MEMBERSHIP: The Membership Instinct
My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy. We have eight different programmes where we train coaches and consultants, from beginner coach to supervisor, team coach to organisational consultant. I am also the director of Team Agility, where for 35 years I’ve been implementing Agile Business Innovation all over the world. If you want to know more, please go to www.IntactAcademy.com or www.TeamAgility.com.
During COVID time some people feel fine in solitude, and some people are slowly going nuts on their own, and really need a group around them because they’re missing out on membership. Babies look into their mother’s eyes for membership, but through a screen as adults that primal connection is really difficult to do.
The question is, what is that deprivation? Why do some people want to become members and some not? And why, not only at a biological level, do we need membership to survive? Membership, this contact with other people, stimulates our bodies and our brains. Alzheimer’s comes on more quickly if people are in isolation. There’s a reason for that – human beings are fundamentally social animals.
And yet, even though we’re programmed that way and we need membership, I can see a vast difference for instance, between my brother and me. We grew up in the same nest, as it were, moving countries at the same time, and yet I chose to live in the middle of a city. My brother lives on a mountain in California at 1800 metres, with his dogs and his grand piano. It’s not a judgment call, I’m happy, he’s happy. And yet, we were both born with the same membership instinct because we’re both social animals.
I’m really curious about this different level of needing to be a member. There’s a lot of research about this: from Freud to Edmond to Bowlby, they have all looked at why people become members, what attachment means.
There are two basic reasons we become members: first survival, and second to meet basic psychological and biological needs. I want to talk about both types of need for membership because it might help you understand why you are a member.
- Survival needs: We know that babies that are deprived of close human contact actually have higher mortality rates. You just have to read Bowlby and see that humans are predisposed to form close, strong attachments. Partly that’s evolutionary. Before 75% of the wild animals were extinct, humans were in the minority in a world of animals and nature. Surviving on your own is much more difficult than surviving in a group. So, membership is based on evolution, we needed groups to be able to survive. That makes sense. Part of that is still in our reptile brain, that we survive more in a group than we do on our own.
Especially in COVID time the question is, “Would you be able to survive on your own or do we need a group?” This is very difficult to answer. In the group you have more risk of infection, but without the group you have less chance of survival. Part of the reason people are so tired is because they feel split in their survival needs.
We also have psychological needs. Being a member of a group can satisfy our basic psychological needs such as a sense of belonging, protection from harm, and acceptance. Groups later in life replace the original family group. You learned group affiliation within that family system, and that colours your later group memberships.
Sometimes in my training groups people say, “I really want to do your training, but I’m scared of groups.” I am really curious about what happened in their early affiliation in a group, their first real experience of a group in a family that makes them scared of groups at the moment. And that’s a really important question, because it also answers how much of your psychological needs are being met. Can early group attachment be repaired?
These psychological needs can be classified as:
- Need for affiliation, we need to be in a relationship as social animals.
- Need for impact or power. When you become a member of a group, you’re also part of the structure of a group and that means the hierarchy determines the power you have. When you’re a baby it’s a need for impact. So if a baby goes boo, and the parent is surprised the baby gets a sense of their impact on other people. And that sense of impact links directly to purpose. My hypothesis is that a need for power is actually: you haven’t fulfilled your basic need for impact.
- Need for knowledge. Nowadays, perhaps you can get a lot of information from Google. But information is not the same thing as knowledge. To turn information into knowledge you need relationships because only in the context of a relationship can you see what is relevant. What is important. What is impactful.
- To avoid loneliness. There’s a big difference between being solitary and being lonely. Being solitary is a regenerative need. Sometimes people withdraw to regenerate, and then you’re in solitude. You can commune with nature like my brother does on his mountain in California, be completely regenerated and in solitude. That’s necessary in groups as well. But sometimes people also have a need to belong to a group because they can’t be in solitude, they have trouble being in a relationship with themselves.
Let’s face it, at the moment with COVID a lot of people are lonely and some people deal with it much better than others. Some are lonely because their need for affiliation isn’t being met.
Now, we know we have very fundamental biological, survival and psychological needs to belong to a group. There are differences between people in how much they want to belong, and how much they don’t want to belong. Partly that has to do with her early experiences of a group, partly it’s also biological. Some people have more need for affiliation than others.
So the question really is, what need do you have in a group? What are you looking for in terms of needs? Are there ways you can meet these needs better?
My mother is in a care home at the moment, she was in complete lockdown, I wasn’t allowed to visit her. She wasn’t even allowed to have coffee with the people in her house. I think that’s a form of social cruelty. During the lockdown I saw her memory worsen because we need social stimulation to fire our synapses. So I was thinking of her need for affiliation and contact and we decided that while I’m working, I keep my FaceTime on while she’s doing her crossword puzzles. We can speak to each other. I’m in “the room” with her. Her memory has improved again, and she feels belonging again.
So my encouragement to you is to ask yourself, what need do I have in a group? How can I meet that need in a better way than I’m doing now?