TOM #3: How to build a better place to work

Posted on: April 10, 2022

Today’s issue of The Owner’s Manual is inspired by reader requests to discuss what to do about the Great Resignation, how to handle people who can’t handle feedback, and how to deal with narcissists. Rather than speak to these issues specifically, I have decided to discuss what these issues have in common: belonging. With this foundation, I’ll be able to address these specific challenges in future issues and LinkedIn posts.

I believe our human drive to belong limits our ability to build strong relationships and great places to work until we 1) understand how belonging actually works and 2) cultivate a sense of true belonging within ourselves and our businesses. 

Part 1 discusses the structure of human belonging and how belonging and identity are related. 

Part 2 discusses the zero sum game that limits you and your team at work and introduces an alternative.

In the endnotes, I explain how the three aforementioned issues relate to belonging.

Part 1: Humans are driven to belong.

It can be argued that Maslov had the hierarchy of needs out of order. We humans are known to forfeit our most fundamental needs (food, water and/or personal safety) in order to preserve or strengthen our belonging to a group. 

For humans, belonging is correlated with surviving. 

(Fun facts: recent studies indicate that our brains generate cravings for social interaction in the same region as cravings for food, and we experience the pain of social exclusion in the same region of our brains as we experience physical pain!)

The “structure” of belonging.

Belonging requires you to abide by the group’s rules of how to think and act. When you violate these “rules of belonging” you risk being cast out, which experiences as a threat to your survival.

Your neurobiological system lets you know how secure it assesses your belonging to be by generating the feelings of guilt and innocence.

  • When your belonging is threatened because you have violated the rules of belonging, you feel guilty.
  • When your belonging is secure, you feel freedom from guilt, or innocent (not guilty).

Guilt is a useful thing. Without it, we would not be able to bond with others. We would be unable to maintain an equilibrium of giving and taking in relationships. And we’d struggle to create social order.

With every action we take that affects others, we feel either guilty or innocent. Without this system, it would be hard to discriminate between what serves and what hinders our relationships.

Peer pressure is real for all humans, not just teenagers. 

Belonging would be less complicated if the rules of belonging were the same across all groups, but they’re not. What makes you innocent in one relationship or context may make you guilty in another. What serves one relationship may damage another.

We can experience pressure from one group to say or do things that conflict with the values and rules of another group. Hence, the complexities of middle school AND adulthood. 

The consequences of being excluded from one’s group or family as adults are not quite as dire as they once were. It’s arguable that they are less punitive than they were even a few decades ago. But the shift in social norms that has increased our freedom to choose the groups to which we belong has also spurred feelings of confusion and disorientation. 

Navigating the complexity of differing and conflicting rules of belonging can limit the sense of well-being that comes with clear belonging. It can leave us feeling lost and unsure of who we are.

Belonging and identity are related.

From infancy through early childhood, your family’s rules of belonging (as well as those of other influential individuals or groups) delineated what you were supposed to think, believe, and do all while your brain and nervous system were forming. 

These rules have influenced your behavior, your beliefs, and your sense of who you are ever since. 

No matter how involved or not involved you currently are with your family, these familial rules of belonging are still likely to inform how you lead your company and dictate many of the expectations you have of yourself and everyone in your life.

Some of your family’s and group’s rules of belonging have positively propelled you and enhanced your well-being. Some of them likely induced you to forfeit some of your fundamental needs in order to fit in.

This is true for you. And for every human you interact with in your business (and life). We are all driven to belong. And we are all trying to navigate the complexities of differing rules of belonging in society, in our families, in our work life, and within ourselves.

Self-Coaching Questions

Familiarity with the rules of belonging that have and continue to influence you and your identity will allow you to be more discerning in how you navigate decisions that affect other people.

