Our Search for Belonging: How Our Need to Connect Is Tearing Us Apart

Our Search for Belonging: How Our Need to Connect Is Tearing Us Apart

Our Search for Belonging: How Our Need to Connect Is Tearing Us Apart

Our Search for Belonging: How Our Need to Connect Is Tearing Us Apart


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We are living in a time of mounting political segregation that threatens to tear us apart as a unified society. The result is that we are becoming increasingly tribal, and the narratives of life that we get exposed to on a daily basis have become echo chambers in which we hear our beliefs reinforced and others' beliefs demonized.

At the core of tribalism exists a paradox: as humans, we are hardwired with the need to belong, which ends up making us deeply connected with some yet deeply divided from others. When these tribes are formed out of fear of the "other," on topics such as race, immigration status, religion, or partisan politics, we resort to an "us versus them" attitude. Especially in the digital age, when we are all interconnected in one way or another, these tensions seep into our daily lives and we become secluded with our self-identified tribes. Global diversity and inclusion expert Howard J. Ross, with JonRobert Tartaglione, explores how our human need to belong is the driving force behind the increasing division of our world.

Drawing upon decades of leadership experience, Ross probes the depth of tribalism, examines the role of social media in exacerbating it, and offers tactics for how to combat it. Filled with tested practices for opening safe and honest dialogue in the workplace and challenges to confront our own tendencies to bond with those who are like us, Our Search for Belonging is a powerful statement of hope in a disquieting time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781523095032
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 05/08/2018
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,127,393
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Howard J. Ross is a lifelong social justice advocate and the founding partner of Cook Ross, Inc. He has consulted on the areas of corporate culture change, leadership development, and diversity and inclusion. His work has been published by the Harvard Business Review, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Forbes, and he has worked with Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries. Cook Ross programs have been taught at Harvard University Medical School, Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, and over twenty other colleges and universities. Ross is also the bestselling author of ReInventing Diversity and Everyday Bias.
JonRobert Tartaglione is a behavioral scientist and the CEO of Influence 51, a consulting firm that teaches its clients about the neuropsychology of influence.

Read an Excerpt


Wired for Belonging

The Innate Desire to Belong

The essential dilemma of my life is between my deep desire to belong and my suspicion of belonging.

— Jhumpa Lahiri

A Tale of Three Colleagues

The annual holiday party at Munchester Industries is a raucous event. The company has about seven hundred employees, and for the holiday gala they all gather with their families in tow. The party has a huge buffet, an open bar, people dancing to the sounds of a DJ's music, and a clown making balloon animals for the children. People are gathered in small clusters, either at tables or standing around chatting. On the surface this looks like any number of company parties we have all seen before. However, this year the party has a different tone, coming just six weeks after the 2016 presidential election. The room is abuzz with conversations about politics, mostly people celebrating or commiserating with their friends. Waiting for drinks, three employees stand together in awkward silence, their countenance seemingly different from most of the people around them, suggesting politeness but not much more. A tall, blond-haired white woman, with two children at her side, shifts from foot to foot, her eyes looking around the room, almost as if she wants to escape. A shorter, darker-skinned woman stands quietly by the side. The third person, a tall white man, appears friendly, even gregarious, alternating between trying to make conversation with the two women and making side comments to a shorter, brown-skinned man who stands behind him. Who are these people? What's going on?

To answer these questions, let's rewind the clock to that morning....


Joan Smith woke up at 7:00 am, as she usually did on a workday. After her morning rituals, she proceeded to one of her regular patterns: looking at her smartphone. Joan checked for any emails and then went directly to her news feed, where she saw the morning headlines from some of her usual sources: Breitbart, the Daily Caller, and the Drudge Report. Her newsfeed was still humming with a sense of victory and celebration over the surprising results of the election. She checked her Facebook page and her Twitter account, where she found articles posted by several of her friends, including an interesting one on religious suppression, posted by one of the women in her church's book study group. Almost all the posts agreed with her politically. She then wandered down to her basement to put in some time on the treadmill, while watching the morning news on Fox and Friends.

