I learned something about myself this weekend as I was thinking about what it means to "fit in." Actually, I was thinking about organizational cultures and the expectations of those cultures. How new people learn most of the written rules but no one thinks about sharing the unwritten rules because they're familiar with them and they just don't think to forewarn. I suppose in some situations such lack of sharing can be malicious, but I'm confident that has not been the case in my workplace.
I know that in my prior job, it was easy to forget certain things that new folks hadn't yet lived with. Until they slammed into some glass wall or tripped over an unseen wire. Some of those unintended consequences are more painful, difficult, humiliating, frustrating (you get the idea) than others. Some are simply inadvertent oversights.
Folks who are fairly new in a place (and I'm not sure when "new" is no longer "new") often learn about cultural expectations for behavior the hard way. Those are the unwritten rules. In my current work situation, I seem to have muddled my way into several of those unwritten rules and I have, as you can imagine, experienced a bit of frustration about not knowing that rule, about not understanding that rule. That frustration has occasionally contributed to a sense of just not fitting in, of not knowing how to fit in. And I've not cared for that 9th grade flashback of watching the circle of kids slowly close just as I was approaching. Insidiously subtle, painfully clear.
Now I'm not saying I've experienced an insidious or painful shut-out because I haven't. But the feeling of not fitting in forced me to think about my own expectations and to question what behavioral expectations I'd projected on my workplace and my colleagues. And I realized that some of the frustration I've experienced, which has peripheral or marginal association to corporate cultural, served to amplify my sense of not fitting in and quite probably, possibly (I hope) in misinterpreted ways.
So then I found myself wondering how to find my way back to my comfort zone. But then I started wondering how far beyond my comfort zone I might go before I felt uncomfortable and if this sense of not fitting in was that marker. Or do I feel like I don't fit in, do I feel uncomfortable for other reasons (probably) and how many of those are of my own making because I tried to project or impose a particular cultural organizational behavior or expectations that had little or no chance of being met.
What I've learned, I think, is that I probably feel like an outsider yet precisely because I'd interpreted a particular corporate culture and kept insisting in my head that what I imagined was the intended corporate culture, that the reason I've been banging into glass walls is because I keep erecting them and then, like a squirrel burying nuts for the winter, forgetting where I'd put those walls or, even worse, not even realizing I'd built them. Then I'd get ticked off at a bunch of other people who had nothing to do with the glass walls.
I have no actual answers to anything, just musings. So I'll continue to think about what it means to fit in, what it means to try to be a change agent and how that can work but doesn't always work the same way in different places, how far one can get beyond one's comfort zone before being really uncomfortable, what it means to misinterpret a corporate culture, and what happens when unreasonable and inaccurate expectations are made on a corporate culture that isn't even aware of the expectations.
Oh, just for the record: "fitting in" does not mean "conformity," but it does mean being able to work within the corporate culture without succumbing to that which ails it.