How to Stop Feeling Out of Place as a Minority at Work
Recently, I was asked for advice for people who may feel out of place in the workplace because they’re a minority.
Being in the minority can arise from any number of ways, such as color, gender, age, religious beliefs, and physical ability, to name a few.
When you’re in the minority group, it’s easy to feel misunderstood and excluded. To feel like you don’t really belong, no matter how hard you try to fit in.
You’re constantly under pressure to figure out how to be “appropriate” and alert to having to prove yourself again and again. You’re not in the “inner circle” where a lot of important context gets shared. On top of it all, you’re having to self-manage all the time to try to fit in. It’s exhausting.
It also leads to self-doubt which can easily blossom into imposter syndrome, feeling like you don’t belong or deserve to be where you are.
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In this state of mind, you’ll struggle to perform at your best. And the herculean effort of constantly trying to fit in means you may even be putting your health at risk.
For most of my career, I’ve been in the minority group. And while it’s important to change the system so that no one needs to feel like an “other”, it’s also helpful to have some actions you can take in the right now to have a better experience at work without needing anyone else’s permission.
Here are three strategies that worked for me when I felt out of place at work. I hope these will help you too.
- Be incredibly kind to yourself
- Assume positive intent
- Be a person, not a label
Be incredibly kind to yourself
It takes an emotional toll to be constantly on alert and trying to fit in. The question is how to offset it and renew your energy.
In my experience, the number one antidote to all this stress is to be incredibly kind to yourself.
This starts with self-care. Like meditation, breathing or exercise to manage your mental state. It could also be treating yourself to luxuriousness in some aspect of your life. Nurture yourself whether it’s splurging on high-end bedding, scented candles at home, nutritious food, music system, top notch exercise gear, getting enough sleep and so forth.
But you don’t have to do it all on your own. You can also tap into your community of support, as in your “raving fans” and advocates. These are people who know what you’re like at your best and are happy to remind you. Gather strength from those who know, love and respect you.
For me it was my family and a couple of trusted colleagues. For you, it could include your team and close friends. And if you don’t have a community of support, now is a great time to start creating one.
You can also learn to remind yourself of what you’re like at your best for an instant dose of confidence when you need it. For example, creating a mantra – a few sentences you find reaffirming – that you can repeat to yourself when you need to regain your confidence.
Replenishing yourself is key. And ideally, you’ll want to keep the negative feelings from coming up in the first place. But when those negative thoughts do crop up, one way to address them is by using the “Stop, Drop and Replace” technique.
This leads us to the second strategy.
Assume positive intent
When someone says something that could be construed as negative, the natural human instinct is to take offence. And once that happens, stress hormones get released, you go into fight or flight mode and your emotions take over.
These stress chemicals can linger in your body for quite a while, especially if you replay the situation in your mind and think about all the things you could have or should have done. This is not only draining but also keeps you from thinking clearly and performing at your best. So it’s ideal to prevent the cycle from starting in the first place.
What I learned from my mother was to adopt the default position of assuming the other person has positive intentions. She would remind me that, “maybe they are having a bad day” or my favorite, “maybe they lack a nerve.” This meant they lacked a sensory perception of how they are coming across and were being oblivious.
Here, we’re talking about normal work situations and not bullying or personal threats.
The reason to assume positive intent is first and foremost for your benefit. It’s not about “forgiving” the other person or “letting them off the hook”. It’s all about making it a better experience for you by preventing other people from affecting your mental state.
When you assume positive intent, your brain won’t need to release the cortisol and adrenalin stress chemicals. And you’ll be able to maintain the presence of mind to “T’ai Chi it back to them”. Which means to receive their (possibly) negative energy, transform it into a positive and send it back to them gracefully – just like the smooth motion of T’ai Chi masters.
This can be simply saying “thank you” when you’re not sure if a colleague’s comment was meant as a criticism or a compliment. Just assume it’s a compliment and embrace it as such.
When you’re relentlessly positive, constructive and calm, people can’t hurt you. You can then respond in a matter-of-fact way that shifts your interaction in a better direction.
And in my experience, they’ll probably start to live up to the behavior you’re role modeling.
This brings us to the third strategy.
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Be a person, not a label
People can’t help but form impressions and make assumptions about each other. We attach mental labels to each other, which in my case might be, “she’s Chinese” or “she’s a short person”. And if someone hasn’t met you or experienced you personally before, they have less to go on. That means they’re even more likely to fall back on stereotypes or what they hear from others.
The thing is the labels or stereotypes people attach to you might not serve you well. So the key is to become known to people so they can see beyond the stereotypes and assumptions. And ideally, to do this by having them experience you at your best.
For me, that was when I was winning over skeptical clients. For a team member, it was being amazing at synthesizing reams of data into three actionable points. And for a colleague, it was having her managers discover that she was a singer who had performed in sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall.
When you give people a chance to experience you adding value and see you as a 3-dimensional human being, it dispels the stereotypes and puts you into your own unique category in their brain.
In my case, I was able to get my colleagues to see beyond the initial impression of me as a “nice Chinese girl” … and see me first and foremost as May Busch. And that helped me feel less out of place at work.
But what if you’ve used these strategies and still feel out of place?
There are going to be times when the workplace you’re in is not the right place for you. If you really can’t be yourself and it’s affecting your well-being, you owe it to yourself to find somewhere better for you.
It’s when you’re able to be your authentic self that you can do your best work. So make sure you’ve done what you can to try to make it work before you move on.
Just don’t forget to tap into the advantages of being in the minority at work
Every downside has an upside. And as a Chinese woman in investment banking, I discovered that clients and senior managers noticed and remembered me. This was helpful for the business and for my career.
In a male-dominated and largely Anglo-Saxon industry, being in the minority gave me instant visibility. So feeling out of place at work also had the upside of helping me distinguish myself in a good way.
Whether it’s helping you to stand out or allowing you to bring a different perspective, think about how you can tap into the advantages of being in the minority at work.
Embracing who you are is the first step of feeling like you belong
It took time, but once I became more comfortable in my own skin, I stopped feeling so out of place at work. I discovered that it’s possible to be different and do well at the same time.
On the road to belonging, it’s important to focus on what you can control and influence. Then let the rest go. And on your way to no longer feeling out of place, remember to:
- Be incredibly kind to yourself – it’s draining to be on guard, so make time and space for what brings you a feeling of well-being
- Assume positive intent – you’ll be less likely to be triggered by what others say or do
- Be a person not a label – help others get past the stereotypes and assumptions by letting them experience you at your best
Which of these strategies would most help you feel like you belong at work?
Leave a comment and let me know.