How Employees Behave When They Don’t Fit In At Work

Steve Jobs famously strived to fill Apple with the misfits and rebels that don’t belong in their existing organizations.  For many of us however, jumping ship may not be an option when we don’t fit in with our current employer.  A study from a few years ago highlighted the damage this can cause.

It resulted in unhappy employees who were reluctant to do anything above and beyond their basic job description.  Indeed, the disengagement often resulted in employees leaving the company.

This work has been built upon by a recent study from researchers at the London School of Economics, which explored how we respond when we don’t fit in at work.  The study investigated workplaces in both the UK and US across a number of industries and occupations, with an understandable variation in how people tend to respond to not fitting in.

Becoming misfits

Cultural misalignment occurs in a number of circumstances.  For instance, new co-workers or managers might join a team, or the company could be restructured.  Cultures and practices within the organization could be explicitly changed such that the organization no longer reflects that which they originally joined.  Sometimes these differences were overtly identified by a colleague or a manger, whether in terms of the employee’s personality or their performance distinguishing them from the group.

Respondents did however reveal a more nuanced perspective than a simple in/out perspective on cultural fit.  Most revealed that even when they didn’t experience good fit in some parts of their work, they did in others.  For instance, they might have poor relationships with a boss or colleagues, but good fit with their jobs.  It’s a state that is largely subject to ongoing change.

When people experienced this disconnect, they tended to respond in one of three ways:

  • Resolution – this strategy tends to play out in a number of ways, with leaving the job an option that was usually considered, but then discarded as undesirable.  Instead, people would attempt to change their environment or themselves.
  • Relief-seeking – these strategies tend to be defensive in nature and are primarily aimed at mitigating the negative feelings that emerge from not fitting in.  They seldom tackle the root causes.
  • Resignation – the final strategy was deployed when the previous two had failed.  Resignation isn’t necessarily actually leaving a post, but rather becoming resigned to the situation.  This manifested itself in either distancing oneself from the environment, or taking pride in being a misfit.  Nonetheless, many of the employees who fell into this camp did leave eventually.

The authors remind us however that fitting in is certainly not easy, with many people having to make a concerted effort to do so that requires equal parts reflection, adaptation and persistence.  The authors hope that their findings will help to inform managers of the challenges undertaken in order to fit in, and to help that process along whenever possible.

“We suggest engaging employees by encouraging them to voice their concerns,” the researchers say. “This may resolve their feelings of misfit in the same way that encouraging authentic self-expression in newcomers improves retention.”