Imagine you’re at work, sitting with your two colleagues. It’s mid-morning and the company coffee bar has opened. One colleague asks, “Fancy a coffee?” You might indeed fancy one, but experience has taught you that the invitation does not extend to you. As usual, the other agrees that a coffee would be a great idea and they rise from their desks and walk off together. I imagine you’d probably feel as I did: a little left out and wondering what it was about me that didn’t quite fit in.
If I was a less confident person, I may have begun to feel that I was at fault. I may even have allowed the situation to affect my performance. However, over time, I could see that their cliquey behavior excluded others too and I realized that their unwillingness to accept me wasn’t really about me… so much as it was about them.
What my colleagues had done was created an in-group… and I was not in it. As Natalie Holder-Winfield explains in her eloquent Expert Interview, in-groups are formed of individuals that have similar characteristics and therefore find it easier to identify and interact with one another. The downside of this can be that they avoid dealing with the out-group, because it can feel less comfortable.
It’s a natural instinct for people to form groups based on their similarities. However, as our article on Managing Mutual Acceptance in Your Team points out, having team members that operate in cliques can put your organization at a disadvantage. Teams that demonstrate unaccepting behaviors can be unstable, unhappy and unproductive. But when people are accepting of diversity, it can lead to better communication and decision making, and therefore better performance by individuals, teams and organizations. And this was borne out by my experience with my two colleagues.
As part of this out-group, I got the distinct feeling that my suggestions and ideas were not particularly welcome. I worked harder to be heard and found ways around their dismissiveness, but this took time and effort that would have been better spent on developing our projects. I despaired at the fact that a little openness from them was all that was needed. On a personal level, I was dismayed that they had made me feel uncomfortable just to avoid their own discomfort but, most of all, I felt sorry for them.
Imagine all the people that you will miss out on knowing, just because you want to avoid the awkwardness of interacting with someone new. We all feel it in varying degrees, the awkwardness of trying to ask the right questions, and the self-consciousness of answering questions about ourselves. But the reward for putting yourself “out there” is that sweet moment when you find the common ground between you, and you begin to feel that you are no longer strangers.
I don’t know about you, but some of the things I’ve done in my life have been inspired by conversations I’ve had with with new people at work. You get to hear about a life that has been lived differently to yours. If you connect well, you can be granted the privilege of finding out the amazing things they’ve done, and this can give you the courage to go for it yourself. After all, if they did it and survived, you’ll probably be OK too. Climb Mount Kilimanjaro, run a marathon, travel abroad by yourself? No problem.
I’d like to say that when it came to the situation with my two colleagues, it all worked out well in the end, and, in a way, it did… for me. I’ve moved on in my career and continue to meet new people and make connections that help me to grow and develop. They, on the other hand, never changed and, as far as I know, are still in the same positions. Since then, I’ve encountered others like them and, where previously I may have withdrawn in the face of their resistance, now I try to remain positive and make inroads with any available opportunity for inclusivity.
If you feel excluded at work but aren’t sure how to address it, or if you feel that you’d like to explore ways to be more inclusive, read our article to find out how. It features a checklist of questions that will help you to identify when behavior is unacceptable, and information on how to support people in speaking up about it.
How about you? Have you ever worked in a place where you felt you didn’t fit in, no matter how you tried? Or can you remember a time when you were able to break through others’ barriers to make a meaningful connection with them? Join in the conversation below!