Change Work April 2016

All in it together

I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.
Groucho Marx

Why do we join things? And why do we leave them?

Having the ability to survive alone is useful. But for most of us, life is much better if we have companionship and, especially, cooperation. In the age of machines we forget how much more powerful groups are than individuals. Look at ancient monuments like Stonehenge, the pyramids or massive earthworks and you can see what can be achieved when you have many people and the simplest technology. So do we no longer need to join groups now that we've got machines to dig holes and to make things?

Well, there are other benefits besides building pyramids:
  1. We also join groups for security - to be protected by the crowd and/or to help look after other members.
  2. The sense of belonging is very important for most of us. We seek out affection and love.
  3. Many people are "internally referenced", that is they tend to look inside themselves for the standards to make judgements against. But many (perhaps most) of us are externally referenced and need to know what others think before we make choices. And this extends to how we feel about ourselves, so that self-esteem depends to a degree on the reassurance we get from others.
  4. And we might also feel that our life's purpose involves making a positive difference to society in some way. But "society" is probably too big a thing to be influenced by most individuals so we look to smaller groupings to identify with and to put our efforts into.

The list of rewards I've just run through is none other than Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and membership of a family or tribe ticks all of the boxes. Potentially, you get everything from basic, physical needs all the way up to personal growth and fulfilment by being on the inside.

There's always a cost though. You'll have to commit time and effort to group activities, even some that you aren't that interested in or approving of. (Taxation is an example of this!)

And you'll have to accept certain restrictions on your personal freedom, sacrificing some of your independence and individual identity. In fact the group you belong to usually defines you to an extent - from the football team you support through to your nationality. And it's no accident that we use the language of identity in relation to group membership: I am a United supporter or I am English rather than I support United (an action) or I was born in England (historical event).

Over the years I've joined and left quite a few professional and community organisations. Typically, I joined because I thought I was going to be doing things I enjoy or because I thought my career would benefit. I left when the group no longer gave me enough reward (usually intangible) to be worth the effort involved in participating. Or membership became increasingly uncomfortable, feeling less sense of belonging, to the point that I was "moved to move": typical away-motivated behaviour!

Is this what the Brexiteers (who want Britain to leave the EU) are expressing? It's not worth the effort and/or we no longer identify with the group?

When the "Gang of Four" broke away from the British Labour Party to form the Social Democratic Party in 1981 they were objecting to certain changes in Labour policy. Ironically, one of the policy issues was Labour's new commitment to withdraw Britain from what was then called the European Economic Community. So the rebels left the party to object to leaving the EEC!

More familiar than political disagreements, the trauma of the end of a relationship, bereavement or retirement from work generates the same range of emotions. Then it's tempting to move away from all the things that remind you of what's missing and, perhaps, somehow to regain the initiative in your life. That's usually a mistake since by moving you also leave behind the familiar, comfortable things that sustain you.

Humans are tribal beings. If we leave one group we will look for another to join. Our deepest needs drive us to seek the companionship, comfort and security of a "family". And you can't put a price on any of that!