Joan has been working at Munchester Industries for the past two years in a clerical position. She was able to get the job after her marriage ended following several years of stress that were triggered by her husband's layoff from his job of sixteen years at the local processing plant. The divorce has been hard on her because of her strong religious values and belief in keeping families together, but her husband's work challenges resulted in changes in his behavior that made staying together untenable. He is still looking for fulltime employment. Though he does make some money as an Uber driver, he has very little to contribute to Joan and their twelve-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter. Joan is fortunate that she has benefitted from both material and emotional support from her church community, which has helped her get through these hard times.

At the encouragement of her family, Joan has started dating again. She went out with a man she met at a friend's dinner party, however, the conversation was somewhat limited because Joan quickly realized that he was a Democrat and she didn't want to get into any political arguments. As it is, she doesn't talk about her politics at work; most of the people who work at Munchester tend toward the liberal side.

After finishing her exercise, Joan showered and got ready for work. Today is the company party, and the office would be closed in the late afternoon for the festivities, which would go into the evening. Just last night she was getting her mother's advice, because she was feeling nervous about the party, not wanting to find herself in a position of having to defend her political stance. She planned on having her friend drop the kids off at the party. Given all of the alcohol that they have at these events, she has mixed feelings about them being there, but she received a lot of pressure from her coworkers that this was a must-attend event, family included.


Barry Jones sat at the breakfast table with his husband, Sam, and their eighteen-year-old daughter, Jennifer. Jennifer is Sam's birth daughter from his previous marriage, and she has recently come to live with them. Barry and Sam have been together for almost sixteen years, and last night they celebrated their third wedding anniversary with Jennifer and a small group of family and friends. The event was very pleasant, although family gatherings have been considerably more muted since the election. Most of Barry's family are Republicans, and most of Sam's are Democrats. In addition, Sam's father is a Mexican immigrant, having come to the United States more than twenty years ago; he became a naturalized citizen in 2006. The tension somewhat limited conversations to superficialities and pleasantries, which was just fine for Barry and Sam — they didn't want a repeat of the incident that occurred at Thanksgiving, when Sam's sister and Barry's father got into a political debate that was so heated it threatened to ruin the holiday dinner.

The family was watching the morning news on MSNBC as they ate, but Barry was, as usual, multitasking between breakfast conversation, watching the news, and looking at his news feed, mostly articles from BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, and the Daily Kos. The news seems increasingly bothersome to Barry, who voted for Hillary Clinton, though he was a Bernie Sanders supporter in the 2016 primaries. He had no problem making the switch because he was so offended by Donald Trump's comments about Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, and women, not to mention the Republican platform positions on LGBTQ rights. Being Jewish and having had family members who were lost in the Holocaust, Barry is highly sensitive about examples of what he perceives to be bigotry. He also didn't want their daughter to have a president who would speak and act the way he perceives that Trump did about women. As a result, watching the news over the last month or so has felt like a living nightmare to Barry, and he has been spending a lot of time with a community organizing group of late, trying to figure out how to get more Democrats elected to Congress.

At 7:45 am, Barry and Jennifer said goodbye to Sam and got in the car. Barry planned to drop Jennifer off at school and then drive about twenty minutes to his job at Munchester Industries, where he is the director of human resources. He plans to see Sam and Jennifer this evening at the company holiday party, although for many of his fellow employees, the mood lately has been more funereal than celebratory.


In another part of town, Fatima Mohammed, having completed her morning prayers, was also getting ready for work, with the morning news from the BBC playing on her television set in the living room. Her eighteen-year-old son, Malik, is about to head off to school. It has been more difficult lately to get him out the door, as he has experienced some taunting by his fellow students, one of whom "jokingly" asked him whether his family was going to get deported now that Trump was elected. In addition, because of the recent killings of young black men by police officers, Fatima is always concerned about Malik's safety when he is out driving. Fatima was born in the United Kingdom to parents who had immigrated years before from Afghanistan. She came to the United States on a student visa in 1992 and met her husband, Daanesh, in school. Daanesh was from a family of Somali immigrants who had come to this country when he was just a boy. They were married in 1996 and she officially became a U.S. citizen the following year.

