True Belonging: 4 Lessons from Brené Brown’s ‘Braving the Wilderness’


Is it terrible to admit that what immediately attracted me to Brené Brown’s new book “Braving the Wilderness” – other than the fact that it’s written by Brené – is the front cover? The backdrop of a beautiful, mountainous forest reminds me of my annual leaf-peeping trip to New Hampshire. We only stay in the mountains for a couple of days, but I always look forward to the trip as a peaceful retrieve from the noise and frenzy of the city. We take a short hike. We swap the TV for a roaring fire. The cell service is spotty. And as it turns out, being in nature is actually really good for your health.

Throughout the book, Brené uses the image of the wilderness as a backdrop for her research on what it means to feel true belonging. She writes:

Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness – an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.

Just as the wilderness is a place of solitude, Brené argues that true belonging is not about fitting in or conforming with other people. She continues:

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 doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.

I immediately identified with Brené’s definition of true belonging. Perhaps my inner contrarian is to blame, but in today’s highly politicized environment where introspection and deep thought are hard to come by, I think it’s more important than ever to question any kind of mob mentality or groupthink. And Brené admits this can be difficult. “We’ve sorted ourselves into factions based on our politics and ideology … Rather than pitching wild and innovative ideas that could potentially change everything, we’re staying quiet and small in our bunkers and loud in our echo chambers.”

Echo chambers exist on social media, where we’re more likely to see articles and content that confirm what we already believe. Do echo chambers exist in our organizations? Should they? This balance between fitting in and true belonging reminds me of a discussion we had with WorkHuman speaker Adam Grant earlier this year. He argued that companies often mistakenly focus on hiring for culture fit:

Early on, culture fit is useful because you end up with a uniquely motivated group of people who are marching in the same direction … But as you grow, culture fit becomes a proxy for groupthink, and you end up bringing in a bunch of people who see the world in exactly the same way, and you weed out diversity of thought.

This puts HR leaders and culture keepers in a challenging position. After all, we know the business benefits of creating a work culture where employees feel they belong. But it can also be easy for an organization to become an echo chamber where dissenting or non-mainstream views are ostracized. And according to Brené, belonging can be a deeply personal quest. So where does that leave us?

It all comes back to our shared humanity – and the following four elements and chapter titles of true belonging that emerged from Brené’s research:

  1. People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move On. “Women and men I interviewed who had the strongest sense of true belonging stayed zoomed in … forming their opinions of people based on their actual, in-person experiences” writes Brené. The news and social media give the impression that we’re more divided than we actually are. But it’s our day-to-day relationships – like the ones we form with co-workers – that have the potential to broaden our perspectives and increase our feeling of belonging.
  2. Speak Truth to B.S. Be Civil. In this chapter Brené shares a powerful story about how one of her employees openly questioned a decision Brené made at a team off-site. Although the employee was alone in her stance at the time, Brené appreciated how she bravely addressed her concerns in a civil way. Brené cites WorkHuman speaker Christine Porath’s research on how civility standards can lead to higher-performing and better-functioning teams.
  3. Hold Hands. With Strangers. “Social media are helpful in cultivating connection only to the extent that they’re used to create real community where there is structure, purpose, meaning, and some face-to-face contact,” writes Brené. This is where social recognition could play a role in reinforcing feelings of gratitude and positivity that naturally arise as we work together and collaborate in the workplace.
  4. Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart. Here Brené cites Buddhist teacher Dr. Joan Halifax, who asks, “How can we give and accept care with strong-back, soft-front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes about when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly – and letting the world see us.” Allowing people to be transparent, to be their true selves at work reminds me of WorkHuman speaker Susan Cain’s work. Are we giving all personalities – even the quieter introverts – the space to set boundaries and live their values at work?

I’m curious if any of our blog readers have picked up a copy of “Braving the Wilderness” yet? What were your takeaways?

I’m looking forward to hearing more from Brené – and how we can bring true belonging into the workplace – at WorkHuman 2018 in Austin, Texas, April 2-5. Will you join me? Reserve your spot at www.workhuman.com.’

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Sarah Payne Sarah Payne (164 Posts)

As Managing Editor, Sarah manages Globoforce’s blog and writes content about making work more human for people and organizations worldwide. She has a BA in English and Writing from University of Rhode Island.