Being Yourself at Work: Choosing Belonging Over Fitting In

The power of choosing authenticity over conforming to group norms.

Posted Aug 28, 2020

Photo by Joseph Pearson on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Joseph Pearson on Unsplash

Fitting In vs. Belonging 

When done intentionally, belonging is a spiritual practice, a stamp of authenticity, inviting you to sit within yourself and be. It is awash with personal values, an alignment of actions and beliefs (Hooks, 1996).

Fitting in, on the other hand, is a verb. It is precarious and on the move, a target that changes depending on the company and climate. Research shows that where you fall on the belonging to fitting in continuum is largely an outgrowth of your groups’ cultural norms (Brown, 2018).

Forced to Fit In: Groups That Stagnate and Stifle

Groups with narrow and tightly enforced norms create a fitting in culture. There are often unwritten rules regarding belief structures and agreements on who the “good people” are and who to watch out for. Straddling diverse social groups is discouraged and a framework of us vs. them is clearly established. 

Cohesion in fitting in cultures is often nurtured by liking and hating the same people and standing lockstep when considering what projects to support, what curriculum to teach, and what protocols to follow. Such cultures, according to Brene Brown (2018), share Common Enemy Intimacy, in which groups build inner membership cohesion by jointly targeting, disparaging, and excluding individuals with divergent ideas. 

Since camaraderie within fitting in cultures is built upon disliking the same people, dissenting opinions are rarely tolerated and group-think is rampant, stifling original thought and innovation. Research shows that some people possess a higher need to belong than others, placing them at greater risk for conforming to group expectations even when those expectations conflict with their own personal values (Eck, Schoel, & Greifeneder, 2017;  Beekman, Stock, & Marcus, 2016). 

Inside fitting in cultures, employees are often forced to decide if they will conform or open themselves up to be targeted. These all or nothing decisions tend to extinguish employees’ diversity in thought, actions, and relationships and hamper the organizations’ ability to move forward and promote its mission. 

Big Tent Belonging: Groups That Question and Create

Contrary to fitting in cultures, some organizations cultivate an environment I describe as Big Tent Belonging. Such places emanate psychological safety. Psychological safety, according to Edmondson (2019), a professor at the Harvard Business School, “is broadly defined as a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. More specifically, when people have psychological safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. They are confident that they can speak up and won't be humiliated, ignored, or blamed.” 

A common misconception is that psychological safety is about being polite, nice, and agreeable. Quite the opposite, psychological safety requires employees to use candor, give justice to injustices, and engage in difficult conversations. This daring work is only possible in organizational cultures that value and practice honesty, authenticity, and creative problem-solving.

Cultures that invite their employees to show up as their full-hearted self encourage diverse ideas and opinions, and establish a foundation built atop trust and care. Inside these safe spaces, employees get comfortable being uncomfortable and learn to seek out and learn from criticism (McClure & Brown, 2008). In other words, if a culture practices “high care,” they create an environment that encourages and accepts “high criticism.” Interestingly, as reported by Rozovsky (2015), People Operation Leader at Google, the most predictive characteristic of successful teams is psychological safety. Additional traits include dependability, clear plans and goals, engagement in meaningful work, and the ability to impact change. 

Leaders Who Resist Big Tents in Favor of Fitting In 

Organizational leaders are largely responsible for drafting and enforcing group norms. Brene Brown’s (2018) research, documented in her book Dare to Lead: Brave Heart. Tough Conversations. Whole Heart., identified specific institutional behaviors, passed down from leadership, that extinguish psychological safety and incite innovation paralyzation. 

Such organizations are often headed by leaders who avoid tough conversations, resulting in them spending an inordinate amount of time smoothing over and covering up issues, as opposed to, addressing the underlying cause. They often opt out of critical conversations and instead enact solutions that are rushed and misinformed, ultimately exasperating the problem. 

Leaders who insist on employees fitting in, focus on perfecting their image, and evaluating their success according to aspirations instead of concrete behaviors and data. These leaders often insist on strict hierarchies that discourage dissent and result in diminished safety and trust. 

