I had a great meeting recently with Isabel Collins who is building a consulting business around the idea of belonging. We talked about the sort of things people feel the need to belong to and why. What is the optimal group size for a sense of belonging? What norms have to exist to give us something to belong to? What is the right degree of conformity?
My own belief is that networks of autonomous, tolerant, collaborative individuals are how we are going to thrive in the future and the only way we are going to solve our complex and volatile challenges. What is the minimum amount of structure, rules, or consistent behaviours that allows those networks to work and not fall into dysfunction and disorder? What is the right balance between the outlook and interests of the individual and those of the network? How do we keep the networks fluid and diverse enough to avoid them becoming tribal? How do we retain our identity when we belong to multiple, overlapping, networks?
Last night I read a long but fascinating article about ISIS in which I was struck by the need that fundamentalists of any religious persuasion have to belong. A need to belong that overrides their individuality and even, in extreme cases, their need to live.
Even in the workplace there is an often overwhelming pressure to conform, to fit in. We are encouraged to sublimate the self to the needs of the group. Dissent is frowned upon and individualists invariably end up being ejected.
A need to belong to something larger than ourselves is clearly a powerful part of being human. How do we avoid that need overcoming our sense of self, our ability to operate effectively, and our very humanity, in the process?