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Does your team have Fitting-In Syndrome?

Feb 15, 2024

There’s a great quote from Oscar Wilde. Perhaps you’ve heard it: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

I like it so much I have it inscribed on the back of my iPad. (The closest I get to a tattoo, I’m such a rebel.)

It doesn’t stop me from forgetting to be myself sometimes. Like most people, I have a deep-seated need for belonging and affiliation, which can show up in all kinds of weird and wonderful ways. 

I reckon my “affiliation radar” is one of my superpowers. It allows me to read a room and adapt my style to serve the room, which is so important in the work I do as a facilitator. It’s also why I’m strong in areas like diplomacy and resolving conflict.  

But ‘fitting in’ is a pretty unhealthy (and illusory!) way to meet the need for belonging - a bit like making a quick stop at the Macca’s drive-through to satisfy your hunger: you might be eating, but not necessarily nourished.

Brené Brown makes the distinction really clearly, when she says, “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

Many teams suffer from Fitting In Syndrome. By bringing a group of people together as a team, you activate their need to belong - which leads some people to rely on their ‘fitting in’ strategies. 

The result? A few people dominate the team, while everyone else is busily trying to conform.   

The cost? You lose diversity of thought. Ideas go unchallenged. Group think prevails. Insights go unshared. Culture becomes stale. And ultimately, people’s sense of self is eroded and they become miserable.

I know because I’ve been there. Perhaps you have too?

If you lead a team, you can (and please do!) create an environment where people can feel that they belong because of their uniqueness, because of their difference - not in spite of it.

Here’s just a few ways you can do that:

βœ…  Talk openly about the importance of diverse perspectives and thinking

βœ… Spend time getting to understand what makes each person different in your team: what’s distinctive about their background, their education, their career path, their skills, their hobbies, their favourite music… anything!

βœ…Notice and celebrate the moments when people do something that is a unique expression of who they are and how they think

βœ… Build in time in team conversations for divergent views, and set a quota. “Let’s get 2 or 3 completely different views before we progress this any further.”  

βœ… Let your own freak flag fly. Or, as my 12 year old son likes to say, “You do you.”

Over time, every small action builds the team’s collective courage to bring their full selves to the table. 

How else can you help your team to hack the urge to fit in? Send me an email with your suggestions. 


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