “private-you”.
You are a single human-being with multiple levels.
Stop trying to be multiple human-beings with a single level.
Get the difference?
If you are confident with you, then there is no need to distinguish between a “work-you” and a “private-you”. There is no need to check your “personal issues” at the door, as long as they provide you and others on your team with valuable insight while problem-solving. Vulnerability at work is important. More often than not, our personal struggles inform our survival skills in professional situations. The same can be true the other way around. Why shouldn’t we discuss work issues at dinner or family issues at lunch if the conversation is meaningful and helpful? The key is communication and clarity of roles.
Be clear when you are communicating with others at work on which level you are communicating in order to avoid misunderstandings. If others are overstepping boundaries, then say so. There are many communication trainings out there that can help you learn how. Invest in them. I’m not suggesting that you tell your co-workers ever detail about your life outside of work, but I am telling you that if you pride yourself on having two personas, then that is how you are coming across; as someone who is showing up to the job halfway. People are destined to ask themselves: “Who is this person really?” Someone who is hiding half of themselves does not evoke trust, but rather, suspicion. Even if no one wants to admit it, we are always looking to make an authentic connection with someone who is wholeheartedly in front of us. Even on the job. By the way, research also shows that workers respect leaders who admit mistakes and can say “I don’t know”. If you want people to bring their whole selves to the job, then you must lead by example. Isn’t it also the same at home? Don’t we generally respect vulnerable people more? Don’t we generally find them brave?
As far as talking about work at home goes, there should be rules there too. I enjoy hearing about my husbands’ work day and picking his brain about things I am going through at my job. But when Netflix is on and we are winding down- the focus is on us as a family or on relaxation. Not on personal or professional problem-solving. Merge work and life, but be clear when which topic is a priority. Again, communication is central.
There is a plethora of information available on how to further foster an atmosphere of belonging in your organisation, whether it be through onboarding strategies and/or other policies. I feel like this is the most important first step: If youaren’t real- your co-workers cannot possibly feel like they belong and will struggle with being real as well. And as long as you are actually beingreal, there is no need to waste time developing strategies so that you can come across as real. For those who say being real isn’t important at the job, then this article may not be for you. But research also shows that individuals who have a hard time with vulnerability and authenticity at work also struggle with it at home (or vice-versa).
Allow your friends and co-workers to belong In whatever space you provide for them. Embrace vulnerability. It is the first step to belongingand making people feel like they belong in return. I promise you, Shonda Rimes did not write any of those amazing shows by half-showing up to her job. I am sure everyone on her team felt like they belong too (her TED Talk is here).
Belonging and authentic contribution are by no means solely relevant to individuals with stories of migration; I have not come across a team anywhere where these two factors have not played a role or been discussed internally at some point. I used migration as my own personal experience of pondering questions as a teen, that I now know were centred around belonging and contributing.
From my perspective, It is both interesting and valid to note how migration experiences relate to belonging and authentic contribution. Often, people with stories of migration have been able to transform both elements into key factors for individual personal happiness and professional success in teams. Some of the skills obtained through migration experiences can be highly beneficial to team performances and often, they can lead to a more innovative, out-of-the-box problem-solving process. Here are some of the top skills that have been researched and connected with migration and diverse teams. They are, by the way, all skills you can find listed as “wants” in many of the job descriptions for top positions in leading global companies around the world:
- an understanding, utilisation and ability to explain numerous languages and language symbols
- the ability to mediate and reconcile the sometimes highly contrasting expectations of peers, teachers, parents, relatives concerning issues of education and/or social life
- diligence and resilience
- rhetoric skills
- ability to navigate complex, parallel and often-contrasting opinions and expectations
- ability to continually argue points of view and justify positions
As far as the list for personal development goes, that would be another article all together.
You can get started today by jotting down your answers to all the questions asked here in the blog. Ask your closest friends and colleagues the same questions. Discuss how you can provide a forum for others to feel like they actually belong and how you can provide opportunities for them to make an authentic contribution. Before you provide this for others though, be clear about where you stand in respect to the same things. Asking for realness from others means you have to bring it first (that could be a quote from a RuPaul song I have been listening to lately). Blurring the lines between the private and professional can be scary at first and there must be rules when you do it, but for me, it was step in a more comfortable and authentic direction.
Let me know how it works for you.