  • Think back to when you were 3 or 4 years old. What were your family’s rules of belonging back then, according to your younger self? (Note: they might differ for each parent or caretaker.)
  • How, if at all, have these early rules of belonging influenced your identity, your career, and how you show up at work?
  • What are some other groups that have influenced or currently inform your sense of identity?
  • How do these groups’ rules of belonging conflict, and how do you navigate those differences?

Part 2: How to be “guilty” and still belong.

Our human drive for belonging undermines our culture and relationships.

Your brain is continually running belonging-ness computations to determine how you should think or behave in any given situation to guard against being cast out. Part of these computations also involve you noticing the behavior of others, because innocence is the condition of being free from guilt. 

Innocent means “not guilty.” This sets up a binary construct. 

In order for you to affirm your innocence, others have to be guilty. In order for you to be right, someone else has to be wrong. 

This obsession with labeling things “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”, “us” or “them” is fed by our drive to belong. In this zero sum game, we cannot experience innocence–the confirmation of our belonging to the group–without someone else being guilty (or wrong, bad, etc.).

When we let these unconscious computations drive our thinking and behavior, we get stuck in this zero sum game which prevents us from experiencing true belonging.

Symptoms and norms of the zero sum game at work.

The zero sum game offers you two doors to choose from:

  • Door #1 = Right/Good/Innocent
  • Door #2 = Wrong/Bad/Guilty

The company that functions in the zero sum game domain struggles to evolve. With everyone so fixated on who’s doing it right or wrong, there is little to no attention directed toward process improvement. And there’s little to no capacity for assigning wrong-ness to people in positions of authority or who have earned lots of “gold stars” for doing so many things right. 

Self-Coaching Questions

The zero sum game is antithetical to the things you're strive to cultivate in your workplace…things like innovation, creativity, inclusion, resilience. It’s imperative that you learn to notice when it’s in play, both within yourself and your company.

  • Where in your business (or life) are you seeking to avoid guilt?
  • Where in your life are you seeking to assert innocence?
  • What are your company’s rules of belonging? Are they the same for everyone?
  • What do you have innocence confused with? [e.g. superiority (I’m better/smarter/more faithful than/more spiritual or evolved than ___) or entitlement (I’m more deserving of ___)]

What zero sum looks like at work

Most people are fixated on getting through Door #1 to assure their belonging, but occasionally people reach for Door #2. What follows are ten examples of how you, or people in your company, might be choosing one of the zero sum doors.

1. Needing to be in control (or experiencing an unpleasant sense of being out of control)

Door #1. Micromanagement is among the most common symptoms of the zero sum game. Most business owners were top students, athletes, and/or individual contributors as employees. Their sense of belonging is assured by their premier performance, which can undermine their ability to manage effectively. Being in control is a strategy to get things “right”. 

2. Keeping close watch of what other people are doing 

Door #1. Accumulating evidence of others’ guilt is a way of asserting one’s innocence. Monitoring others' work is not inherently bad, but tallying it and weaponizing it to make others “wrong” or “guilty” is a form of toxic righteousness.

3. Stalling to make decisions or take action

Door #1. The need to do things “right” (or worrying you’ll get them “wrong”) is paralyzing in business, particularly during periods of transition and uncertainty, because it’s nearly impossible to know what right IS! Reaching for this door keeps you and your company stuck (and anxious that your belonging is at risk).

4. Working very hard and struggling to leave work at work

Door #1. The hustle culture provides a way to assert innocence. Exhaustion and burnout are evidence of working harder and suffering more than other people who are guilty of not working as hard, caring as much, or some other “sin”.

5. Shirking accountability by blaming you or others for their actions

Door #1. One way to ease the anxiety and fear of being guilty, cast out, and alone is to make someone or something else guilty. Blame is a tool we learn as children to assert our innocence, and it is a reliable tactic to use as an adult.

6. Unable to have productive conversations about what’s not working

Door #1. More than likely, the barrier to productive conversations is a reluctance (or inability) to admit guilt. In the zero sum construct, there’s no means of being guilty AND belonging.

