The awkwardness, the cliques, the struggle of who to sit with at lunch… when you feel like the odd person out at work, it might seem like you were transported back to high school. It might feel juvenile to worry about whether or not your colleagues like you, but experts agree that feelings of comfort and acceptance in the workplace are far from 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.”
Beyond that, “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,” points out Joseph Liu, career consultant & host of the Career Relaunch podcast. “Fitting in is part of being able to effectively lead teams to achieve your organizational goals.”
So if you don’t feel at home in your current job, it’s well worth doing something about it. But what exactly should your next steps be? Here are a few things experts recommend.
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, or getting too hung up on things like popularity and coolness, your problem may very well be in your head — in which case, you’d do well to work on your own self-esteem rather than adjusting your behavior.
In situations like this, “you can’t control other people, but you can control yourself and how you perceive a situation,” adds Alison Brehme, founder and CEO of Virtual Corporate Wellness.
But if you’re genuinely experiencing “animosity, lack of respect [or] serious value and priority differences, then you have a problem” worth addressing externally, MacLeod says.
Harrison Brady, Communications Specialist at Frontier Communications, sums it up nicely: “Do you need to be the most popular guy in the office? No. Should you feel comfortable going to the office everyday? Absolutely.”
If you suspect your issue is external, though, don’t worry — all hope is not lost. You just have to take a few extra steps.
2. Figure Out What's Working (and What's Not)
When you feel like you don’t fit in, it can be difficult to determine exactly where your problem lies. To address this, leadership coach Marian Thier recommends one activity in particular.
“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/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. Come Out of Your Shell
Another possible explanation for your discomfort at work could be simply that you’re not putting yourself out there enough. If that’s the case, “try to find common ground with your workmates. 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.
A few more ideas: “Make efforts to be more social at breaks. Join in the conversation at lunch. Attend company happy hours or social events,” suggests social skills coach Jonathan Bennett. “By bonding with co-workers on a personal level, they’ll feel more comfortable with you during working hours.”
“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,” Goodbar adds.
4. Observe & Imitate
You shouldn’t feel pressured to change who you fundamentally are in order 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, for example, 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
It’s often worth turning to a trusted colleague or friend, even if they don’t work at the company. They may be able to offer up perspective, suggestions or at the very least, a sympathetic listening 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 you feel that your work is suffering, you could reach out to [an] HR representative. Your company may have some communication assessments on file or tools to assist you,” Warriner adds.
However, it’s worth noting that discussing an issue like this with your manager or HR could lead to formal documentation and meetings, so bear that in mind before taking action, MacLeod advises.
6. Remember: There’s No Shame in Leaving
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. A few indications that you should cut your losses and find a new job: “First, if the actions required to fit in force you to be someone you’re not. Second, if you feel like fitting in requires you to compromise one of your core values or principles. Finally, if you realize the effort to fit in may realistically not make a lasting difference to a negative reputation that you’ve already built for yourself,” Liu says.
Additionally, if “your stress level is causing you to lose sleep at night or if you’re unable to eat,” or “you're feeling miserable after a year,” you may want to take it as a sign to move on, add Goodbar and Warriner, respectively.
“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 concludes.