The fear of insignificance: how beliefs drive engagement

The fear of insignificance: how beliefs drive engagement

Beliefs have become instrumental in group survival, and the shaping of the identity of a group. After all, people that share common beliefs are likely to form stronger trust based bonds. Beliefs are a distinct human trait and an important part of our identity mix; of who we think we are and what we can achieve together. The ability to hold a belief is an essential aspect to the human motivation ‘engine’; it gives us a conscious reason to act with a sense of purpose.

In one of my favorite books ‘Sapiens’, author Y.N. Harari writes that nearly 700 centuries ago, our forefathers underwent a so-called ‘cognitive revolution’, which gave humans the edge over their rivals to spread from East Africa across the planet. Through the invention of fire, a fundamental dietary change (cooking food) and fire as a means for protection sparked development of our cognition; our ability to think. Humans now equipped with a neo-cortex (thinking brain) became able to organise themselves over long distances. They did so through creation of beliefs such as myths, laws, religion, currency, markets, etc.

When people act in accordance with their shared beliefs and expectations, trust emerges between them, based on patterns of predictability. Along this principle, we formed long distance trade relationships, cultural groups and support systems. As long as enough people believed in the myth  -the dollar for example- the system would sustain itself. This is of course highly irrational and shows how economics and decision-making behaviours are not as rational as we would like to think. Such systems are fundamentally trust based, because they are driven and sustained only by a belief that it will serve our own interests. If that belief is not rewarded at some point, the belief will eventually disappear and -in the dollar example- the currency collapses. Financial markets are a case in point; remember 2008.

People, organisations, nations are social systems built on common beliefs and traditions in order to function. Charismatic figures like JFK, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama but also people on the other end of the political spectrum like Marine Le Pen were successful in mobilizing and uniting thousands of people. They did not present a detailed strategy backed up by a feasibility study. Instead, they give people an inspiring narrative worth believing. From that belief stemmed a strong notion that they matter; it makes them feel significant*. Brexit was fuelled by a campaign-infused belief of ‘independence’ and ‘taking back control. Absence of an inspiring European belief and ditto leader reinforced by institutional distrust and collective disappointment in the ‘elites’, proved more influential in the decision making process than the predictable and measurable long terms (negative) effects.

So if the organisational (team)leader doesn’t stand for something, expresses a strong visionary belief, why would anyone stay on the team? ‘Neutral’ responses on engagement surveys typically show a strong absence of the two and as such a potentially costly staffing issues to solve. Or as Irene Dunne in 1945 put it: “If we don’t stand for something, we will fall for anything”. If you want true engagement, beyond the pay check, building compelling team beliefs make employees feel relevant, purposeful and part of a bigger whole. It is the imagination of possibility that fuels motivation to act, less whether it is rationally possible (that is harnessed in strategy). The image of being in a better place, in this life or -for religious beliefs- thereafter. Because to our brain, it’s all the same thing; upon the release of the ‘bonding hormone’ Oxytocin that makes us feel we matter, that we feel we belong.

*In chemical terms: this experience of feeling significant triggers the release of oxytocin in the brain; the bonding hormone. It helps reducing blood pressure and cortisol levels that induce stress. On teams, this hormone improves trust, communication, increases empathy and generosity. It makes it the perfect team effectiveness hormone. Everybody wants it. Conversely, chronically low oxytocin can contribute to depression and lack of self worth.

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