The tension between Agency and Belonging

In the Four Needs framework, I identified a tension between two opposing forces: the need for Agency and the need for Belonging. Here, I want to focus on the nature of this tension.

Agency and Belonging are powerful words, so I’ll try to get at the concepts they describe within the context of the Four Needs framework.

Through the lens of the framework, the need for Agency is that desire to be a unique, differentiated entity, be that an individual or an organization. It’s the need to “be myself,” to “make our own path,” to have an identity that is distinct from others. For people, it might be that sense of wanting to retain our unique beauty, our Self-ness. For organizations, it might be the pull toward defining some way to differentiate itself from other similar organizations. The questions like “who am I?”, “what am I about?”, “what’s our unique value proposition?” tend to come up. When considering Agency, conversations about boundaries are usually focused on clarifying one’s own boundaries. Where do I end? Where do I begin? What is my role? What are team’s principles? What does it stand for? What makes me Me?

 When people talk about the need for Agency, I typically hear words “unique”, “different”, “runaway”, “unconventional”, “loner”, “own/self”, “independent”, “autonomous”, “pioneer”, “siloed”, and alike. When craving Agency, there’s a sense of wanting more freedom, liberty, self-determination, and more capacity to plot one’s own path. The aversion to Agency–especially toward the others’ need for Agency–might come across as a sense of them being uncooperative, difficult to work with, ornery, stubborn, or isolated.

This is where the tension begins to reveal itself, with the implicit questions of “Why can’t they just behave like everyone else?” and “How can I be myself in this team culture?” Sometimes, these questions come across as statements, such as “This org is just doing what they want, and not what’s actually asked of them” or “I feel like I can’t do or say anything without running into obstacles.”

Within the Four Needs framework, the need for Belonging is best described as the wish to be part of a larger whole, be with the others. For individuals, it’s the desire to be loved, be included as part of their group. A team or an organization will experience this need as the aspiration to do good for others, to be viewed by its customers or partners as delivering net-positive value, or to be an effective collaborator within the larger organization. The questions like “how do I fit in?”, “who are my people?” or “what is our team’s mandate?” tend to come up when considering Belonging. The conversations about boundaries typically center on understanding the boundaries of others. What do they want? What am I asked to do? What makes me part of Us?

When we speak of the need for Belonging, the resonant words are “community”, “together”, “compliance”, “teamwork”, “integrated”, “alignment”, “we/us/our”, “unity”, “respect”,  “tribe”, etc. When craving Belonging, there’s usually a sense of wanting to be accepted, be seen, understood, to not be left out or excluded. The aversion to Belonging feels like the disdain for neediness, accommodation, conformism, or tribalism.

Looking at cravings and aversions helps me to see the tension between Agency and Belonging. We all want to both be unique selves, and yet, we want to be with others. We want to stand out and yet, we want to be included. At each extreme, the outcome is a catastrophic failure to meet the other need:

  • Total Agency is the ultimate isolation — to be fully free to do whatever I please whenever I please, I must accept that I can’t ever connect with others. As soon as I act in any way that recognizes the need of others, there’s no longer total Agency. By recognizing their needs, I experience the need for Belonging.
  • Total Belonging is complete assimilation — to be fully with others, I must accept that I don’t have a free will and I will only do what’s asked of me. As soon as I do anything that is not the will of my tribe, there’s no longer total Belonging. That minute being different is an experience of the need for Agency.

Though there are many books written and movies made with heroes and villains at these extremes, in day-to-day life, we usually walk the line: we carefully balance these needs.

When my friend and I discuss which movie to see, my mind is performing an intuitive dance of balancing Agency and Belonging: is this about the movie I want or is this about doing something together? It happens when a team reconciles its long-term aspirations (Agency) with the short-term priorities of the larger organization (Belonging). It happens when folks with dramatically different opinions (Agency) continue to coexist in the same online communities (Belonging).

We can’t get both at 100%. So we tend to negotiate. To have Belonging, we usually trade a little Agency. To gain more Agency, we usually give up a touch of Belonging. This happens moment-to-moment, and is easy to miss in the whirlwind of the mundane.

When I decide to speak up about something controversial at a team meeting, I intuitively recognize that I will give up some Belonging to satisfy my need for Agency. In that moment, I am suffering. The two conflicting needs of Agency and Belonging are battling for the outcome. If Belonging wins and I stay quiet, the unsatisfied Agency spikes, shifting me to the left-most quadrants  in the coordinate space: I will either feel frustrated, likely at my colleagues–“This team culture is so stifling! I don’t feel like I can say my mind at a meeting!”–or feel that weird ennui of “Well, there’s nothing I can do.” If I say something and the need for Agency wins, the spike in unquenched Belonging launches me to the right-most quadrants, to the shame of “OMG! What have I done! Everyone will definitely hate me now!” and/or the anxious “How can I fix this?!” 

Depending on where I end up is where the next round of the endless negotiation begins. How will I act or think to make another trade, to shift the balance in this conflict? And how do we get to the point where we see that framing this tension of needs as a “conflict” is at the core of our suffering? How do we get to center?

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