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The Belonging Paradox for Men

Belonging is a fundamental human need and key to happiness, but men are lost in their search for it.

Here’s a riddle. What can be both vital and fatal, leads to happiness and causes misery, and has increased in importance — exponentially — since 2020?

Answer: Belonging (a sense of being accepted for your authentic self).

Before 2020

Before 2020 — and this has not changed — social belonging was a fundamental human need. Also before 2020, U.S. businesses spent nearly $8 billion each year on diversity and inclusion trainings, but 40% of people still said that they felt isolated at work, resulting in lower organizational commitment and engagement. Meanwhile, “High belonging was linked to a whopping 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days. For a 10,000-person company, this would result in annual savings of more than $52M” (Carr et al., 2019).

Before 2020, there was a theory that belonging and true happiness emerge when you feel useful to others, when you are contributing to the betterment of society. On the metaphorical Road to Now, many groups have paved onward in the name of belonging. The members of The Black Hand belonged to a cause greater than themselves, as did the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. One spurred a world war, the other a civil rights movement. The Nazis felt belonging, and so did the Allies. The Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers. The only connection I’m drawing here is that all of these groups sold a sense of belonging and a promise of improving the world.

Much has been accomplished and destroyed through the power of belonging. Nonetheless, it is needed now more than ever.

After 2020

The global pandemic in 2020 surged the virtual world — a shift that was accelerating already with the rise of smart phones and social media — into warp speed. As hard as we try to justify the connective potential of technology, the virtual landscape can be isolating. No Slack or Zoom or FaceTime will ever substitute for in-person connection, and being “alone together” will never be enough to satisfy the human need to belong.

Belonging’s stock is seeing exponential growth, driven by high demand and low supply. They’re calling 2021 “the year of Belonging.” In 2020, belonging became 12% more important for employee happiness during COVID-19, and by the end of that year, it was the strongest driver of employee engagement, more than trust in leadership and ability for career growth.

Unless the world pivots away from social media and remote work, it’s likely that belonging will continue to be elusive in the workplace. Most industries that can maximize efficiency and profit by cutting the costs of in-person work will do so, if they have not already. Also, for many, remote work is a welcome change that provides an opportunity for more belonging at home and other affiliations outside of the office.

For others, however, the implications of a remote future are more threatening. At the start of 2020, a Cigna survey found that 18–22 year-olds, social media users, and men were among the loneliest workers. In the years to come, where and how will these people find belonging?

The Belonging Paradox for Men

Before 2020, men had a belonging problem. A 2014 Congressional Budget Office report claimed the following:

  • One out of six 18–34 year-old men was either not working or incarcerated (a 45% increase since 1980).

  • Mass shootings — with the majority of shooters being young men — tripled since 2011.

  • Male suicide rates increased 50% since 1994.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo argued in 2017 that society had an empathy gap when it came to “having compassion for the challenges boys and young men face,” that “masculinity itself is almost treated as a disease,” and that “there is a decreasing number of positive male role models.” One of the silver linings of 2020 was a heightened awareness of social injustice. Not surprisingly, male challenges don’t rank high on the list of concerning social problems, nor the list of profitable, progressive ideas.

A call to change society and how mental health services treat men — rather than blaming men for their toxic invulnerability — may be met with a gut reaction along the lines of “are you kidding me?” Some believe that men should look in the mirror to see the source of their suffering. Some that men deserve a fraction of the pain they have dished out to others. However, if the real goal is to have more empathy and social justice in the world, empathetic men are a part of that equation. Empathy breeds empathy.

Too often, boys meet their empathy and belonging needs through the wrong ways and in the wrong places. Partying, sexual conquest, violence, misogyny, recklessness, apathy, disrespect, superiority. No boy writes these traits down on their college application (actually, men accounted for 71% of the 1.5 million fewer students in US colleges and universities at the close of the 2020–2021 academic year, compared to five years earlier). Rather, they watch and learn that certain behaviors are required for belonging — while he who falls short will be left on the outside looking in, labeled NOT A REAL MAN. The legends of frats and locker rooms and every “boys club” one might imagine are rough reproductions of what boys see as the rites of passage to manhood. They hope they will emerge on the other side — they are expected to emerge — as accepted, respected, needed, wanted, and loved men who belong.

