Have you ever felt like an outsider at work? Like you don't belong?

That happened to me many times during my career, and it felt awful each and every time.

The “In” vs “Out” Group

The scene that comes to mind is being at the break during a company event – the time when all the social bonding was supposed to take place.

But instead of bonding, what I experienced was watching from the side as one of the big bosses held court surrounded by a bunch of senior guys, all laughing, smoking cigars and slapping each other on the back.

From where I stood, it looked like a “mini-me” festival with some “wannabes” hanging around the edges (as in “I want to be” part of the group and am trying almost too hard to fit in).

Whether or not it was their intention, that scene made it clear that there was an “in” group and I wasn’t part of it. In fact, it made me feel like I was in the “out” group looking in.

It was demoralizing because it seemed hopeless for me to be a natural companion in that kind of setting. And that led me to think I would never be able to get ahead no matter how good I was at my job.

Looking back, I can imagine that there could be other explanations too. Senior managers can be introverts who find it challenging to talk to people they don’t know well. Or maybe they just want to relax and hang out with people they’re most comfortable with. And those of us feeling like outsiders might be giving in to insecurity and paranoia without cause.

But whatever any of our intentions might have been, the effect was to create this “in” vs “out” group dynamic.

There’s More At Stake

It's like being back in high school where there are cool kids and everyone else. Remember those cliques, and how hurtful it felt to be on the outside looking in? You'd think we would grow out of it at some point but most people don't.

And at work, there’s more at stake than hurt feelings. Every time we make someone feel left out, it’s like a paper cut. And the cumulative effect of enough paper cuts can make even the strongest of us question ourselves: “Am I worthy? Will my hard work pay off? Is this really the place for me?”

It’s this knock-on effect that eats at the heart of what makes people feel engaged, stay productive, and stay with the organization.

Three Magic Words

But it doesn’t take much to turn things around and help people around you feel great at work.

In my case, the turning point was when the big boss called me over to the group and included me in the conversation. It was a great feeling. To be invited into the inner circle. To be one of the gang.

And it was so simple. He simply greeted me and said three magic words, “Come join us!”

It must be what it feels like when the coach looks over at the bench, calls your name, and tells you to get in the game. It’s amazing how reaffirming that can feel. While I know we’re supposed to be confident enough in ourselves not to need that validation, it’s still great to have it now and again.

And whether it was the big deal I had just closed or someone telling him that some of us felt ignored didn’t matter.

When You’re the Outsider

You might wonder why I didn’t just walk over to the group and start talking. Today, I have the confidence to do that – at least most of the time. But back then, it was hard. Really hard.

So to help you when you’re on the outside looking in, especially at an event, here are three things you can do.

Talk to another lone person

This is the equivalent of forming your own group by engaging others that aren’t on the insider group either. You may even find that this strategy trumps trying to work your way into the cool group.

I remember the time when I chatted with someone on her own too, and it turned out to be the wife of one of the biggest clients at the event. She then introduced me to her husband, who I had wanted to meet.

Break into the circle as a pair

If you do want to join a group, it’s much less intimidating when you do it as a pair of people. You’re also more likely to be accepted into the flow of the conversation. You can either agree with another colleague that you’ll make the rounds together, or find another lone person and go together.

I’ve discovered that when you’re a pair, there’s some social proof that you’re an okay person – after all, at least one other person finds you interesting. But when you’re alone, they’re likely to be more skeptical.

Use it as a way to build your self-reliance

Sometimes, it’s best to use the occasion to build your self-reliance and self-esteem muscles. To experience being independent for a while. See how that feels. Look around the room, become curious about others, and start noticing how others approach the situation.

Whenever I’ve used these social situations as a personal growth experience, it has paid off. If my experience is a guide, then it can help you come across as less “needy” and therefore attract more people to want to engage with you. When you like and respect yourself, you won’t need the external recognition and signs of acceptance so much. And that’s a liberating feeling.

When You’re the Leader

Whether you’re the one with the title that says you’re the boss, or a team member who’s adopting leadership behaviors, these three strategies will help you earn more respect and build a more productive and loyal team.

Be aware of your behavior

When you’re in the “in” group, it’s hard to see what’s going on from the “out” group’s perspective. But every move the “in” group makes is visible to the “out” group. In many ways, it’s as though there’s a huge one-way mirror separating the two.

So recognize when your behavior is creating or reinforcing the impression of favoritism and that in group/out group distinction. Make sure you’re acknowledging people, and do that more than you think you need to. We all thrive on being seen and heard.

Pull people in

When you’re standing in a group and you see someone who would benefit from getting pulled in, go on and invite them. Use the three magic words, “come join us!” And then make sure to introduce them to others and bring them into the conversation.

Go beyond the usual suspects

When you talk to the same people all the time, you give the impression that they are “in”, which may or may not be true. You also miss a lot of useful information and different viewpoints. So, branch out. Get to know new people, or those you don’t know quite as well.

And the more senior you are, the more important it is to get to know the junior people too. Social situations are a great way to hear what the people in the trenches doing the work are thinking and feeling… without having it filtered by the people they report to.

What Will You Do?

Now, it’s over to you.

As a leader, how will you extend the “in” group feeling to your team?

And as a team member, how will you take steps to proactively engage so you have the best chance of feeling a part of the group?