This week, Jean interviews Sunita Sehmi about her new book, The Power of Belonging. Here are the highlights. For the complete interview, download the transcript.
Jean: tell me about your childhood and your experience of not belonging.
Suni: My parents moved to North London from India in the 1950s. They found the people to be cold and unwelcoming. So they were not welcome in India or England. The neighborhood became crowded with Indians, Pakistanis, Ugandan Indians, and immigrants from the West Indies.
Locals called us all “Paki.” It was the ultimate insult. We were also conflicted about maintaining Indian culture and wanting to fit in. We were never good enough.
Jean: What is your intellectual interest in belonging?
Suni: My book addresses how to develop safety, inclusion, and belonging for leaders and organizations. The most challenging lesson to learn is that belonging will remain a puzzle until we find that it has a unique dwelling place – that we must first profoundly belong to ourselves.
While I was working for organizations in this field, even in the leadership field, I noticed that when people had a very strong bond and a strong sense of belonging, they seemed to do better and be better. I didn't frame it as belonging then; I was thinking about something called psychological safety.
In my mind, belonging is much deeper than inclusion. Belonging is a feeling that you don't have to be physically present. With inclusion, you have to be present.
Jean: Let me ask a really basic question: If it's a professional organization, and people are hired to do a job, why in the world would it matter whether they feel like they belong?
Suni: The world is changing. 30 years ago your private life was one place and your professional life another, there was a separation. That doesn't happen anymore. There isn't the sense of community: people go less to church or to other religious gatherings. So work life has become very important. As a result, belonging is extremely important in professional life. The absence of a sense of belonging – the research that I did and what I discovered just by talking to people – has so many detrimental effects not just on performance, but on emotional well-being, on physical well-being, on burnout, on how they show up, on how they leave a legacy.
Belonging has a definite impact on performance. The new generation wants to feel part of something.
Jean: Back to your book: can you talk about examples from your coaching experience, where someone did not feel they belonged and then what the organization did?
Suni: Unfortunately, I haven't got any stories where the organization changed. People either changed departments or they changed jobs. There are very few companies who really walk the talk.
Jean: I believe organizations can change. But your advice is to just get out?
Suni: No, it’s not about giving up hope. It’s about educating and guiding organizations and leaders to show what it’s really like to be an inclusive leader and create real belonging. I think they haven’t been given the right tools.
Jean: I want you to talk to the person who feels they don’t belong. What can they do to increase their sense of belonging or to rectify the situation?
Suni: I would do some sort of audit: why don’t you belong? Where don’t you belong? How do you belong? Could you ask them to invite you to lunch? The feeling of powerlessness is a really hard place to be. This goes back to the leader, who might say, they’re just going to lunch, it’s not my place to control anyone’s social life. But how can you be a leader from 8-12 and then not be a leader from 12-1? They need to be objective, but also need to get this out in the open.
Jean: In closing, please tell us how to access you and your books.
Suni: My first book was called How to Get Out of Your Own Way, for women who want to win. It’s actually a coaching book for women. And the second book, which is out in June, is called The Power of Belonging. Both are available on Amazon. I think Book Depository and other sites. And if you want to reach me, I'm always happy to connect. Email me at [email protected], and my website is https://walkthetalk.ch.
I am an Indian, British, and Swiss ICF Executive Coach with over 25 years’ experience. My rich and diverse background allows me to deeply connect and understand my clients whatever their background and wherever they are operating in the world.
My background is in Organizational Psychology and Adult Development. I also hold a Masters in coaching and career management.
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