Book Review: Belonging

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One of the joys of working as a book writing coach is that I get to talk with smart, passionate people as we work on their books. When I worked with Suzi McAlpine on her book Beyond Burnout, many of our conversations were about New Zealand and Maori culture.

A couple of months ago, Suzi sent me a copy of Owen Eastwood’s book, Belonging: The Ancient Code of Togetherness. She thought it would give me insight into many things we talked about while we worked on her book. The book did a lot more than that.

Belonging gave me another piece to the puzzle of how to create an environment where a group can do its best work. I’ve learned a lot over the years from J. Richard Hackman and Amy Edmondson. I learned from the Google research into what makes great teams. Most recently, I learned from Michael Stallard’s excellent book Connection Culture.

Owen Eastwood is one of the top team performance coaches in the world. He works with sports teams, business teams, and even the Command Group of NATO. His work and success grow from his Maori background.

Eastwood descends from Maori and English ancestors. In Belonging, he uses a Maori spiritual concept, “whakapapa,” to anchor his analysis of what makes great teams great. Here’s how he describes the meaning of whakapapa from early in the book

“Each of us are part of an unbreakable chain of people going back and forward in time. Back to our first ancestor at the beginning of time and into the future to the end of time. Each of us in this chain of people have our arms interlocked with those on either side of us. We are unbreakable. Together, immortal.

The sun rose in the east and shone on our first ancestor. Here is our origin story. Just as happens with each passing day, the sun slowly moves down this unbreakable chain of people. Each of us will have our time in the sun. But the sun is always moving. Moving towards the west, where it will finally settle.

When the sun shines on us we are alive, we are strong. For we have had passed down to us a culture that immerses us in deep belonging. We feel safe and respected. We share beliefs and a sense of identity with those around us and this anchors us. We share a purpose with them. We share a vision of the future. We fit in here. Rituals and traditions tie us together. The experiences and wisdom of those who walked in the light before our time are passed on to us.

Whakapapa points a finger at us and tells us, you will not be judged by your money or celebrity or sense of self pride . . . you will be judged by what you did for our tribe. When the sun is shining on us, we must be guardians of our tribe and of each other.

When the sun is shining on us, we must be guardians of our tribe and of each other.”

Don’t worry. There won’t be a quiz on this. Besides, the entire book fleshes out the spiritual idea with practical meanings and examples. What takes the more than a book about a spiritual idea is the way Eastwood uses whakapapa to improve the performance of teams. As he says, “Beyond kin, whakapapa frames our connection to any group we belong to.”

Why this Matters

Our basic human wiring is the same as our hunter gatherer forbearers. We have the same primal needs to belong to a group that has a shared purpose and shared values that drive performance. Those were necessary to survival for our ancestors.

Eastwood says that ability to form groups is an essential human trait. Great teams harness the belonging idea. Belonging confers safety, whether it’s psychological safety or the safety from physical danger. Belonging provides a shared purpose and vision. And belonging establishes values and norms of the group that influence the behavior of group members.

For most of human history our wiring and our society matched up pretty well. Then came the Industrial Revolution. It changed almost every area of life.

Before the Industrial Revolution we mostly worked with family members and people we knew. We often performed a variety of tasks. There was no such thing as “work life balance” because life was whole.

The Industrial Revolution changed that. Now many of us leave home to go to work some distance away. Job descriptions and performance metrics guide what we do. Our job and our home are separate. We’re concerned about work-life balance.

Eastwood is writing about our ancestors and us and the ways we work today. I think you can extend many of his insights into family life. One is that great teams of all kinds have a genesis story. That story establish is behavioral norms. It helps us understand what’s expected of us.

A lot of credible research supports Eastwood’s points. The research is woven together with stories. Some of the stories are from Owen Eastwood’s own experience as a performance coach. Others are historical examples or stories other people have told him. The result is an engaging, easy to read book.

In a Nutshell 

If you want to understand what makes great teams great, Belonging: The Ancient Code of Togetherness will give you another piece of the puzzle. You’ll also learn techniques to put Eastwood’s principles into practice. When you do that, you’ll become one with the great teams of the past.

Companion Reads

Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work by Michael Lee Stallard

Follow this link to my review of Connection Culture.

The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities to Improve Performance, Increase Cooperation, and Promote Social Harmony by Jay J. Van Bavel and Dominic J. Packer


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