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Tooling Up: Integrate Yourself

(Javier Avellan Veloz, japi14 on flickr, Creative Commons Attribution license)

Have you ever felt you just don't fit in with your co-workers -- that your interactions with the others in your lab or company leave something to be desired? If that's the case, despite how great a job you've been doing, you need to pay some attention to the forces working against you. Being outside the dominant group in a work environment can have serious effects on your career prospects.

I'm not talking about obvious cases of overt discrimination, where a person is willfully excluded due to their race, culture, or gender. The issues I'll be discussing this month are subtle -- like the shy scientist who doesn't extend herself into social situations in the lab, or the one who doesn't pay much attention to the social "rules" of the group. Both pay a price in the form of lost opportunities

I've learned in my career that success on the job is determined to a great extent by how others perceive us outside our normal job responsibilities.

I've learned in my career that success on the job is determined to a great extent by how others perceive us outside our normal job responsibilities. The people we associate with -- or don't associate with -- at work can have a larger impact on your success than you might expect. In this month's column, I will show how easily this can work against you and discuss some strategies for aligning yourself with the dominant workplace group. Even if you don't fit in well, for whatever reason, it's possible to build a bridge so that you aren't totally "outside."

My experience

In a previous career, I lost out on a great position because I was considered an outsider. One of my first jobs was supporting a world-famous sound engineer, a guy known throughout the classical music recording industry as the master whom all should strive to emulate. His shelf was full of Grammy awards; every year he won new ones for his audio engineering feats.

My problems in that job had nothing to do with my work performance, but everything to do with not fitting in with the people I worked with. Everyone else in my workplace was a classical music buff; they spent their off-hours arguing about which aria was the most beautiful. I was serious about my work, but that kind of conversation wasn't a part of my life. I strove to do my best, but when the day was over I'd leave that conversation behind.

When funding dried up and the company needed to trim its ranks, people who didn't fit this passion-based community were asked to step aside. Since, I've seen this repeated a dozen times, for all sorts of reasons. In this case, passion for the work -- or the appearance of it -- may have been in the underlying cause, but many other factors cause people to be excluded. When choosing whom to promote and whom to lay off, managers consider the group dynamic. Typically, it isn't overt. It may not even be conscious. Insiders stay in, and outsiders are cast (further) out.

When I started thinking about writing this column, I began to ask my business acquaintances for their views on the topic. I found that the issue was much more common than I had realized and seems to affect different people in different ways. Nearly every senior staffer I spoke with had an example from their career where they were perceived as an outsider and suffered consequences.

The in crowd

Janet is a research assistant professor who recently moved out of a frustrating postdoc. Although she was well respected by everyone she worked with, she didn't take part in the Friday afternoon get-togethers in that lab, those frequent, informal "Hey, let's go get a drink after work" events that blur the line between work and personal life. Because she didn't go along, Janet often missed out on important conversations.

"For years, I've worked with people who have seemingly given their entire lives over to the lab," Janet told me recently. "We all put out the same level of work, and were all highly effective at our jobs. But it is frustrating because my colleagues believed that I hadn't matched their commitment level."

"My boss was a part of this group, even though the long hours affected her marriage. I couldn't let that happen to me. I've got a family and a personal life. My 45 to 50 hours a week should suffice, but in reality, there's a 10- to 12-hour difference that separated me from many of my co-workers. They acted as if they were exclusive members of a club that I hadn't been asked to join." Janet left that postdoc about 6 months early.

Dilip, a research scientist at an expanding biotechnology company, told me recently that he had been experiencing the effects of another kind of problem that kept him on the outside. "The founder and the first six employees seem to have separated themselves from everyone else who came afterwards. It is very frustrating. While I have many good ideas to contribute to the effort here, much of the decision-making process goes on in meetings that I always seem to hear about afterwards. I'm often on the outside looking in, wondering what I can do to have more impact around here."

Philip, who is African American, has so far managed to avoid outright racism in his career, but he believes his progress has been stymied in subtle ways mostly unrelated to race. He's an applications scientist for a laboratory products company, one of the company's most effective technical representatives. Most employees in a similar position plan on moving into sales, but not Philip: He wants to enter management. He's literally an outsider, in a contest dominated by insiders.

"I'm not visible in the company because I am out on the road. I really am an outsider, and my competitors for the jobs that I would be interested in are a lot closer to headquarters. I know that there is some pressure on my boss to keep me out in the field. This is due to my performance as well as the fact that there isn't much diversity in his organization. For the most part, however, my lack of upward mobility hasn't been a color issue, it's been a visibility issue."

How to integrate yourself into the team and still be you

Before I dive in, offering advice, there's one more important point I feel I need to make. Some people -- indeed, some very bright and effective people -- just aren't comfortable as part of the in crowd or just aren't willing to make the adjustments necessary to join it. Some people are just born to be mavericks. If that describes you, fine. It's your choice. The important thing is to realize that you're putting yourself at a disadvantage. You'll need to work harder than your colleagues to accomplish as much. The history of technical work includes many accounts of scientists, engineers, and others whose revolutionary contributions did not translate into professional stability or success.

Recently, I read From the Outside In: Seven Strategies for Success When You're Not a Member of the Dominant Group in Your Workplace by Renee Blank and Sandra Slipp. This interesting read is was what led me to finally write about this topic because I found a lot of the authors' advice to be excellent. Here are some suggestions gleaned from this book and from my own experience. These suggestions will be valuable to anyone who is outside the dominant workplace culture.

1) Build Relationships One at a Time. I've always found that the best way to approach a situation where you are outside the dominant group in a company is to take it back to a one-on-one level. Establishing close professional relationships one at a time is the critical first step. The authors suggest that you find a senior member of the group to mentor you and then pay it forward by finding a more junior member to help in the same way.

2) Focus your work on what the group values. Do some self-analysis and recognize where your strengths can best be applied within your work group. Put your efforts into addressing the lab's chief area of interest. Blank and Slipp suggest that outsiders often get utilized for side projects, work that is not as important to the group. You need to work at finding your way into the lab's main areas of interest.

3) Blow Your Horn. The authors of From the Outside In state that it is essential for outsiders to let others know, without bragging, what they have done to contribute to the success of the organization. You must be ready to describe yourself in a minute or two: your area of responsibility, a few carefully chosen words about your accomplishments, and your passion for the central theme of your work group's niche.

In that earlier job, someone close to me had suggested that I try harder to fit in. I didn't pay much attention. I thought that as long as I was doing my job, I would be appreciated. That turned out not to be true.

If there are social or cultural hurdles that separate you from the action, and you'd like to change that, dig in and integrate yourself. Build one-on-one relationships. Concentrate on providing value to the people you work with, and to the organization. And without being obnoxious, make people aware of your contributions to the team's goals. You may not succeed in breaking down those barriers entirely, but the effort you put into it will win respect and a degree of acceptance.

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