7. Feeling threatened by new ideas, criticism, or conflict

Door #1. Humans are naturally fearful of losing connection with those in power or having our own power and authority threatened. New ideas challenge the status quo. Criticism and conflict involve assigning wrongness to the way things are, which experiences as guilt.

8. Feeling isolated or lost

Door #1. Our nervous systems regard innocence as insulation from threat, harm, and isolation. Yet when you contort yourself to be innocent across groups with varying rules of belonging, you can end up feeling unaccepted anywhere and unsure of who you really are. 

9. Worrying everyone is judging, harshly

Door #2. One way of having some agency in a family or group that has assigned you the role of “bad kid” or “misfit” is criticizing yourself before others have the chance. It’s a means of assuming guilt, rather than having it assigned to you. Whether you were the good kid or the bad kid, the structure of belonging in the zero sum game requires that you do things “right”. Worrying about harsh criticism is an indication that your belonging feels at risk, and it keeps you from doing your best work.

10. Habitually apologizing

Door #2. This might sound like, “This probably isn’t what you wanted, but here’s my report.” Allowing others in the group to feel more innocent by assuming guilt can have a high value. For those who use Door #2, this choice was a go-to as a child in order to help a parent or sibling feel innocent (e.g. “Mommy yells all the time, because I make her mad.” / “My dad couldn’t get his degree, because I was born.” ) 

Our human drive to be innocent and to punish those who are guilty underlies most social and organizational dysfunction. 

We often unconsciously or overtly deny other people’s experiences, needs, and ideas as wrong in order to regard our own as valid. But if we keep doing that, how will we ever build great places to work or relationships that honor people equally?

Here’s the thing. We don’t have to choose between Door #1 and Door #2. There’s a third option!

[When I came up with this door analogy, the set of my 3-year-old self’s favorite show, The Price Is Right, appeared in my mind. I could see those three giant doors, and I could hear the audience cheering for the contestant to choose Door #3.  I wonder, was I the only kid who called that show “Come On Down” instead of its actual name?] 

The Price Is Right Game Show Doors from the Bob Barker Years [credit for this fun gif goes to tpirman1982]

Door #3

Our addiction to innocence has us hustling for approval, or other evidence of our belonging. But the half-life of that external validation is pretty short. 

In the zero sum game, we have to keep proving our worthiness. For business owners, this is particularly hard because external validation usually comes from customers. It can be challenging to get that feedback, and it gets more elusive the more we seek it.

The antidote to the zero sum game is Door #3.

Door #3 does not include or exclude guilt or innocence. It is a bypass for choosing between them. It’s a bypass of the limiting guilt and innocence computations, and a reinstatement of your agency to choose the rules that govern your thoughts, beliefs and actions.

It allows for you to violate the group’s rules of belonging and still belong. Brene Brown points out in her book Braving the Wilderness that true belonging does not require you to change who you are, but rather to BE who you are. 

Door #3 may be for you what it is for many people: a way back to yourself.

It requires that you get crystal clear about your values (what’s most important) and rules of belonging (what’s okay and what’s not okay). 

I urge you to do the same in your business so that you can cultivate true belonging and the other things doing so enables, things like trust, accountability, innovation, and positive impact.

When you walk through Door #3, there’s a chance that you will be standing alone. By walking through Door #3, you are bypassing the governing construct that nearly everyone uses to navigate every moment of their existence. You're saying I am choosing to break the rules of belonging and still belong. 

Walking through Door #3 can feel like you don’t belong to any group, so it’s important that you know who you are and what you stand for. When you do, you will know in your bones that you still belong to you.

Self-Coaching Questions

A key part cultivating true belonging in your company is developing true belonging with yourself, which requires that you deepen your understanding and acceptance of yourself. 

