The business world is fantastic. It's also challenging. Over the course of your career, you'll face ethical, cultural, political, and personal dilemmas in the workplace. You'll work with difficult people. You'll find yourself in compromising situations. You'll have to balance who you are as an individual with what your employer asks of you.
Can you stay true to who you are without sacrificing your success? Absolutely YES.
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Culture Shock

Culture Shock In The Workplace:
What To Do When It’s Not A Good Fit

“One of these things is not like the other…”
Why was that so much more fun on Sesame Street? 

It’s sometimes hard to admit, but no one wants to feel that they don’t belong.  Whether you’re a teenager on the outs with the popular crowd or an adult struggling to find common interests with neighbors at a block party, isolation is uncomfortable.   

That’s not to say that people don’t intrinsically want to be unique.  We just also want to fit in with others, to varying degrees.  In our society, we’re wired to cultivate relationships with people we relate to, understand, and enjoy. 

In the workplace, our sense of belonging is driven primarily by our “fit” with a company’s culture.   Workplace culture evolves based on the values, characteristics and behaviors that are most prevalent and encouraged in a company.  It’s the tacit set of rules for working together that define what is acceptable, vs. disruptive, in the workplace.  When your personal preferences align with those of your employer, you’re likely to thrive.  When that’s not the case, it feels like it’s just not a good fit.
What do you do if you're not sure you fit with your employer's culture?

Is This The Culture For You?

Culture in the workplace is a study in contrasts.  This isn’t a surprise given that every individual in the organization brings their own unique perspective.  Cultures form over time based on the preferences of those in positions of power, both formal and informal.  One culture may be visionary, fast-paced, and collaborative.  Another culture may be formal, structured, and competitive.  Communications may be open and honest, or limited and misleading.  Leaders may be engaged and inspiring, or distant and disappointing.

So how do you know if your workplace isn’t a natural fit for you?  One way is if you often feel like you simply don’t belong.  You’re a fish swimming upstream most days.  You think, talk, and act differently than others.  Your perspective isn’t embraced.  You don’t feel valued or appreciated.  You find that decisions don’t make sense to you.  You frequently ask “What?!?” or “Why?” when you’re given new direction.

The good news is that you can make almost any environment work for you.  As with any relationship, you have to compromise and adapt in your relationship with your employer.  The key is to compromise in only certain areas, holding firm on others that matter most to you.  You can find your way to a sense of belonging, even in companies where you currently think you can’t. 

Your first step is to determine whether it’s worth the effort to stay.  Consider these three questions.
Are there elements of the culture that work for you?
It’s very easy to focus on what’s wrong in any situation.  Invest time in identifying what works.  In most workplace environments, you can find elements that are positive for you.  It may be the people you work with, the flexibility of your hours, or your compensation.  Consider all the positives. 
What matters most to you? How do those things rate?
When you think about what’s most important to you as an individual, it generally speaks to what matters most to you in the workplace.  Your unique core values (such as honesty, respect, or fairness) are important in both your life and your work.  Other things change over time based on your life circumstance, such as the need for flexibility to support your family or professional development opportunities to advance your career.  Take stock of what matters most to you today.  Once you’ve got your highest priorities identified, evaluate your employer on each of them.
Can you do good work without compromise to your safety, ethics or values?
 In some ways, this should be the first question you ask yourself.   It’s tricky, because it isn’t always black and white to answer.  Once you’ve thought through the other questions, though, this one becomes easier to answer.   
If you can’t find positive elements associated with your workplace, particularly in areas that matter most to you, finding a long-term fit is unlikely.   You may need to make another choice and take fresh insight with you as you consider your options.  After all, you don’t want to remain in a situation where you find yourself eating your soul for breakfast.  One the other hand, if you’re able to find positives in your current workplace, it’s likely worth trying to make the culture work for you. 

Here’s how to cultivate a sense of belonging and fit in a workplace where it doesn’t come naturally.

     1.  Keep your perspective.

You spend an awful lot of time at work.  It’s easy to let challenges from work consume you.  Over the course of your career, you’ll have jobs that fit you perfectly and others where you feel disjointed to some degree.  Part of keeping your perspective is recognizing that this is not your life, this is your job.  If you do the best work you can do, given the environment you find yourself in, you’ve done enough.  Be a force for change where it makes sense, but remember that not everything and everyone needs to be as you’d like it to be for it to be okay.  This is something I continue to work on every day.

     2.  Focus on the positive.

Several popular books from leading researchers assert that the quality of your life largely depends on what you choose to pay attention to and how you choose to do it. The theory is that you can change your life by adjusting your focus.  Change your mind, change your life.  I'm a believer.  I'm not expert in practice by any means, but I've survived very challenging workplace environments by choosing to focus on things within my control that mattered to me.  It's a strategy that works.

3.  Adapt where possible.

Perspective and positivity aside, sometimes you just have to adapt.  This is about compromising your view of the perfect culture.  You’ll be amazed at how small changes in your behavior can create drastically different outcomes.  Force yourself to slow down or speed up to match the pace of the environment.  Change your work habits or adapt your communications to align as best you can.  Adjust your expectations of leaders and co-workers.  Pick and choose where you adjust, but push yourself.  You'll be surprised to see how well you can adapt - once you accept that it’s needed and just begin.  Fitting in is sometimes more about making an effort than it is about reaching true alignment.

      4.  Don’t take anything personally.

In his book “The Four Agreements,” Don Miguel Ruiz outlines four guiding principles that can change lives.  Agreement #2 is my favorite:  Don’t Take Anything Personally.  This sounds easy enough, but it isn’t.  It’s actually quite difficult.  That said, it is invaluable to surviving in a culture where you don’t naturally align.  When you don’t fit well within a culture, every disagreement or difference starts to feel magnified to you.  It feels like it’s personal and directed toward you.  In reality, it isn’t at all personal, even when it plays out in a very personal way.  Do good work, make good decisions, behave respectfully, and ignore the rest.  When you stop taking it all personally, it feels far less personal… and much more tolerable.


Some people believe that finding a sense of belonging or fit in a workplace culture is about everyone getting along.  You’ll rarely find an environment where everyone gets along.  Frankly, it’s counter-productive to a business doing its best work.  One of my favorite quotes on this topic comes from the movie “Mars Attacks!” (Sidebar:  This is perhaps one of the worst movies ever made, but the quote is priceless.)  In a speech to invading Martians, Jack Nicholson, acting as President of the United States, says:   “Why can’t we work out our differences?  Why can’t we work things out?  Little people, why can’t we all just get along?”  The Martians kill him a mere five seconds later.  My point? Don’t worry about getting along.  It just makes you a target for others who don’t consider it important. 

Keep your perspective and focus on the positives.  Adapt where you can and do your best work.  Don’t take anything personally.  Before you know it, you may just find that your culture fits well enough.  At least for now.

My best to you.