A Coaching Power Tool By Diana Osak, Executive Coach, POLAND
The Moment I Understood That I Felt Disconnected from Belonging vs. Disconnection
I remember that day – March 13th, 2020. Back then I was working for a company located three hours drive from my home. I just returned from maternity leave after one year break and I was ready to jump back on the work roller coaster: wake up on Monday early morning, take a train to another city, stay there for two three nights, and come back home on Wednesday or Thursday. It was hard to be away from my one-year-old, we were so close for an entire year plus nine months of pregnancy.
My friend from another office called me to spread the news: “It seems that they will be closing the offices next week”. It sounded so unreal back then and it made me feel relieved in a way. I was used to working from home, I had all equipment with me. “How exciting,” I thought, “I can spend few more weeks with my daughter”. Few more weeks, this is what I had in mind. I and many other people that I spoke to, imagined home office as a phase in our lives, something temporary that will fade as it appeared: suddenly. Everything was new: joining a call in pajamas on, being able to do or hang laundry during working hours, do grocery shopping, wear sweatpants all day long, organize virtual coffee dates, cook dinner while at work, and so on.
Things got a bit rough when suddenly schools and kindergarten got shut when in some places we were not allowed to leave home. Home office enthusiasm started changing into questions: “How long will it last?”. My daughter is 2,5 years old today and I’m still working from home. I even managed to change the job in the meantime and honestly, I haven’t even been to the new office. With time I started missing social interactions, human contact, having a coffee at the coffee machine, having lunch with other people than with my family members… It felt like I cannot be truly myself. Something was limiting me deep inside. I needed people around me, physically, not on the screen; people that I could talk to freely, that I could joke with and share my stories; people that I see from the top to the bottom (not just the head with a nice background). At this moment I understood that I felt disconnected.
What Is Belonging vs. Disconnection?
Disconnection made me feel isolated from fun and vibrant office life. I felt no longer the part of the company although my contract said I’m employed. Something was missing in the employee and the employer equation, something that I can touch, feel or maybe even smell. The technology, although very user-friendly, made me feel distant from other co-workers.
Dr. Jim Taylor, the author of does Technology Connection Mean Life Disconnection?, published in Huff Post, talks about technology as something very clean, safe, and perfect. He describes real life as something more spontaneous and fuller of colors, where things get messy. “When I’m immersed in computer and communication technology, I feel somehow disconnected from life. I feel like I’m in purgatory, not outside of life, but not living life fully either. I’m being productive and I’m being entertained, but not fully wrapped in the fabric of life,” says Taylor. The author also mentions that real human interactions create memories, which are harder to replicate in a virtual setting.
Working from home for 1.5 years in the virtual world caused that I lost a part of myself. The piece is spontaneous, curious, entertaining, smiley, and daring. I felt out of place, and I realized I’m not sharing my thoughts and ideas as freely as before. Sitting in front of laptop eight hours per day was much more formal and restrictive than having a face-to-face conversation. I observed that the interaction was more cautious, and people seemed to be less expressive in their emotions, almost unwilling to share what is in their heads. It felt more robotic and less natural, like being on the stage knowing that the audience will judge you for every sentence you say or every gesture you make.
With time the disconnection grew more limitations in my head. The first one was freely opening up and being authentic me like I used to do in the office environment. The second one was losing the feeling of community and belonging to the group of people or the company. In the yearly Gallup survey, the companies ask about the employee’s wellbeing. One of the questions is if I have a friend at work. This year for the first time filling up the survey I chose the “disagree” answer. After ticking the box one thought crossed my mind: “Is it realistic to have a friend working virtually?”. It seemed much more complicated than having a friend that you can touch. Gallup survey clearly states that “when employees have a deep sense of affiliation with their team members, they take positive actions that benefit the business — actions they may not otherwise even consider.” It seems also there is a strong connection between having a friend at work and the strong performance.
The turning point arrived a few weeks ago when I got an opportunity for the first time since late 2018 to go on a business trip. I was excited packing the suitcase, getting on the train, and going towards a new, unknown to me, city. I could prepare again my clothes from the top to the bottom, not only the part that looks good on the video. I was happy to join the big conference, meet my clients and my teammates for the first time. It felt so good to change the environment for two days, have spontaneous conversations, has a lunch or coffee with real people, not faces on the computer screen. I understood again how extroverted I am and how good it feels to be surrounded by people. I finally felt that I belong.