When problems do arise, fitting in leaders search for someone to blame, shame, and defame (Francioli et al., 2018). In contrast, leaders who put up a Big Tent of Belonging encourage employees to work across diverse groups, share original ideas, point out discrepancies and mistakes, operate beyond their established roles, and dare to take the intellectual risks necessary to create and innovate.

Do I Belong Here? Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Deciding to leave a job charges one to grapple with intense feelings of confusion, anger, grief, and loss. At the ground floor of these emotions sits the nagging question, “Do I belong here?” Though there are no easy answers to this internal inquisition, there are guideposts that may help to lead the way (Singh, Shaffer, & Selvarajan, 2018). Four questions can help scaffold the discernment process:

  1. Does this job allow me to show up as my full self and live into my values? In other words, can I openly express my ideas without fear of rebuke and retaliation (Brown, 2017)?
  2. In this space, do I feel that I am expanding my skill set, perspectives, and expertise, or does this organizational culture make me grow progressively more silent and small (Edmondson, 2019)?
  3. Do I leave my work most days energized or does this work culture negatively impact my personal life manifesting in health problems, psychological suffering, and the inability to engage joyfully in outside relationships (Hershcovis, Ogunfowora, Reich, & Christie, 2017; Liu, Kwan, Lee, & Hui, 2013)?
  4. Finally, instead of asking, “How do I make this job work?” Try asking, “What do I most want to accomplish in this world?” “Followed by, “Is this organization the best place for me to do that work?”

In closing, I think Bell Hooks (1996) says it best, “I want there to be a place in the world where people can engage in one another’s differences in a way that is redemptive, full of hope and possibility. Not this ‘In order to love you, I must make you something else.’ That’s what domination is all about, that in order to be close to you, I must possess you, remake and recast you.” In other words, in its truest sense, belonging invites you to launch your own audition and cast yourself in an authentic role that values and develops your character.


Beekman, J. B., Stock, M. L., & Marcus, T. (2016). Need to belong, not rejection sensitivity, moderates cortisol response, self-reported stress, and negative affect following social exclusion. The Journal of Social Psychology, 156(2), 131–8.


Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work, tough conversations, whole hearts. New York: Random House. 


Brown, B. (2017). Braving the wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. New York: Random House.

Eck, J., Schoel, C., & Greifeneder, R. (2017). Belonging to a majority reduces the immediate need threat from ostracism in individuals with a high need to belong: Ostracism, majority, need threat. European Journal of Social Psychology, 47(3), 273–288.


Edmondson, A. C. (2019). The fearless organization: creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. 


Edmondson, A. C. (2013). Teaming to innovate. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.


Francioli, L., Conway, P. M., Holten, A.-L., Hogh, A., Hansen, A. M., Grynderup, M. B., Persson, R., Mikkelsen, E.G., Costa, G. (2018). Quality of leadership and workplace bullying: The mediating role of social community at work in a two-year follow-up study. Journal of Business Ethics, 147(4), 889–899.


Hershcovis, M. S., Ogunfowora, B., Reich, T. C., & Christie, A. M. (2017). Targeted workplace incivility: The roles of belongingness, embarrassment, and power. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38(7), 1057–1075.


Hooks, B. (1996). Reel to real: Race, sex, and class at the movies. New York: Routledge.


Liu, J., Kwan, H. K., Lee, C., & Hui, C. (2013). Work-to-family spillover effects of workplace ostracism: The role of work-home segmentation preferences. Human Resource Management, 52(1), 75–93. 


McClure, J., & Brown, J. (2008). Belonging at work. Human Resource Development International, 11(1), 3–17.


Rozovsky, J. “The five keys to a successful Google team.” re:Work Blog. November 17, 2015. Accessed August 28, 2020.


Singh, B., Shaffer, M. A., & Selvarajan, T. T. (2018). Antecedents of organizational and community embeddedness: The roles of support, psychological safety, and need to belong. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 39(3), 339–354.