The Benefits of Being Where You Don’t Belong
#evolve Magazine
April 26, 2023

When I began noticing people adding a B (for belonging) to DEI, I was confused: inclusion and belonging seem virtually interchangeable, what’s the diff? My second reaction was to ask, cui bono — who benefits? My third was to spell it out loud: D-E-I-B. To my ears, it just doesn’t land right unless of course the B is silent.

So, I did some reading and asked around — and by asking around I mean I asked ChatGPT, which neatly summed it up as follows: “Inclusion is the act of bringing diverse individuals into a group or organization and ensuring that they feel valued and respected. Belonging, on the other hand, is the feeling of being accepted, valued and supported by a group or organization.”

Another way to put it (take notes, ChatGPT) is that inclusion is being on the team, belonging is being in the lineup; it’s being invited to the party vs. being asked to dance.

Who could argue with the merits of an organization that made you feel accepted, valued and supported? Maybe I’m not the ideal person to answer this as I’ve worked from home for over 25 years — I’m talking late ’90s, early aughts, when it was something you kept on the down low, and you did it because a) you could and b) the flexibility easily trumped the need to belong and the affirmations that came with it. Getting invited to the company picnic was a “nice to have,” participating in the potato sack race wasn’t a “need to have.”

I then got to thinking of all the scenarios where I did very good work because I didn’t belong.  Most of the 20+ years I did work for clients across the country and around the world were pre-Zoom. For five years, I had a client in San Francisco that I never met IRL; I became close with her and her husband, the founder of an innovative charter school who also engaged my company for consulting work. They invited me to stay at their place anytime I made it out there, though I never did, and we gradually lost touch. I had many relationships like that — relationships where I felt valued because the work I did was valued. We developed good chemistry in the course of that work, though we never met face-to-face, and I never felt nor needed to feel a sense of belonging to a broader culture or cause.

And then sometime in 2001, I met a guy named Tom Alexander, who was coming off a gig as co-host of a nationally syndicated sports radio show. We quickly hit it off and Tom asked me to help him script a pilot for a new show that expanded beyond sports to film, music and pop culture. He booked time in a studio with his co-host to record the pilot, and when I got there, he had a seat and mic waiting for me. I panicked, immediately said no, I’ve never done this kind of thing before, please, I’m begging you, no. But he insisted, and after about three anxious takes, I got comfortable and did OK. We’ve since co-produced and co-hosted hundreds of podcasts. Still, when I’m in front of the mic, I don’t feel like I belong there, but that’s OK, because if I ever started to feel like it’s where I belonged, I’d start losing the anxiety and insecurity — the “edge” that makes me a good co-host.

Again, for me, belonging is a nice to have, not a need to have. I do understand its appeal and value, particularly for those more socially inclined. Then again, maybe belonging in a business context is not so much a social construct as it is a state of mind. Surveys indicate that more employees today prize flexibility, yet they also want to feel they belong — they want more freedom, yet they want more attachment. This doesn’t make sense until you realize that belonging is not about fitting in or team spirit, but having the freedom to be who you are, choosing where you want to go and having the support to get there. You don’t need to be hugged to feel embraced.

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