The Importance of Belonging Where You Are
Were you one of the “cool kids” in high school? Or did you have to work hard to try to fit in?
In my case, no matter how hard I tried, I never felt accepted into the inner circle. Maybe it was because I was a bit of a nerd. Perhaps being one of just a handful of Chinese kids made a difference. Or maybe that’s just high school.
But trying to fit in was exhausting and, at times, even soul destroying.
The thing is, the same phenomenon happens when we’re all grown up. Including at work.
The difference between fitting in and belonging
So, my ears perked up when I overheard my daughter talking about the difference between “fitting in” and “belonging”. She’d been reading a book by research professor and New York Times bestselling author, Brené Brown.
Fitting in is where you want to be part of the group, but the rest of the group doesn’t really care. So it’s up to you to change, bend and adapt the way you show up in order to be accepted.
Belonging, on the other hand, is where you want to be part of the group and they want you to be part of the group too. You all feel comfortable to be yourselves, and you accept each other as is.
In essence, “fitting in” is a one-sided effort while “belonging” is an inclusive, two-way street. The difference is vast: fitting in takes effort, while belonging is full of ease.
Fitting in at work
When this dynamic happens at work, there’s even more at stake.
For the organization, it reduces the amount of productivity and innovation that their teams can deliver. And from a talent development perspective, it has implications for how engaged people are, and how long they stay with the organization. Here, having good managers is key.
For the individuals who have to expend energy to “fit in”, it has a knock on effect on their personal lives and their professional opportunities. When you have to shave off parts of yourself and swim upstream just to get a seat at the table, it’s harder to deliver at your best at work and at home.
Helping people belong
Whether you’re a manager, an employee, or a job seeker, there are things you can do to change the dynamic, and help people feel they belong.
As a manager:
You deliver results through others, so it pays to create an environment where people feel accepted and that they belong. A place where each person can be their best self.
A great start is to simply know everyone’s name. Just like the theme song from TV show Cheers, we all want a place “where everybody knows your name” – that home base where you can feel good about yourself.
More broadly, you can create group norms that make it easy for people to feel they belong, no matter what their backgrounds may be. Some of my favorites are:
- Listening without interrupting
- Giving each other equal air time
- Treating each other with respect
- Saying “Yes, and” instead of “No, but”
- Expressing appreciation for each others’ contributions
- Providing real-time feedback “with love and grace”
What other ways can you create a safe, inclusive environment for your team?
As an employee:
You can also take actions to make others feel comfortable. What if you were to get in the habit of saying “hello” to everyone you pass in the hallway? Or smile and acknowledge someone’s presence when they enter the room? Or show appreciation for someone by writing a thank you note?
As for yourself, what you can do is to have at least one place in your life where you feel you belong. Ideally, that includes your workplace since we spend most of our waking hours at work.
But if you don’t find it at the office, perhaps you’ll have that safe haven at home, with friends, or at your favorite place to hang out. For me, it’s my family, my CrossFit gym, and the mastermind groups I belong to.
As author Brené Brown says, belonging starts with self-acceptance. So if you need to do some work on appreciating and accepting yourself, then do that first before demanding more from others.
As a job seeker:
When you’re seeking a new role, make it a priority to choose your employer wisely. While it’s tempting to take the first job you’re offered, it’s costly to join the wrong organization.
Remember that you’re interviewing potential employers just as much as they’re interviewing you. So, get a feel for whether you can belong. And if you’ll need to suppress important parts of yourself to fit in, that’s a signal to move on.
As Bacchus Johnson said at our meet-up in New York City:
In the end, we humans are pack animals. We want to be part of the tribe. We have a deep need to belong. That’s why we work so hard to fit in.
But life doesn't have to be hard work.
The good news is that these days, there’s more than one tribe to choose from. And better yet, each of us can create change where we are. Simply by modeling the behavior that we want as the norm.
So whether you’re fighting to fit in or basking in belonging, take a moment to reflect on the norms you’d like to create for the circles you travel in.
When do you feel like you have to work hard to fit in? When do you feel you truly belong? And how are you helping others experience the beauty of belonging?
Leave a comment and let me know.
This is an incredibly simple truth but astonishing it its insight. In my early days I spent far too much time trying to fit in, and the places I have enjoyed working have been those where I haven’t tried to fit in.
On a separate note re productivity, I now understand, with an astonishing admission to my naïve ignorance what LGBT equality at work is so important. If you are gay you spend so long trying to be accepted that it must have a huge impact on personal productivity.
Jason – Thanks for sharing your experiences. So glad that you are now done with spending too much time trying to fit in! Sounds like you are choosing your workplaces well.
And what a wonderful understanding you now have about the importance of acceptance and equality at work. May you help many many others gain this understanding and may they act accordingly.
Thanks May! You brought up many good points!
Here are some of my (random) thoughts:
On Saying “Yes, and” instead of “No, but”, I found myself usually say “yes, I agree with this, but….”. Wonder how this sounds like.
As the supervisor, sometimes I found myself trying to “fit in” with my employees while they feel “I do not belong to them” when they go out for lunch or other activities outside of work. Any feedback on this?
I found it helpful when having a meeting with multiple employees, I say something like “John is excellent/an expert in doing something” when I feel that John may just try to fit into the group.
Thanks for sharing these thoughts – I can relate to them all. Here are a few observations on each of your three points.
Point 1: I like the fact that you say you agree. Adding the “but” takes away from the benefit of saying you agree, and may affect your credibility. In the extreme, someone may think, “she says she agrees with me, and then tells me why I’m wrong – can I trust her when she tells me positive things?”. How about saying something like, “Yes, I agree. And it would be even more powerful if you added XYZ.”
Point 2: Being a supervisor can feel like a tricky situation, especially if you were only recently part of the “worker bee” group. I remember an episode of the TV sitcom Friends where Chandler gets promoted to supervise his former peers and feels left out of their social scene. He discovers that being the supervisor changes the dynamic and he’s no longer “one of the guys”. This is a great lesson for us all.
While each situation is different, the basic reality is that being “the boss” means you are no longer going to be included in everything that your team does on a social basis. You will have times when you invite the team out for some fun “bonding” activity, and you can be a cohesive team without being with them at other social events. Another example is the parent that tries to be friends with their children’s friends. It isn’t a color found in nature.
Long way of saying that maybe you don’t need to sweat it. You’re the boss, and your focus is on helping them be successful and getting them to respect you. Friendship is icing on the cake, and it might even get in the way of your being a great boss.
Point 3: It’s great that you’re helping people feel like they have your support to “belong” rather than having to work so hard to “fit in”. Bravo for lending your approval to boost their confidence and also signal to others that John is in the “in group” as far as you’re concerned. Keep your antennae out to make sure this is helping John and not backfiring due to jealousy. And if jealousy is an issue, it doesn’t mean you should stop recognizing John – it may mean you need to do it in a different way. Including speaking well of John with more senior people who can help you help him rise in the organization.
Thanks so much for sharing these super interesting situations!