You step into the pantry and see a colleague. You’re stumped. You almost want to turn around and walk out, but you know that will be too rude.
But you don’t know what to say.
Or you’ve just walked into the meeting room. Everyone is having a conversation in their group. Laughing. Smiling to each other. Whispering.
And you just feel that it’d be impossible to just butt in, and say,
Can I join you?
There’s a shiver that runs down your back as you wonder how best to fit in.
You slowly wonder if you should just leave. Anyway, it looks like no one would really care.
The struggle to fit in at work can be one of the most painful, and difficult experiences to work through. At work, we long for three things.
- We want to belong to a community where we are part of a bigger family, that our presence is not just tolerated but welcomed.
- We want to feel like we are able to grow at work.
- We want to feel like we are accepted for who we are, and recognised for what we bring.
Why it happens
But before we jump into how to handle this struggle to fit in, it may be worth thinking about why this happens.
During my first full-time job, I never knew why it seemed so difficult for me to fit. During my probation review, my boss told me that she’d heard feedback about how I was not eating with my colleagues.
Is this true?
I sheepishly nodded.
Well, you can take time to eat with them, and know them as people, rather than just work colleagues.
Your natural introversion may count against you
One of the first reasons why we don’t fit in, is because we may be naturally introverted.
And we think that it might be better to take time alone, during lunch breaks, rather than taking time to know and spend time with our colleagues.
So take the effort to ask
Yes, I know it’s difficult. But fitting in is a two-way thing. Even when it looks like they are not very welcome to you, and they seem distant and aloof, and do not ask you along for lunches, be a little thick-skinned and ask,
Can I join you?
Yes, I know it’s hard.
But this is a two-way relationship, where you have to take the effort to initiate the effort. Whilst it’d be great if they did, you have to take your own responsibility to fit in.
If we stay in our comfort zone and do what is natural to us, we would slowly think,
Yes, actually my colleagues don’t really like me here. I don’t belong here.
Of course this can be a balance between lunches with your colleagues, thrice a week, and then twice with yourself.
Build stronger relationships with smaller groups
When I asked Grace Teo-Dixon, a lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design about how introverts could socialise in the workplace, she laughed and said,
Introverts can build their own networks. It’s just built differently.
They build them in small groups. Small groups are okay for them. But build lots of little small groups! This doesn’t require a whole heap of maintenance.
Take time to go for lunches with two or three people, rather than in a large group of 5 or 6. It may help better.
But more importantly, connect to the nodes
We have this theory called social network theory. You have people called ‘nodes’, or structural holes . Or in Hokkien parlance, your ‘lobangs’.
It’s always good to be in contact with a lobang. For an introvert, keep in touch with these people. If you only like talking to one person, then make it a ‘lobang-person’. They connect you to other people.
Knowing where the nodes are will keep you well-connected in the company, so that they can introduce you to others, and help you smoothen the frictions that occur.
Know them as people
Atul Gawande, the doctor behind best-selling books such as The Checklist Manifesto, shares how he once realised that being a doctor wasn’t about treating the patient.
But also about treating the problem.
In ‘Better’, he writes about he used to jump straight into understanding the problem, and trying to diagnose the patient’s condition.
But he later realised that it was more prudent to start by asking about the person.
Like the weather. Or their hobbies. Or remarking about how their shirt reflected a certain club allegiance.
Seeing your colleagues as people means that you stop trying to just relate to them in terms of the work that needs to be done, but also the person in front of the work.
It means that you take time to ask when you pass by them in the hallway,
Hey how was the weekend? What did you do over the weekend?
Any holiday plans?
What are you planning to do this weekend?
What do you do for fun?
These questions can help you to relate better to your colleagues.
Learning that not everyone will be friendly
Sometimes, you struggle to fit in because not everyone at the office wants to be friendly.
In my first job, I remember how colleague James (not his real name) quickly threw me under the bus after 2 months. I had been discussing an idea for a programme with colleague Connie.
Connie told James about it. And quickly, James, as the team lead sent out an email saying,
Ideas for programmes need to be first discussed…
As cliche as this sounds, there is no ‘I’ in team.
Well. That was fair.
When this first happened, I started withdrawing from James. I thought what he’d done was horrid.
And like a kid who had been deprived of his favourite toy, I sulked.
And you may face this. You would get behaviours that may seem aggressive to you.
Unfortunately in the workplace, some of these behaviours may be seen as perfectly fine. When I mentioned this to my supervisor, she taught me this.
Sometimes, behaviours may not be acceptable to you, but that’s doesn’t mean that they are unacceptable to the company.
And it may just be a matter of personal preference, and you learning to accept people’s different ways of working.
There will be different ways of working and managing you. Amongst complex human beings who’ve grown up in different working environments, some may use varying methods.
Rather than just ‘ghosting’ your colleague, take time to accept that it’s different. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you should condone bad behavior. But sometimes, it may not be for you to decide that it is bad behaviour.
Especially at the lower levels, sometimes what you may need to learn is how to just ‘suck it up’.
Well, how, you may ask.
First write yourself a grievance letter where you state all the nasty things you would have wanted to say to this colleague. End the letter by saying,
But I, being magnanimous, choose to forgive you and release the hurt you’ve done.
This internal forgiveness of bad behaviour, can help you to stop trying to ‘get back’ at the other person.
And it will leave you free to continue your relationship with the colleague who’s been unfriendly.
Recognising that not everyone will be a friend will help.
Make relationships that matter at work
Yes, there will be relationships that will be painful and difficult to deal with at work.
But for every 3 bad relationships, there will be one that works out.
It’s not about giving up and saying,
It’s not worth it.
Rather, it’s about taking time to go for those lunches with your colleagues, even when you don’t feel like it.
It’s about taking time to listen to your colleague. It’s about seeing that there are going to be boring and dull moments most of the time, but then being there for the spontaneous, moments that remind you,
Hey, I’m part of something larger.