Belonging, longing to be

If there is a theme for my 2019 work life, it would be transition. And not just moving from one job to another, but from one city to another, from one work culture to another. Through these transitions, I have journalled my responses to having (and not having) a sense of belonging and fitting into the larger scheme of things. I shared previously about how ‘connectedness’ topped my Clifton Strengths. The more I interrogate that strength, the more I realise how it influences the way I perceive success at work. 

In the spirit of Christmas, I share three gifts of insight. One, ‘settling in’ is not just a matter of time, but feeling secure that my behaviours and values are at least acceptable, if not wholly accepted and celebrated, by colleagues. Two, a sense of belonging at work is dynamic and relationally dependent. Three, as much as there is a negotiation of behaviours and values when transitioning into ‘new work’, there is a core identity that needs to be nurtured.

Time will settle all things

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I could conjure up an image of the hourglass where the sand trickles through the narrow neck and slowly but surely gravity pulls each grain down into a pile of milliseconds. But the passage of time is most keenly seen and felt in calendars filled with meetings and appointments. Whether an abstract notion or an easily spent resource, time itself cannot create a sense of belonging. It is what happens in those precious non-renewable minutes and hours that contribute to that sometimes hard to explain feeling of being at home.

I think back to the initial few weeks of my career consultant role, and recall the conversations with colleagues. Very quickly I could identify and build on our shared ideals and goals to help newcomers to achieve career success. Over time through regular meetings and discussions, there was a tacit understanding of putting our clients’ needs at the centre of our work, and that our clients’ success was our success. The concept of having a work whānau (family) was borne out of these things: shared values, the regularity and intensity of working together, and our common destination.

The ‘settling in’ to my current role was quite a different experience. It was not immediately obvious what kind of connections I could forge with people working with high-level systems and complex processes. No doubt the technical aspects and specialist knowledge associated with my role was a challenge to overcome, but the greater challenge I saw before me was finding a space in the hearts of new colleagues. At one level it was ‘being liked’, but more importantly, it was being able to sit comfortably with each other in our shared values and aspirations. I was and still am inspired and motivated by my organisation’s mission to serve learners. And I am sure many who work alongside me are driven by that desire to improve educational outcomes. And yet, the grind and exactness of processes-driven work meant that having a reciprocal engagement with people took a lot more effort than I had imagined.

People over processes

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

And so I embarked on a personal mission to make the most of opportunities I had to interact with colleagues – walking over to ask a question, learning more about them as much as they would reveal, setting up coffee dates, and understanding myself and others more by comparing our similarities and differences. This was reflexivity in action – a heightened sensitivity to my evolving relationships with others – as individuals, as work teams, as cultural groups, as social personas.

There were times where was easy laughter, there were times where I didn’t where else to rest my gaze. I’m sure I’ve said things that sound bizzare to others, just as I’ve learnt about things that didn’t seem to fit into my worldview. But over time and with intentionality, I’ve come to appreciate different senses of belonging occurring with different grouping and types of practices.

For example, the most immediate sense of belonging is with my work team where our physical proximity, overlapping responsibilities and growing understanding of one another’s psyche has provided me a socio-physical home base. Another sense of belonging rests in the easy and carefree banter at lunchtime in the kitchen or at the daily quiz event – if surrounded by the right mix of people. And yet another sense of belonging is with the wider organisation in the belief and the hope of paving the way for a better future for all of us.

Who am I, where am I, where do I want to go?

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

With the journey from easy belonging to negotiated belonging, I’m left with a couple of hard questions to answer: who am I, where am I, where do I want to go? Every now and then I pause to think about what my core beliefs and values are, and remind myself what my personal mission is. It has been written and re-written but it sounds something like: to fill knowledge and social gaps in order to empower others to achieve success.

And then I look around me to remind myself where I am – in a place where important decisions are made that have a material impact on many. I remind myself of the privilege and the responsibility of being in the public service, and the duty to act fairly but also with compassion.

The last question of where I want to go remains unanswered. I really do not know. I have a sense of doing something what was somehow uniquely designed for me, doing good and doing well. It’s a vagueness that finds clarity in my deliberate and serendipitous connection building with others. So if I could end my 2019 reflection with a 2020 aspiration – may I go boldly where others fear to tread.

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