  • Where/when/with whom do you forfeit your agency and sense of who you are in order to fit in? 
  • Where/when/with whom have you decided it is no longer worth self-editing to conform to the group's "rules of belonging"?
  • Where/when/with whom have you reclaimed your agency to choose how you show up and in so doing, give others the courage and the permission to do the same?

Here are a few examples of what is possible when you choose Door #3:

  • You can make decisions with confidence despite not knowing how things will turn out.
  • You can decline working with a long-standing client, because you are more focused on acting in alignment with your company’s goals than you are on whether there are social repercussions for saying no.
  • You can acknowledge the experience of others and assume accountability for your role in the harm that has happened (proper guilt) without threatening your legitimacy as the leader or a member of the group.
  • You can listen to employee and customer complaints from a curious place, acknowledge their experience, and partner with them in helping make the company better.
  • You can navigate everyday errands without being triggered by if/how other people wear face masks.
  • You can engage in conversation with people who have differing experiences and beliefs without making anyone “wrong”.
  • You can commit to making your company a more welcoming and inclusive place without yet knowing how.
  • You can set boundaries with people and make sure they’re respected.
  • You can respect other people’s boundaries without making them “wrong” for setting them.

You may experience moving through Door #3 as leaving people in your family, company, social circles and such behind. As causing them pain or as being disloyal. 

For many people, this is an excruciating step. Particularly when people are unable to understand or respect your choice of Door #3. They may cut you off, shame you, and pressure others in the group to do the same. These are normal zero sum reactions driven by their inner computations of “guilt” and “innocence.”

When you step through Door #3, you are not leaving people behind. You are respecting their choice to be where they are.

And some of them just might be inspired to follow you through Door #3.

Take action!

A key part cultivating true belonging in your company is developing true belonging with yourself, which requires that you deepen your understanding and acceptance of yourself. 

  • Set aside time in your calendar to review your personal list of values and make your list of rules.
  •  Schedule time to draft your company’s list of values and rules. I encourage you to involve your team members in the process.
  • Consider doing this exercise with your partner and as a family. It can be a significant gateway to better communication, cooperation, and well-being for all.


What the Great Resignation, being unable to receive feedback, and narcissism have to do with belonging.

The Great Resignation

The preponderance of articles I’ve read about the Great Resignation (or “Great Recalibration” as my friend Jenny Blake more accurately describes it) indicate that people left jobs that asked them to suffer (mistreatment, disrespect, unethical behavior, discrimination, no time off, low wages, be "guilty" or "bad" or "deserving of punishment") in order to fit in and keep their job. 

Some people were unaware of their suffering or didn’t realize how significant it was until the pandemic allowed them to notice it. And they decided that the cost of remaining with the company was too high. 

For others, the pandemic catalyzed a shuffling/shift in their personal values/identity–they realized or were reminded that they only get one life, and they want to be more intentional about how they live it. This realization allowed them to shift their values and rules of belonging such that they no longer needed to stay with that company or that career path in order to remain "innocent" (aligned with that company's or their social or familial norms).

I believe that many people who have resigned attempted to pass through Door #3 AND remain with their current employer. But when they discovered that it wasn't possible to belong to themselves and belong to the company, they left. 

Being Unable to Receive Feedback

A person who believes that their belonging is at risk anytime they’re not doing things exactly “right” will struggle to receive feedback.

Another incumbrance to delivering feedback? When the person delivering the feedback asserts their innocence by assigning guilt. 

Both the feedback giver and feedback receiver need to step through Door #3 in order for feedback to be useful.


Narcissists are addicted to innocence. They will not yield it. They are chronic blamers and are unable to break out of the zero sum game. Consequently, narcissists are people you need to let be where they are...they will not go with you through Door #3.

One way to have a better experience when working with a narcissist is to decide in advance what you will be wrong about and assert your guilt about it to them. Choosing what you’re “guilty” of doing wrong (even if you're not actually wrong) can help you retain agency in the conversation/interaction while still belonging to yourself.

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