In the book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, Brené Brown writes that
true belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging does not require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” The author states that virtual technology can help us to cultivate belonging if we met face to face in the past. However, it cannot replace the connection in real-time and space. Brown highlights that true belonging goes together with empathy that is harder to develop in a virtual setting.
Cecelia Herbert in her article Belonging: The new top driver of employee engagement in 2021talks about belonging being the number one strongest driver of employee engagement. In a survey among 11,800, it was rated higher than trust in leadership and ability for career growth. The author sees a strong correlation between belonging and well-being.
People who feel like they belong are almost three times as likely to have a greater sense of well-being.
Disconnection and belonging lie on the two opposite sides of the same axis. In the coaching application, this power tool can be described by a client using different vocabulary. Disconnection can be isolation, detachment, or separation. A client will refer to the situation in which there has been a sudden change in his/her lifestyle or the way work is caused by external factors, such as a global pandemic.
Belonging can be described as inclusion, attachment, or connection. A client will be referring to a state from the past that is missed and to which he/she would like to return. It will be associated with positive feelings such as happiness, comfort, and familiarity.
Coaching application will most likely include the following stages:
- Stage 1: Identify the state of disconnection and name the feelings associated with it
- Stage 2: Accept the current situation caused by external factors
- Stage 3: Take control and build the new belonging action plan
Stage 1: Identify the State of Disconnection and Name the Feelings
In this very first stage of the coaching application, the client reveals the issue that he/she encounters. The feelings that might be associated with disconnection are often: loneliness, discouragement, sadness, regret, dissatisfaction, heaviness, etc. The client might complain about the negative side effects of working from home and challenges in finding work and life balance. He/she can also mention how his/her work or life relationships have deteriorated as the result of a change in the work environment. In some cases, the client might be very pessimistic and hopeless about a change. The questions that might help in identifying the state of disconnection and the feelings are the following:
- How does it make you feel?
- What brings these emotions to you?
- How would you visualize the state in which you currently are?
- What makes you feel that way?
Stage 2: Accept the Current Situation Caused by External Factors
In this stage, the client starts realizing the external factors that cause his/her state of mind. The coachee might bring the global pandemic or change in the lifestyle to the story. Sometimes the client realizes that he/she is not the only one dealing with a similar problem. To make the message more powerful, the coach can use “mirroring technique”, which is repeating phrases heard in the coaching conversation, for example:
- “You said that many people feel lonely in the times of COVID. What does it mean?”
- “You mentioned that we live in strange times. What crosses through your mind when you say that?”
Also, repeating back the phrases to the client (without asking questions), will provoke more thoughts in the conversation, for example:
Client: “I feel so disconnected from everyone. When will it end?”
Coach: “When will it end Peter?”
Stage 3: Take Control and Build the New Belonging Action Plan
Stage three is the time of transformation and taking the action towards the state from the past. It is important to highlight that the client is aware that getting the same outcome as before is not fully possible. The ideal outcome is building a new state of belonging, that includes the items that the client can change or has an influence on. This means that the client understands that the current situation most likely will not change and is looking for ways to connect to the virtual work office or friends. With the support of the client in his/her internal transformation, the coach might bring back the positive feelings, associated with the state of belonging:
- When you belong, how does it make you feel?
- Close your eyes and picture the connection with your company and co-workers. What do you see?
- What emotions go through your head when you think of inclusion?
After bringing the positive feelings back to the conversation, the coach might support the client in building the action plan. The coachee should be in the driver’s seat and he/she should be willing to work on the next steps. The coach might ask:
- What would you like to do about this?
- When would you like to start?
- What might stand in your way?
- What would like to do next time when you feel disconnected again?
- Who can support you in fulfilling your belonging plan?
- What could help you to cultivate the feeling of belonging?
- How can you make sure you keep going with your belonging action plan?
Although I created coaching application for the stage one, two and three of this power tool; it is important to highlight that every coaching conversation is different and should be focused on the client’s needs and wants. Some clients might need more time or coaching sessions to look for the solution and building an action plan for the new, remote reality is simply not enough for them. The coach should be able to listen and give the client enough space to find his/her answers.
Belonging is the topic that brings more and more important to the current virtual setup. If the companies choose to ignore it, it might lead in the future to a low level of affiliation with the business or even a decrease in employee engagement.
Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone
Gallup; The Power of Gallup’s Q12 Employee Engagement Survey
Cecelia Herbert, Belonging: The new top driver of employee engagement
Dr. Jim Tylor; Does Technology Connection Means Life Disconnection?, Huff Post