It’s important to ‘fit in’

By Angelo Kinicki  |  Weatherup/Overby Chair in Leadership

I have been interested in the pros and cons of “fitting in” for many years.

My first memory of not “fitting in” occurred when I was about seven. My father put me on a baseball team composed of eight-and nine-year-old boys. He thought it would help me to become a better player. Was he ever wrong! I was smaller than everyone else and my skills were well behind the other boys. The boys treated me like an outsider and made fun of my abilities. I hated going to practice.

As an adult, I experienced a lack of fit at one of my early positions. I seemed to value things that others did not and I believed that people were behaving in ways that were counterproductive. I was very unhappy, became disengaged and ultimately started applying for other jobs. Some of my colleagues, however, did not feel the same way. They loved the work environment and were very happy with our boss. They could not understand why I didn’t love the job and the environment. This conflicting view of our jobs made me wonder what it means to “fit in.”

The concept of fit is equally important to children, teens and employees. It reflects the extent to which personal characteristics match the characteristics needed or desired in a specific situation. For example, I did not fit in with the other boys when I was seven because my skills were deficient. I also did not fit in my work environment because my values were at odds with those reinforced by my employer.

To “fit in,” our skills need to match the skills required for a particular job, and our values and beliefs must be consistent with the values and beliefs held by others in a group or work setting.

Research supports the importance of fit. We are happier when we “fit in” because we feel a sense of belonging. We also are more likely to develop meaningful friendships because we share values with others in a group.

Fit impacts our performance because our level of engagement and motivation are positively related to our level of fit. When fit is high, so is our engagement and motivation. People also tend to work more cooperatively with others when they feel a sense of fit and belonging.

All told, “fitting in” at work is important to individuals, work groups and organizations as a whole. Let’s consider how you can assess and improve your level of fit.

Begin by evaluating the extent to which your strengths and weaknesses fit with the requirements of your job. You want to answer two questions: (1) Are my strengths being used to perform work I like doing and (2) are my weaknesses impacting the quality of my work? If strengths are not being used, or weaknesses are influencing your performance, you have a lack of fit.

Consider the extent to which your values are aligned with the values that define the organization’s culture. You can do this by writing down your five most important values. Next, look for your employer’s stated values or make your own determination of the values that define what your company stands for. Now evaluate the extent to which the two sets of values are consistent. If they don’t overlap or support each other, you have a lack of fit. For example, if you value teamwork and your employer does not evaluate or reward teamwork, you have a lack of fit.

Use the answers to the above questions to make a plan to improve your level of fit. The first part of the plan should address the role of strengths and weaknesses. Generate ideas for how you might build your strengths into your job. This may entail talking to your boss about ways in which your job can be redesigned or modified. It’s valuable to consider weaknesses in the same manner. Again, I recommend that you have this discussion with your boss.

The plan also has to consider whether you can reconcile any gaps between your values and those held by the company. If the gap is too large, you may need to look for a transfer or a new employer.

When applying for a new job, be sure to assess the same types of fit. This is a bit more difficult because you may not know much about the organization’s culture. You can, however, ask “fit related” questions in the interview. For instance, if you value work/family balance, you might ask “what are the expectations about working nights and weekends” or “can you give me an example of how the company demonstrates support for work/family balance?”

It requires effort, authenticity and a little bit of courage to obtain a good fit but I encourage you to remember the words of Bernard Baruch: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind.”

First published in The Arizona Republic, June 7, 2015.

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