|Posted by Tiffany Chang on May 6, 2021 at 8:00 AM|
Today's post was prompted by reflecting on the frustrations I experience in my work (that I shared recently in a social media post). I touch on a collection of topics, including belonging, fitting in, status through the work of Ron Carucci, Brené Brown, Simon Sinek, and Seth Godin.
I am very fortunate to be a conductor at a name-brand conservatory. From the outside, it may seem like everything's great and I have a dream job. But the reality is far from it.
I conduct an orchestra of non-performance majors who've traditionally felt like second-class citizens. I'm convinced of this general feeling from anecdotes and feedback gathered from members across many years. Students have shared they felt "unwelcomed walking down the halls" or that the "Conservatory looked down upon them."
And I felt similar sensations even as a faculty member. I struggled to belong. Now, this was interesting because I was on the same faculty list, had a title, and brought credible accolades to the table. I had a place, but why didn't I feel I belonged there? Why did I feel like I need to prove myself in order to fit in or be accepted? Why did I feel like I wasn't a worthy collaborator unless I had conducted at The Met?
For years, I've tried to answer these questions.
In this post today, I'll use this space to explore a collection of my thoughts of reflection and discovery.
Belonging is about status and affiliation. A reputable conservatory (or really any organization) seeks to maintain or improve their status by finding affiliation with something of equal or higher status. This is human nature, and as organizations are led by humans, we can't discount that factor. When humans think about affiliation, we ask ourselves,"Who's next to me? Am I like them? How do I rank? Do I want to be associated with them? Does the affiliation help improve my status?" Affiliation often equals status. Just consider how powerful a celebrity endorsement on a product is. It doesn't matter if the product is good or not, and you may not even have heard of it, but the affiliation with someone famous naturally makes you think highly of the product, or at least double back and pay attention.
I began to see that simply being affiliated with a group of non-performance majors lowers my status in the eyes of the industry, regardless of my actual artistry and ability. The assumption is that I must have lower artistic quality because my ensemble has lower artistic abilities. It's difficult to separate the leader from the group. I could possess artistry and skills that surpass the abilities of my ensemble, but usually I am judged first by my affiliation, and the interest and trust in me stops there. This is especially true for 1) artists who don't know my work, 2) non-tradespeople who are not equipped to evaluate the craft itself, and 3) marketers who find no value in the affiliation with lower status.
The conservatory aims to belong to a certain status and anything that is not helping them do that is not worth their effort. In fact, they protect themselves from outsiders that threaten their status. My orchestra and I present a threat because of what they (and the industry) perceive as lower status. And the fear of losing status via affiliation drives actions to prevent it, resulting in us being intentionally categorized as an "other."
Here's something interesting: I heard from an interview with Ron Carucci that "when we get categorized, our amygdala gets triggered, and we feel unseen, unknown, and unsafe." The amygdala is the part of the brain that deals with fear and responds to danger. When it gets triggered, our defenses go up and we feel the opposite of belonging.
I always hated the fact that I'm so easily triggered and go on the defensive to prove my worth at my organization and within the industry (or worse, to automatically label myself/my ensemble as "less than" to make some people feel more comfortable). I know that most people are genuinely supportive and well-meaning, and it's only a few people that feel their status is threatened. But having that amygdala triggered makes it less likely for me to trust anyone in the institution. Understanding that there is a biological reason for this defense response is actually quite helpful and can help me regulate and reflect on my own default responses, which may not always be rational.
Ron Carucci's work explores the importance of honesty in the workplace. He shares that people don't trust a company's purpose until they see it activated and put into action. And when actions don't match stated intentions and values, we feel a lack of trust - and belonging.
In my situation, the conservatory has put initiatives in place to promote inclusivity and accessibility to musical opportunities for non-performance majors. The available course offerings, resources, and opportunities are abundant and amazing, yet students still feel like they don't belong. On paper, students should feel strong belonging because they have access, but the actions and mindsets aimed to protect status are incongruent with the promise of accessibility. Actions such as hiding affiliation by demanding removal of an institutional tag on a social media post showcasing ensemble class work. Mindsets expressed in the form of revealing comments like "what comes out of their instruments doesn't matter" (subtext being: because what's the point, they will never be good anyway).
Actions quickly override any talk, and I'm more convinced than ever that talk and action are two different things. When we don't see things being done in alignment with what's been said, we become frustrated, less likely to trust, unfulfilled, and unhappy.
It is perhaps better to say, "We are exclusive; we don't serve you; you don't belong here," and follow through with actions that protect status, than to say, "We want to open our doors to every kind of musician," and demonstrate actions and mindsets that go against it.
Here is more from Ron Carucci on being who you say you are:
Considering status and how we wrestle with it reminds me of how Brené Brown distinguishes fitting in from belonging: fitting in is changing who you are, and belonging is being allowed to be yourself.
In order for my orchestra to fit in, it meant to be more like them (the performance majors). Only when you play as well as the performance majors (or achieving equal status) will you matter. In order for me to fit in, it meant to be helpful in maintaining or elevating the institution status. Only when my professional affiliations will boost their status through association will my work matter.
Chasing status is inherently hoping to fit in - regardless of the validity of your intention to do so.
And I realized that I have been focusing on fitting in (Brené Brown's changing who we are) rather than belonging. I've been trying to change who my orchestra is fundamentally in order to get them the recognition (and belonging) they deserve. But the reality is they don't need to achieve equal status as the performance majors. And for myself, I've been putting an unhealthy emphasis on chasing status symbols to be worthy of fitting in to my own institution. But ultimately, they're the ones who get to decide what is worthy, which may not be aligned with how I define worth for myself.
Seeking belonging in terms of being allowed to be who you are is much different. It requires you to think hard about who you are fundamentally and your values. For my orchestra, it could be reframing "not good enough like them" to "good enough within the context of our life goals." For me, it could mean chasing work and affiliations that help me define my purpose and implement the changes I seek to make.
Here is a long, but worthwhile, interview with Brené Brown:
In talking about trusting teams, Simon Sinek shares a story about the same barista feeling like they have to fly below the radar to get by in one job and feeling like he can be himself in another job. In one job, managers catch employees doing things wrong and in the other, managers ask how they can help them do their jobs better. The same person behaves and shows up differently simply because of the culture set up by the leadership.
I realize that in my various work experiences, I tend to do superior work when I am allowed to be the artist that I am with full support and no judgement of status, and not being told I need to achieve these specific things to fit in. When I am preoccupied with trying to do the "right" things to fit in, I can't devote as much energy into my artistry, I am distracted, and my work suffers.
Here is Simon Sinek's 2-minute story:
I'll end with sharing a quote from one of Seth Godin's podcasts about status roles:
"Shame is the status enforcer. What we have done is orchestrate a culture, that if you're surrounded by people with more status than you, we've instructed you to feel shame. To avoid shame, we make bad decisions, decisions that honor marketers or those that would manipulate us as opposed to what's best for us..."
The fact that I don't feel like I fit into the institution (or industry) status brings shame. The fact that I feel like I'm not contributing to elevating the institution (or industry) status also brings shame. This shame conveniently protects the status of the institution (or industry), and keeps me out of it. Understanding that was powerful.
Here is the podcast from Seth Godin on status roles (cued to 3:17 and listen as far as you want).
Thanks for going on this journey of reflection and discovery in this personal case study. I hope you got something along the way.
Here are my 5 key takeaways: