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Career Advice

What to do when you don’t fit in at work

Posted by Emily Moore

Last Updated Feb 16, 2023
|6 min read

Some of us find ourselves in roles where we question if we're truly a "culture fit." Discover 6 tips for what to do in a situation like this, including:

  • Identifying whether it's an internal or external problem
  • Deciding what is and isn't working
  • Finding opportunities to connect with your co-workers

The awkwardness, the cliques, the struggle of who to sit with at lunch – when you don’t fit in at work, it might feel like you were transported back to high school. But no matter how much we insist other people’s opinions don’t matter, experts agree that feelings of comfort and acceptance in the workplace aren’t trivial.

“Most people will work an average of 65,000 hours in their lifetime. Being in a positive environment is a key [to] being happy and having a healthy outlook,” says leadership coach Anza Goodbar. “If you are unhappy in the job, you will be less likely to perform well and it will reduce the likelihood of keeping the job long term.”

Belonging can also impact your productivity. “Your ability to get things done in your organization will inevitably involve being able to effectively influence others and bring them on board to your ideas,” says Joseph Liu, career consultant and host of the Career Relaunch podcast. “Fitting in is part of being able to effectively lead teams to achieve your organizational goals.”

So what should you do?  Here are a few ideas from the experts.

1. Identify whether your problem is internal or external

When evaluating your situation, it’s critical to know whether your feeling of being an outsider is internal (i.e. a problem with how you perceive yourself) or external (i.e. a problem with how others perceive you). If you’re prone to overthinking, the problem may just be in your head. In that case, the solution lies in working on your self-esteem rather than adjusting interpersonal behavior.

“You can’t control other people, but you can control yourself and how you perceive a situation,” says Alison Brehme, founder and CEO of Virtual Corporate Wellness.

On the other hand, if your teammates are hostile to or dismissive of your contributions, or your values are wildly different from your co-workers, you may need to address external factors.

If you’re self-conscious that you’re unpopular, you’re probably dealing with an internal conflict. If you feel uncomfortable going to work, you likely have an external conflict. In the latter case, you’ll need to take a few more steps.

2. Figure out what’s working (and what’s not)

Start with an honest self-assessment of your interactions with your team. Marian Thier, a leadership coach, recommends creating visual categories of your relationships. 

“When clients say they just don’t mesh with their co-workers, I first ask them to draw five concentric circles and put the names of everyone they deal with on at least a weekly basis. Then, they draw an arrow to indicate how information flows between the client and the other person,” Thier says. “Finally they color the arrows red for difficult relationships and green for smooth ones.”

While your instinct might be to focus on what’s going wrong, Thier recommends thinking about what’s working.

“My clients assess how the green relationship is working, what to continue to do consciously and consistently, what to do more or less of and how to be self-observant. Once the ‘right-fit’ relationships blossom, it is common for the reds to minimize or not to be necessary,” Thier explains. “The idea is to strengthen solid relationships, which will gradually either create a sense of belonging or make it clear that it just isn’t the place to be.”

3. Connect with your co-workers

There’s a difference between working with someone and connecting with them. Humans crave connection and community. Connections in the workplace are no exception. 

According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, relationships impact our health, happiness, and quality of life, but the quality of relationships is more important than the quantity. 

Start fostering workplace connections by trying to find common ground with your co-workers.  

“Invite them to lunch or to an after-work event to get to know them better. Taking initiative in the situation can make you seem more approachable and create opportunities to connect,” Goodbar says. “You may not become best buds with your workmates, but you may be able to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and have a more happy work environment.”

If the idea of prolonged one-on-one communication feels intimidating, start small. Join in the conversation before meetings. Ask your co-workers about their lives, and listen to their responses. Even short bonding episodes between meetings can help people feel more comfortable with one another.

4. Observe and imitate

You shouldn’t feel pressured to change who you fundamentally are to fit in, but a few adjustments to your communication style could help put others at ease. If you came from a more aggressive environment where competing with team members was rewarded, the way you interacted with colleagues there might not jibe at a more collaborative office.

“We tend to respond positively to others like us, and if you are feeling like the odd man out, then you probably need to be the one to adjust your style,” says career coach Mary Warriner. “You could sit back and watch for a while and see how your boss responds to your co-workers or how your co-workers interact with each other. This might give you a clue as to where to start. Do they interrupt each other and speak very fast? Do they take time to stop and think before responding?”

5. Reach out for help

Check in with a mentor, friend, or colleague for a second opinion. They may be able to offer perspective, suggestions, or, at the very least, a sympathetic ear.

“A mentor outside of your immediate team can provide you with objective, candid feedback about which behaviors are favored within the organization, and which are not. If you don’t have a mentor, try to identify someone who’s successfully ascended within the organization with whom you feel you could have an honest, candid conversation to discuss what steps you can take to fit in,” Liu recommends. “After you’ve identified a few tweaks you can make, decide which you feel are feasible and can create the greatest positive impact, then take action.”

If the situation feels unsustainable long-term, consider reaching out to your HR representative

“Your company may have some communication assessments on file or tools to assist you,” Warriner adds. Keep in mind, however, that a discussion with your manager or HR could lead to formal documentation and meetings.

6. Decide if it’s time to leave your job

If you’ve done everything you can and still aren’t feeling any more comfortable with your current situation, it may be time to move on. While deciding whether it’s time to fire up a new job search, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Will fitting in at work force you to be someone you’re not?
  2. Does fitting in require you to compromise any of your core values or principles?
  3. Will additional efforts to fit in make a lasting difference to a negative reputation you may have developed at work?
  4. Is your stress level causing you to feel burned out, lose sleep, or skip eating?

If you’re miserable, prioritize your health and find a better fit. 

“At some point, cutting your losses so you can have a fresh start at an organization more well-aligned to who you are will allow you to be yourself, make the most of who you are, and achieve results that benefit your organization and your own career trajectory,” Liu says.

If you still feel like you’re not fitting in at work, update your resume and find a role you love.