Do you want to fit in, or belong?

This week, with global uncertainty filling our social media feeds, we’ve all been feeling a little disjointed and vulnerable. Everyday leadership expert Dr Jane Booth of opus29 considers whether we can stay grounded by truly ‘belonging’ at work and why does it matter?

A few months ago, before the craziness of lockdown hit us, I found myself unexpectedly having a heart-to-heart with my oldest niece. I had just finished a CPD course around social media, young people and wellbeing and I was curious to hear her perspective on what it is like to be a teenager in the digital age. 

We ended up talking about various platforms, the challenges of living with grown-ups who are not necessarily as digitally literate as their children, and the difficulties of finding a safe space to escape the constant 'noise' from online connections: to feel able to 'switch off' and just to be 'present' in any moment.

All we want to do is fit in

We reached a natural pause in the conversation and my niece came out with a sentence that instantly felt important and meaningful to me: "You see Aunty Jane, all us teenagers really want to do is fit in."

At the time I remember feeling that there was something really significant about these words and thinking how insightful an observation my niece had made. After reflecting for a moment, I wondered out loud whether actually, this wasn't just an exclusive desire for teenagers. Rather there was something in all of us, regardless of our age, that simply drives us to want to 'fit in'.

So where has this thinking taken me in the past few weeks and months? Well, thanks to a little nudge from Brene Brown and her work on shame and vulnerability, I revisited my own PhD research and particularly the theme of 'nurturing environments' that I constructed from my narrative data. 

What do effective leaders say about safe spaces?

I remembered that all of the effective leaders interviewed for my study highlighted the significance for them of experiencing environments where they felt safe and where it was 'OK to be me'. They all talked about happy places where they felt encouraged and empowered to learn and grow; places where they were challenged, trusted and afforded freedom to explore, yet knowing they had support if they needed it. 

They also all recalled, with great fondness and appreciation, places where they felt they had thrived; places where they felt that they belonged and were welcomed for being themselves. These places were all different, including communities, families, sports teams or work departments, but all shared the common thread that they were safe, supportive and successful environments where everyone worked positively and supported each other. 

Belonging is more important than fitting in

For me, then, whilst we might all think that 'all we want to do is fit in', I prefer to believe that what we are actually striving for are places where we 'belong'. To belong somewhere means, as Brene Brown suggests, that we are accepted for who we are and that we feel comfortable in being ourselves. When our environment embraces our 'uniqueness' it feels like a positive, nurturing place to be. 

In contrast, to 'fit in' arguably requires us to adapt or change something about ourselves in order to match our surrounding environment. Whilst I accept that there are times when we will need to be this chameleon-like creature and be consciously aware of accepted practice, culture and custom on some occasions; largely this need to 'fit in' feels like a more challenging and compromising place to exist.

Find a job where you belong

When people truly belong they feel safe, engaged and creative 

What if the culture around us prioritises profit over wellbeing?  What if our team environment rewards conformity rather than creativity?  What if our organisation outwardly advocates for advancing women’s equality and yet the daily reality continues to reinforce the male patriarchy? What if flexible working is on offer for all, yet it is only ever taken up by women?  What if talented women are recruited into our companies but are consistently, yet often unconsciously, overlooked for promotion by their male managers and Directors?

We see all this happening around us and may feel that in order to succeed we have only one choice. To fit in. To feel that our only option is to change our behaviour to align with the culture around us. To believe that we have to compromise our own principles and values just to get that pay rise or promotion.

When the environment around not only permits us to ‘be ourselves’, it actively encourages us to be authentic and appropriately vulnerable. When every person within our team, organisation or company chooses to show up as themselves and feel valued for who they are, innovation happens.  When each and everyone of us values each other for who we really are, rather than reward those who simply conform to the pervading ‘fitting in’ culture of sameness and monotony, we see great strides in creativity and increased engagement.

When the world is in flux, allowing everyone in your team to show up authentically themselves creates a safe, welcoming and creative environment apart from the uncontrollable sphere of global events. 

Are you ready to be a game-changer?

So…to fit in or belong...? That is today's question. Do you know who you are and how you will show up in your working environment?  What will you do differently today to challenge the constrained culture of conformity that puts ‘fitting in’ before ‘belonging’?

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