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The Psychology of Belonging Published: Sunday, April 20, 2003 By: Dr. Manuel Ángel Morales

The structure of belonging reflects identity, involvement, individuality and boundaries. There can be no team or organization unless people belong. So, what does belonging entail? In order to answer this question we have to go deeper into the psychology of membership.

There are conflicting and often contradictory emotions in the whole process of belonging. For individuals, teams and organizations as a whole, the joining process is a continuous one. What must the individual give up in order to belong, and does this change as the team or the organization changes? How does a team or an organization come to determine what individuals can and cannot bring into the group except through the inputs of its members? What does it mean to be “in”? These are fundamental aspects of the belonging psychology (incentives, contribution, acceptance results and working on the organizational purposes).

There are many tensions surrounding belonging to a team or to an organization. One of our favorites to study is the paradox of identity, which relates to the link between individual identity and organizational identity.

Executives, managers and professionals in general must understand which of these dimensions comes first, if one determines the other and what are the consequences of these interacting psychologies.

For management purposes, it is necessary to comprehend the psychology of involvement as it explores the relationship between involvement and detachment, observation and experience. These are also key dimensions of the psychology of belonging. There can be involvement without withdrawal, but also these other two aspects spring from a common source of what it means to belong.

As we research management and organizational issues and work with different applications, we have found out there is a contradiction and also a connection in the coexistence of involvement and withdrawal. This complex reality is associated to the psychology of individuality, which clearly states that the existence of a team requires managing connections among its members. There is nothing to belong to if no such connections exist. This is why a meeting between members is so important. But if the connections are founded on similarities, if the team or the organization is founded on similarities, then what becomes of the individual. This is why we have strongly taught that teamwork is an individual skill.

The team or the organization cannot come into existence as sociologically meaningful unless people are able to deploy their individuality and their differences, so that connections can be found. But the team or the organization must exist before the question of membership can be considered. Boundaries, even if they are becoming increasingly permeable, define what the team is and what is not. They give meaning to belonging and not belonging. They enable and force team members to confront emotions around belonging and not belonging.


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