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:

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:

Conclusion

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.