There are healthier groups where men find belonging, spaces where men feel they can let their guard down, laugh, play, be themselves. These are spaces to escape real-world troubles, which means there is a catch. Tony Porter, the CEO of A Call to Men, describes one of his circles of belonging where he plays cards with the same four friends once a month:

That space is more about laughing and telling jokes and playfully insulting each other. And we love it. Sentiments like “I really want to know how you’re doing” or “I really want to help” or “I am here for you” are not shared at that table. If something tragic happens — like someone’s partner dying — men might say these things to each other, but it is situational. We haven’t been taught to have the emotional capacity to grieve in that way. We do not create spaces for each other to talk about loneliness. Men — we need to collectively do some work to learn how to be alongside each other with openness and vulnerability…. Loneliness in men is also linked to cardiovascular disease and stroke, and men account for 80% of completed suicides (for which one of the leading contributing factors is loneliness). (2021)

I know I hesitate to share personal struggles in my joyful spaces of belonging, even though those are often the best places to discuss troubles. I worry that I will kill the vibe, dry up the water in the desert, put salt in the sugar. I fear that there won’t be a space to belong if I get real with the people who help me escape reality.

For all these reasons, I believe men experience a belonging paradox. They want and need to belong, so they submit to traditional rites of passage for men. If they find preconceived belonging through traditional paths as boys, they are demonized and end up lost in manhood. When they form safe and healthy spaces, they use them to escape reality temporarily, to hit the refresh button before returning to everyday life. Men are lost in their search for belonging.

Building Better Belonging

Closing the belonging gap as well as the empathy gap is good for everyone. What happens when men belong to better culture? When the belonging paradox is unraveled? What are the ripples?

I’m going to use some backwards design while applying sources of workplace belonging to Daniel Coyle’s “secrets” of successful cultures. If the hypothetical end goal is to sustain a team of men whose efforts have a positive impact on the world, groups of men might do the following:

1. Establish Purpose. Identify and communicate the higher purpose that the group serves.

2. Build Safety. Signal belonging by making sure team members…

  • feel valued and empowered.

  • feel supported in adapting to change.

  • feel like they can be themselves.

  • believe the team is one where everyone — regardless of identity — can achieve their full potential.

  • have a mentor who understands and models the team’s established purpose.

3. Share Vulnerability. Encourage open and honest communication that drives the team forward by…

  • gaining perspective on how team members have felt excluded from belonging.

  • discussing new ways that the team can both achieve its purpose and improve belonging.

  • normalizing conflict, risk, failure, and growth through regular practices and rituals.

My end goal is not for men to shack up in man caves and operate in a male world. Remember when we talked about the creative and destructive power of belonging? Limited perspective leads to… well, limited perspective. Teams that are only made up by men are bound to be subject to subjectivity. Societies where only like-minded men hold power end up hurting people who are different from them.

Ultimately, I hope that men do not need to be surrounded by other men who look like them to be themselves. Realistically, boys need baby steps, so if a men’s college basketball team establishes a dual purpose of playing with the team and ending sexual violence on campus, that feels like a step in the right direction.

Reach Out Your Hand If Your Cup Be Empty

Taking men’s challenges seriously and finding ways for them to connect will lead to more empathetic men. I love the song “Ripple” by the Grateful Dead, particularly this verse:

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty If your cup is full, may it be again Let it be known there is a fountain That was not made by the hands of men

Men will not reach out for therapy if their concerns are dismissed. They will look for the wrong substance to fill their cups without wise mentors. Most dangerous of all, they will continue to center themselves if they do not learn that a higher freedom comes with their decentering.

Men, like everyone else, should be offered help, rather than feeling ashamed of it. Men, like everyone else, should not feel guilty for natural feelings of joy, love, and acceptance. And men, perhaps more than anyone else, should understand and exercise humility. That may cause a ripple or two.


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