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Autumn Road

The 5 Minute Leader

  • Writer's pictureCarl Blanz

Belonging and High Performance

When I was a cook, learning the culture and ropes of a new kitchen was sometimes confusing and frustrating.

As a new cook at Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale, one day I came to work with new shoes on. For the entire day, every time I walked around a corner, there was a fellow cook with something to throw on my shoes. Tomato sauce? How about the insides of a case of cantaloupe? Or, maybe a quart of rotten egg salad found in the back of the fridge?

By the end of the day, the target had risen to my chef’s jacket, and I looked like a kid in a finger-painting class. They all thought it was funny. I didn’t. But I couldn’t show that or the ridicule would have been worse than the collage of food stains.

Once a fellow cook was teaching me how to make bigarade sauce. In the classic preparation, you caramelize sugar as part of the recipe. We were watching the sugar bubble and begin to get brown, and he said, “Taste now, see if it’s ready.” What I didn’t know is that all of the old-timers were watching. I stuck my finger in the 275 degree sugar, burnt the shit out of my finger, then as a reflex, I put the hot sugar in my mouth, burning it really bad too, so blisters and no solid food for a while. They laughed, and so did I - on the outside.

All of this and more, were the rituals of belonging in the kitchen. I thought these “norms” were how it was going to be: when I was young and new, I would be hazed, and as I moved up the ranks, I would be doing the hazing.

What I belonged to was an informal guild of white men in kitchens, who teased each other mercilessly, told jokes and stories that today would get you a lawsuit, degraded women (who didn’t show up in any “real” cook’s positions in kitchens that I worked in until the mid-90’s), encouraged and covered up for each other’s drinking, drug use and pot smoking on the job… I literally could not read Kitchen Confidential when it came out, I was ashamed of this life and these stories. The romanticizing of it all is hard to take.

On the outside, I was one of them. I didn’t know it then, but on the inside, I was screaming for something else. Looking back, I have a feeling that all my macho associates wanted something else too. I think that’s why we did so much drinking and drugs, it made it easier to pretend to belong to this faux guild.

We (humans) have an intrinsic need to belong. If our ancestors got kicked out of the village, they were left with no protection. Belonging is hardwired into the survival part of our brains.

We also have mirror neurons. Through body language, facial expressions and words, we mirror each other’s micro behaviors. We sway together when we first meet in order to find the right distance to stand from each other. Babies learn who they are through their mothers, mirroring face to face.

Since those early days of my career, I’ve learned that belonging is the foundation for creativity, resiliency, connectedness, and for setting and achieving high goals together. When you have this foundation in your organization, high-performance feels like play.

Championing a shared set of values, listening to all the voices, and modeling what it looks like to belong, are the acts a leader can take to create a sense of belonging.

Since organizations are the main place outside of the family (and for some, the only place) that we gather, belonging in an organization carries the weight of survival, just like it did for our ancestors.

Belonging is the feeling we have when Psychological Safety is present.

Psychological Safety is the condition that exists when I am able to show up not as my best-self, and feel that I still have value, am not judged, and am reassured that I still have a future within the group.

Belonging ques, are the act we can take to demonstrate a sense of belonging.

Some powerful belonging ques are:

Touch – a fist bump, elbow bump, high-five, or tap on the shoulder are all ways of communicating belonging.

Genuine smile – we can read the micro expressions on each other’s faces. It only takes a nanosecond to feel an insincere smile when we see one. A genuine smile and kind words help create belonging.

Reassurance of a future together – this sounds like “Next time,” “Next week,” “Next year”... attaching a time in the future that we will again be together creates belonging.

The opposite of belonging ques are disconnecting ques. If I would have protested the throwing of sauce on my chef’s coat, or the burning finger fiasco, ridicule would have been the guild’s way of demonstrating disconnecting ques.

So, what’s the belonging like in your organization? Do people feel like they belong? If so, to what? Is there a core set of values that are shared, or are there separate guilds that create their own belonging?

Here’s an invitation

Share this blog with a co-leader in your organization, look at the three types of belonging ques above, and commit to playing a game of sending belonging ques and reinforcing each other's ques in front of and to your co-workers for one day, or one meeting, or one hour. Then evaluate together any differences you noted, come back and share your findings on this blog. My hope is that within a few days, we would have a couple stories and some learning on the subject together.

Here are two resources you can follow for more understanding on belonging:

Research Project Aristotle. I personally like the “re:Work” version of the story.

Read The Culture Code by Daniel Coye.

Add to our learning by commenting on this blog.

If I can support further learning for you regarding Psychological Safety, or to help you create a sense of belonging in your organization, please reach out to me.

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