“Do I belong? Or am I fitting in? There is a distinction between fitting in and feeling belong. Fitting in is not belonging. When we attempt to fit in, we are changing ourselves in order to be accepted. We are not seen as who we really are and, that can be a lonely experience.
When Capelle facilitated a dialogue centering around loneliness at work for a group of professionals from diverse backgrounds, the conversations were interesting and the concerns raised were not unexpected. We captured some common findings on why people felt lonely in their organizations, especially after 2 years being in the pandemic. The key ones are that of:
- Leadership needing to make hard decisions and seemingly lacking empathy that intensifies the loneliness;
- Addiction to achieving outcomes, which led to people not listening and relating to one another; or
- The lack of common space to dialogue about conflicts that run deep within the organization.
The list could go on, and they seem to suggest that people are looking for a place to feel belong and be accepted.
Deep down, we yearn to be authentic and accepted, in order that we might better fit in. That process of trying to fit in is out of the need to survive.
For some, trying to fit in is a mindset built from a young age, like, fitting in to what parents want, fitting in to school rules, fitting in to find friends. We adjust ourselves to fit in so that we may be a part of something and to belong somewhere.
In the workplace, when individuals try to fit into the work team, it undermines culture building. The need to gain others’ and the boss’ approval often results in disappointment, dissatisfaction, and resentment. There is an expectation that when people make adjustments to fit in, there must be reciprocity. Fear and anxiety are often the emotions that govern these expectations, and unfortunately, rejections are a more commonplace. This mindset to survive, while real as it may be, is hampering the inclusiveness and sense of belonging that companies are working hard to build. It does not help too that the hybrid work context is further magnifying the cracks that already exist.
In essence, it is an identity issue that individuals and businesses need to address. Building our own identity is not a mindset that we are accustomed to. In fact, it continues to be a territory that is underexplored. It is therefore, a reason why it is common to hear people stating their work title and role when they are asked to introduce themselves.
As a nation, Singapore faces this identity challenge with our narrative being one of survival. Geo-political tension, climate change, terrorism, the list of global challenges that impact Singapore goes on. For a country with little resources, we need to be efficient and productive. We need to survive. Yet at the same time, we need to build our own identity as a nation. We need to preserve our unique heritage. For example, do we work hard to preserve the hawker culture where local communities thrive and feel a sense of belonging? Or do we demolish them and replace them with supermarkets of high efficiency and productivity? This dichotomy perhaps is an illusion. We need a mindset to embrace both. On this note, the leaders of this nation have done a tremendous job in keeping this balance. The journey ahead however continues to be filled with uncertainties and challenges.
Perhaps the rest of us as businesses and individuals can double down the effort demonstrated by our national leaders. Perhaps we need to shift our mindset from “fit in to survive” towards a “together we overcome”. When our mindset shifts, it is not lofty to suggest that as Singaporeans, we are well resourced and capable to find solutions.
Our Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in one of his previous speeches said that “the world is in for a ‘perfect long storm’ that will not pass any time soon.” As we transit into 2023, we bring with us the lingering consequences of the war in Ukraine, the risk of sustained high inflation and slower growth, anticipating future pandemic, and adjusting to “living with Covid”. What does all this mean to us as individuals, organizational leaders, and businesses?
Food for Thought:
- As individuals, how might we contribute towards building a place of belonging?
- As leaders, how can we create safe spaces within our systems where team members can share struggles and uncertainties without judgement and feel like they can belong?
- As businesses, how might we stop the over-emphasis on productivity and output to the neglect of culture building work?
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