From the time we are small children, we have an innate desire to fit in. At five years old, my oldest son was choosy about what he wanted to wear saying, “that’s not cool.” Just last week, he didn’t want me to take his picture holding a cute sign he had made, in front of daycare because he didn’t want the other kids to see. This innate desire to fit in has a tendency to get worse as we get older. After high school, the pressure may let up as we then have some choice in terms of what we do next. That said, does the pressure to fit in ever really stop, or does it just change over time? Parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and eventually bosses, all play a part in shaping who we think we should be. When does it become okay to shift away from external influences and the innate desire to fit in, and instead strive for finding true belonging?
In her book, “Braving the Wilderness”, Brené Brown explores the difference between fitting in and belonging. One of the eighth graders she interviewed explained the difference between the two as “belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.” I can’t think of a more simple and clear definition. After spending our formative years on a quest to fit in, depending on our level of self-confidence and the role models around us, we will either continue to adapt or we will embrace our true selves and find where we belong.
During my time in the wilderness, I’ve been working through a Change Leadership certificate program through eCornell. The timing of the program has helped me reflect and put into perspective, why it was time for me to take a leap and find where I belong.
In my first class, Leading Across Cultures, we explored five dimensions of culture. During this course, I identified two specific dimensions that were the difference between me fitting in and belonging in my prior organization. I am risk-taking, which doesn’t fit well in a more risk-adverse culture that values predictability. High-hierarchy was another dimension I personally struggled with. There is so much value to be gained when the top of the hierarchy embraces the ideas and insights of those, lower in the hierarchy; the people who are in the trenches every day and have firsthand knowledge of the challenges that employees and customers are facing. There were times when I felt like I was jumping up and down but was unable to jump high enough to be seen by the airplane flying over me. I was able to fit into a risk-adverse, high-hierarchy culture, but have since found that I belong in a culture that values flexibility, progressive thinking and embraces great ideas that come from anywhere in the hierarchy.
In the course, Leading Organizational Change, we explored four different types of organizations. I was able to fit in a sprawling organization where change is often a result of a specific opportunity or necessity and happens slowly. Having spent my career in technology companies, I am seeing that I belong in a perpetual motion organization where change is a requirement for the business to stay ahead. An organization where new ideas are embraced and valued and change happens rapidly.
When interviewing candidates, one of my final questions is “let’s say you have three offers from three different companies. How do you decide which one to take?” The answers I hear are often stability, the work itself, style of manager, fit with the team, compensation, flexibility and level of influence. When interviewing Engineers, the difference between a start-up company with loose rules and policies and an established organization with structured policies and procedures is often mentioned.
If you stop and think about these important considerations and your current job, team, manager and organization, do you fit in or belong? Are you empowered to do your best work every day? Do you feel valued? Do you feel a sense of pride and personal fulfillment with regard to the products or services your company is providing? Does your company support social responsibility in a way that aligns with your values? Are you accepted and valued for being your authentic self or do you change who you are when you’re at work? It’s akin to buying a new home or starting a new relationship. We need to have our must-haves, nice-to-haves and deal-breakers. How much happier and fulfilled would we be if instead of trying to fit in, we stepped into the wilderness, embraced our authentic selves and found where we belong?
“True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” – Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone