Stop Contributing to a “Fitting-In” Culture

by | Articles, Culture, Leadership

What Fitting-In Requires

When did you realize the difference between fitting in and belonging? For many, that realization hasn’t happened. And if you’re like me, it feels like it needs to be re-realized over and over again. Not because I don’t understand the difference, I definitely do. But because there are so many signals within and around us that tempt us into falling for fitting in when what we really want is to belong. 

What is it about fitting in that’s so alluring? 

For some, the idea of a rule book is comforting. The predictability feels safe. And on the surface, fitting in might not even sound all that bad. But who decides what’s in and what’s out? And what parts of myself do I have to hide or abandon to fit in? Anyone who’s ever been snubbed for wearing the “wrong” thing, living in the “wrong” neighborhood, or using the “wrong” language knows that overwhelming feeling of somehow being “wrong”. 

I can vividly remember times in my past when I didn’t fit in- not just the context, but I can still feel the experience physically. My throat tightening to choke back tears, my cheeks burning, my knees less able to hold me up. Sometimes fitting in demands that you to make a different choice- a choice in where you shop or how you style your hair. And sometimes, when the parameters to fit in are based on the color of your skin or who you love, you can’t choose your way in.  

What a Fitting-In Culture Sounds Like

I would never want to make someone else feel that they had to abandon the most precious parts of themselves and their identity to fit in, and I know you wouldn’t either. While most leaders and companies don’t outwardly profess that they drive a fitting-in culture, that they shame people for not fitting-in, these things happen in more subtle, yet equally ostracizing ways.

·      You need to appear more professional in your presentations.

·      That’s not an approved holiday, but you do get two weeks for Christmas!

·      I don’t think they’re a good cultural fit for our team.

Fitting-in cultures are created and upheld by phrases like these every single day, usually by people who are kept comfortable and served well by the norms and rules laid out in the “fitting-in handbook.” I’m not advocating for a free for all, where everyone gets to do whatever they want. But I am advocating for thoughtfulness in noticing the subtle (and not so subtle) ways people are told they need to fit in and more conscious action toward creating belonging instead. 

How Belonging is Different

Unlike fitting in, belonging doesn’t require that you abandon yourself. It doesn’t ask that you make the dominant group’s beliefs, style, vernacular, or values your own in order to be accepted. You are accepted and valued because of your uniqueness. Belongings asks you to be more of who you are, not less. Think about the people with whom you belong, the communities where you belong. They probably conjure up thoughts and feelings of, 

·      I can be myself. 

·      I feel free to share and collaborate.

·      I’m not worried about being judged.

·      I feel better about myself. 

Belonging, not fitting-in, is what creates connection and community. And it’s in those spaces that innovation, courage, creativity, and joy can live and grow. Creating and sustaining belonging requires a sharing of space and power, a willingness to embrace vulnerability, comfort with the unknown, and genuine curiosity without attachment to a right or wrong. These may feel like big challenges, but they aren’t impossible changes to make and the well-being of the people around you depends on it. 

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