Daanesh graduated from the University of Maryland in 1996 and then went to medical school at the University of Michigan. He has been practicing medicine for more than ten years, but recently has encountered some difficulties due to interactions with several patients who questioned whether they wanted to be treated by a Muslim, especially one with very dark skin.

Fatima watches the news every day with apprehension, because her brother Rashed, who followed her to the United States as a student eight years after she came, decided to enlist in the U.S. Army after he graduated from college, and is now stationed in Afghanistan. Rashed was excited about serving his country and was well received by army recruiters, who thought that somebody with his maturity and knowledge of language and culture would be a valuable asset. He has been trained in mediation and conflict resolution, which often puts him in sensitive situations. He plans on retiring from the military after he completes twenty-five years, and then going to graduate school. Fatima not only worries about Rashed's safety but also is frightened by the anti-Muslim political rhetoric that she is constantly hearing on the news.

Fatima has worn an abaya and hijab for most of her life, in keeping with her family's religious traditions; however, at her mother's request, of late she has decided to go with more typical Western dress when she goes to her job as an engineer at Munchester Industries. On the weekends, and when she goes to her mosque — which she has been attending more frequently lately because she feels comforted being with "her people" — she still wears her traditional dress, but she became tired of being looked at suspiciously and has also read too many articles about Muslim women being harassed, and so she has decided it is safer and easier to "when in Rome, do as the Romans do."

As they stand in line at the party, the inner world of each of these three individuals is present in the way they are relating. There is not all that much in the buffet for Fatima, because she follows halal practices and avoids alcohol. Not wanting to bring attention to herself, she eats what she can and drinks a bottle of water. Joan has her children with her, and is somewhat uncomfortable with what feels to her like the public display of affection that Barry is showing toward Sam in front of them. She had heard rumors that Barry was gay from others in the company, but feels somewhat like he is rubbing it in her face, and she doesn't like her children being exposed to it. Barry, on the other hand, is aware that he and Sam may make people uncomfortable at times, but frankly he thinks that's their problem. After all, company policy is very clear, and Munchester even recently received a high score on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index. Fatima knows Joan fairly well, given Joan's clerical position in the engineering department; however, she has recently noticed a chill in their relationship, especially during the presidential campaign. While Fatima seems nice enough, the "Muslim thing" still makes Joan feel uncomfortable. Both of them met Barry when they came to work at the organization, and they also attended a human resources training he gave a couple of months ago, talking about new employee practices that have been instituted.

As is often the case these days, the conversation quickly turns to the daily news. Barry is quite outspoken in his views, but both Joan and Fatima find themselves increasingly uncomfortable even being in the conversation. Joan has learned to not discuss her political views at work, because employees of the company are, more often than not, judgmental about conservative views like hers, and she is not interested in getting into debates or being judged by her colleagues. Fatima, on the other hand, finds that any discussion of politics leaves her feeling very vulnerable. She definitely does not feel comfortable talking about her faith in public. The social interaction on the surface is superficial. The silence underneath the conversation is deafening.

The characters depicted above are not real, although they could be. They are a composite of traits, all drawn from people with whom I have met. Most of us can relate to the situation they find themselves in at the party. Questions abound in their minds: What's normal anymore? What is it safe to say? How much can we disagree without being disagreeable? Will my job be in jeopardy if people find out what I believe in? And often, How quickly can I get back to my people so that I can feel comfortable just being myself?

Most of us like the feeling of belonging to groups around us. Whether it is being accepted by our friends and neighbors or being part of the in-group at work or school, there is something safer and more secure about being accepted and included. The need to belong is essential to human survival. In his landmark 1943 paper, "A Theory of Human Motivation," Abraham Maslow introduced his now ubiquitous "hierarchy of needs." In it, Maslow postulated that "human needs arrange themselves in hierarchies of prepotency. That is to say, the appearance of one need usually rests on the prior satisfaction of another, more pre-potent need. Man is a perpetually wanting animal."

