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When you don't fit in at work

  • Story Highlights
  • When you put groups of people together, not everyone is going to be best friends
  • Try as you might, you can't force anyone to be your friend or to like you
  • Change your attitude toward people you think don't like you
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By Anthony Balderrama
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CareerBuilder

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If you don't fit in at work, don't despair. There are steps you can take to be a part of the team.

If you don't fit in at work, don't despair. There are steps you can take to be a part of the team.

The struggle to fit in follows everyone throughout life. It's one of those human experiences everyone must endure.

In school, you don't want to be the kid playing alone during recess.

At a party, you don't want to be the only person standing in the corner with a drink in your hand and a sad expression on your face.

In the office, you'd like to have people talk to you during the day. Or at the very least, not actively dislike you.

When you put groups of people together, not everyone is going to be best friends. Even if co-workers aren't fighting, one person can feel like an outsider and grow to dread heading into work each morning.

People don't fit in for a variety of reasons. Personalities don't click. Your gender, ethnicity or age make you stick out from everyone else. Or maybe preconceived notions of you or of your colleagues -- however inaccurate they may be -- prevent relationships from forming.

The gender gap

Vicky Oliver, author of "Bad Bosses, Crazy Co-Workers and Other Office Idiots," worked for an ad agency where she was one of few women on the team, and those women were significantly older than she. She couldn't change or hide her age and gender, so she decided to use it to her advantage.

"I took it as a challenge," Oliver says. "I recognized that, by nature of my gender, I would be giving a different perspective to the team and that was a good thing." More importantly, she recognized that not only did she feel better, but she was making a valuable contribution that others would notice.

"The trick is to accept that maybe you won't be let in to every single social activity -- I don't recall ever being invited for a beer after work -- but hopefully, for the things that really matter, your input as an outsider will be appreciated. You are like a tiny focus group of one. You are broadening the group knowledge and your input really matters!"

It's not them, it's you

Sometimes a rift between co-workers is less about what they don't like and more about what they don't know.

Consider the performance review Vickie Pynchon had as a young attorney. Pynchon's boss told her that colleagues who knew her well really liked her, while those who hardly knew her or had never met her didn't like her at all.

"I realized that the people I knew the least were people who I disliked for no reason other than the fact that they were insurance defense attorneys and I was a commercial litigation attorney," Pynchon remembers. "I was young and arrogant and disapproved of their work for the insurance industry. I still had a bit of a hippie-who-sold-out chip on my shoulder."

As a result, she changed her attitude toward the people that she thought didn't like her and became open to getting to know them. She found out that she admired and respected her colleagues very much, once she knew them. Her review the next year was a huge turnaround, and the feedback from her colleagues was overwhelmingly positive.

The lone ranger

Try as you might, you can't force anyone to be your friend or to like you. In fact, trying too hard is likely to earn more enemies than friends. Still, when you don't fit in, you can't help but feel dejected.

Michael Soon Lee, author of "Cross-Cultural Selling for Dummies," has often found himself the odd man out because of his ethnicity. He's found that being an Asian-American male in predominantly white workplaces often set him apart from everyone on day one.

"It's a lot of work sometimes, but I've found that the key to fitting in is to make people feel comfortable around me," Lee says. "I know if they are, I will feel comfortable around them."

After years of struggling to fit in, he's developed some methods for forming good relationships between himself and his colleagues. Here are some tips he's garnered:

Do some cultural anthropology

Lee realizes that part of fitting in to his surroundings comes from observation. He studies the company culture for clues on how to adapt. "How do people dress and how formally or informally do people interact with each other? Then I mirror the culture but still try to maintain my own sense of uniqueness because I feel strongly that this has led to my success over the years."

Boost an ego

Rather than wait for someone to befriend him, Lee makes the first move when he's new on the job. He suggests inviting someone to sit with you at lunch or participating in some social activities.

"I make them the center of attention by asking questions about them. Again, this helps to break barriers and they think I'm a fabulous conversationalist because I engage them in their favorite topic ... them."

Be flexible

Lee knows that his direct, high-energy work style isn't suitable for everyone, so he does his best to accommodate other people. "I try to be aware of other's work styles, which may be more indirect, subtle and detail oriented, and [I] endeavor to interact with them in their preferred mode."

Give credit

"I make an effort to share my success with my team regardless of the amount of their contribution. After all, no one can be successful alone," Lee says.

Copyright CareerBuilder.com 2009. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority

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