If you are an idealist who believes in the worth and potential of all people, turn your organization into an oasis of health where all participants are trained and empowered to cooperate with and care for each other in their ideal roles.
Mental, emotional, and behavioral health is a product and indicator of social integration. A competitive, authoritarian, top-down hierarchy does not promote healthy social integration at home, at school, or at work. The only thing that cultivates healthy social integration is healthy social integration. Ironically, what we are trying to do in our culture is separate the source of mental, emotional, and behavioral health from the relationships where we spend all of our time. This is eliminating the source of health and the most powerful forces that sustain it from the place where they most belong. Our hyper-independent, overly individualistic, patriarchal culture is subduing and eroding the very source of its power, health, and capacity to not only thrive but participate in its own generative evolution. We are demolishing rather than constructing ourselves individually and as communities. Emile Durkheim, the architect of sociology said 125 years ago, “suicide is a failure of social integration.” By that measure, so is alcoholism, drug abuse, overeating, social media addiction, and domestic abuse.
Lately, some are recognizing our declining mental, emotional, and behavioral health and the negative impact it is having at home, school, and work. Unfortunately, our response has been slow to re-organize and re-orient our families, schools, and organizations around a healthy structure of belonging. Instead, we are applying a wildly insufficient bandaid of crisis response. We are sending people to therapy, increasing mental health services, and prescribing medication. These are all necessary but they are not solutions. The solution is social integration - the construction of a well-designed, durable structure of belonging.
We will always need therapists, treatment facilities, and medication but none of them will slow the increasing crisis of mental illness. Similarly, it is likely that we will always need CPR, ambulances, and emergency rooms but they will never reduce the crisis of heart disease. These interventions are at the wrong place in the story. They are at the climax instead of the inception point. We need to go to the source and rebuild our social structures with a different strategy. Fortunately, both the strategy and the means to implement it are already part of human instinct. We’ve been here before.
Nature has been building, maintaining, and adapting structures of belonging since it began. Everything in existence follows a built-in, responsive set of rules that guides their interdependent structures, allows for growth, and protects against disintegration. Scientists are learning that, at the quantum level, everything is connected and interacting in reciprocally dependent (not independent) ways. Atoms, molecules, cells, organs, bodies, plants, swarms, colonies, forests, ecosystems, solar systems, galaxies, and everything in between, all function successfully because they “know” who they are, they are known and valued for who they are and what they offer, and they receive what they need from the system in which they are embedded. When each identity, along with its naturally occurring outputs and necessary inputs, are in correct relationship with the other elements in their system - systemic homeostasis is the stable, durable result.
Humans are a part of nature. But there is a difference between us and the rest of nature - consciousness and choice. Our brains have evolved to the point where we can choose to follow the laws of nature or we can choose not to. In every way we have chosen the latter, it is to our detriment. But we can also choose to participate in our own creative evolution. We can write and perform symphonies. We can build cities and elaborate gardens, make art, and write imaginative stories. These are not necessary for survival or homeostasis. They are indicators of our capacity to make life for ourselves and our world, however big it is, more than status quo. We are responsible for and capable of great destruction and great construction.
Multiple meta-analyses have shown clearly and definitively that “moderately trained paraprofessionals” are more effective than professional counselors. In other words, regular people, with a bit of guidance, are better at taking care of each other than professionals are. This is good because not only is professional social adjustment out of reach for many, but we will never be able to produce enough counselors to meet the need. The question is, how do we “moderately train” the regular people at home, school, and work? The parents who need the most training are unlikely to attend parenting classes. Schools are already burdened with bureaucracy and an untenable academic load. Much effort is being focused on education but there are too many limitations. Education is a hierarchy without enough interdependence. Teachers have too many kids to connect with. 24 is our national class size average and in middle and high school they minimize social integration by switching around every hour. That means if they switch six times, each teacher sees 144 kids each day. They simply do not have enough time or energy to connect. Social change moves at the speed of relationships and relationships move at the speed of trust. Trust and relationships take time and intention. We need to look for the gathering places that have the most opportunity for the needed exchange of time and intention. There is potential for an increase in both of these areas in the workplace.
Ironically, the current hierarchical structure of the typical business allows for a much more rapid paradigm shift in the workplace. Business owners who value employees and want to prioritize optimal social conditions can set policy, implement strategy, and lead decisively toward the kind of positive change that cultivates structures of belonging that lead to mental, emotional, and behavioral health. This is a more direct intervention than education and family and it will influence both. In a business, leadership and employees already interact regularly. Shifting from a rigid hierarchy and competitive relationships to a more organic structure with interdependent relationships is possible for two significant reasons. First, it is easier to redirect existing momentum than to initiate it. Second, the motive toward belonging is humanity's strongest drive because it is their most fundamental need. If given the choice, capacity, and container - people will always gravitate toward healthy connections. Nature always seeks and finds homeostasis. It only degrades when humans interrupt its natural processes. It is the same for us. Given the opportunity, we will build a structure of belonging. Let’s retrain ourselves and get out of our own way.
Belonging is built when a collaborative group of individuals does generative work within a system.
Leaders and Policy First
The work of shifting our culture’s social paradigm takes time and intention. Organizational leadership needs to personally experience and be impacted by real, shared belonging before they can guide and cultivate it. Often, there are key changes to be made within the existing structure to prime it for a shift toward equitable belonging. If a company is exploiting its employees or clients or treating them in any way that is antithetical to connected human flourishing (even unintentionally), then new principles and policies that produce right action will need to be established and experienced before belonging can be promoted. In a hierarchical company, leaders first experience belonging, then demonstrate, then lead by example and create the conditions for expanding their experience. This brings the top and the bottom of the hierarchy closer together.
Introducing and Experiencing Concepts
In workshop, conference, or retreat environments that are generously tailored to their valued status, employees are exposed to a fresh understanding of belonging and given tools to pursue it together. These tools are rooted in story-sharing. Participants progress through response phases including gratitude, curiosity, articulation, and generativity. The last two phases turn the felt experience of belonging into a measurable, durable, and productive structure.
Organizational Development and Evaluation
Once an organization has begun cultivating healthy social integration, its people can interact in ways that promote mental, emotional, and behavioral health. This measurably increases employee retention, attendance, productivity, and profits. It also sets the stage for targeted company improvement and growth. With the resources of an empowered and healthy team who knows who they are, what they can do, and what they need, intentional growth has far fewer obstacles. Once baseline measurements and goals are set, key employees are empowered to both measure and adapt strategies that ensure optimal growth in the direction they helped set. Growth and adaptation are guided in two ways. The first is overseen by Story Guides who support and maintain the story-sharing environment that builds belonging. The second is a form of Participatory Action Research called Empowerment Evaluation. In tandem, these two strategies sustain and ensure growth for the social structure and the organization.
I write in a geeky, sciency, hopefully poetic way about belonging, storytelling, community building, deconstruction and construction,