Anybody who has taken a basic Introduction to Psychology course is probably familiar with Maslow's model, often depicted as a pyramid (Figure 1.1).

According to Maslow, our physiological needs are the first that must be satisfied, followed by our needs for safety, belonging, self-esteem, and finally self-actualization. While Maslow's model has been challenged for representing a predominantly individualistic cultural model, it has remained a bedrock of the study of human development for more than seventy years.

Within American culture, this is consistent with our tendency to place a high value on individualism. In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his historic study of American culture, Democracy in America, identified individualism as a fundamental distinguishing characteristic of democracies, and the capitalist American democratic model in particular. Tocqueville recognized the essential role that individualism plays in separating people from society: "Individualism is a considered and peaceful sentiment that disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and to withdraw to the side with his family and his friends; so that, after thus creating a small society for his own use, he willingly abandons the large society to itself."

According to Maslow, the desire to fulfill our personal physiological and safety needs are preeminent, and breed a certain sense of individualism that has each of us seek to get what we need to be fulfilled in those dimensions.

More recent research indicates that Maslow may have missed the mark. There may be no greater human need than the need to belong. Human beings no doubt have remarkable survival skills, and yet we rely on our social groups to survive. Throughout human history, we evolved to live in cooperative societies that have grown larger and more diverse all the time. For most of our history, we have depended on those groups to help us satisfy both our basic physiological needs and our social and psychological ones. Just like our need for food or water, our need for acceptance emerged as a mechanism for survival. For most of our history, it was rare that a solitary individual could survive living in jungles, in forests, or on vast plains. We needed others in order to get our physiological needs met.

Every human being starts life in total dependency. A newborn baby is incapable of meeting its own physiological needs or needs for safety and will survive days, at most, if it "belongs" to nobody. The first imprint that we have on our core psyche is "I exist because you exist."

This inherent need to belong has created, particularly in more individualistically oriented Western countries, an inherent tension between an ethos of individualism and the need to connect, belong, and rely on others to survive. Many people, even psychologists, have underestimated the impact of social exclusion on the individual experience, even as it contributes to all manner of negative societal behavior, including sociopathic behaviors such as murder.

How does this group connection manifest in our lives?

Bonding and Bridging

In his landmark study of social capital, Bowling Alone, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam identified two fundamental ways that we form social connections and identify our sense of belonging that are distinct when we are connecting with in-groups or out-groups; he refers to them as bonding and bridging (Figure 1.2).

Bonding is generally present in the fundamental connection between members of in-groups, especially homogeneous ones. Because members of a group share cultural norms and values, and because we are naturally more empathetic toward people in our own groups, bonding can be valuable as a sort of social safety net that can protect us from outside groups. In many societies, the maintenance of relationships of family and tribal identification can even help provide basic survival needs, especially when the larger social structure is in breakdown. There are some circumstances in which the decline in trust in the existing leadership structure or political system can encourage people to rely more on their in-groups than at other times. This can be especially true when a group is marginalized or oppressed by another group. The networks of support within African American churches in the United States, for example, have provided a necessary social safety net against racism and segregation for generations, as did the NAACP, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and charitable organizations that formed to help support Jewish, Mormon, and Catholic communities. We bond with those we feel we share the greatest and most important connections to, and with whom we have a common perceived fate.


Excerpted from "Our Search For Belonging"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Howard J. Ross.
Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Johnnetta Betsch Cole, PhD ix

Preface xi

Introduction: A Tale of Two Countries 1

1 Wired for Belonging: The Innate Desire to Belong 9

2 The Politics of Being Right 36

3 Why Do We See the World the Way We Do? 59

4 Power, Privilege, Race, and Belonging 75

5 The Social Brain 103

6 Divinity, Division, and Belonging 116

7 When Worlds Collide 133

8 The Media Is the Message 154

9 Bridges to Bonding: Eight Pathways for Building Belonging 172

10 Institutions Can Build Bridges to Belonging 191

11 "Belonging Creates and Undoes Us Both" 211

Notes 217

Acknowledgments 235

Index 239

About the Author 251

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