The Sensational Shift with Susan Bernstein, MBA, PhD
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Feel Like a “Square Peg in a Round Hole” at Work? Here’s the Unexpected Upside

square peg in a round holeMmm, you know the warm and fuzzy feeling of a big wool sweater surrounding you in the winter? It makes you feel safe and welcome and supported.

And, at work, you probably crave the  the same feelings — safety, welcome. and support. It’s good to have buddies or colleagues who understand and appreciate you, right?

So when you don’t feel like you fit in at your job, that hurts. It’s like a bad-fitting sweater. You have to constantly tug at it to cover you. You can’t just relax in it like you used to. Sigh…

It’s like this…

“I just don’t fit in at work anymore,” Kathy confided in me.

“Why not?” I asked this marketing manager for a company that she joined when it was a startup of 50 people. Two and a half years later, it’s now a publicly traded company with 5000 employees.

“I seem to have all kinds of ideas that get taken the wrong way. It’s like I rub my co-workers the wrong way. I don’t get invited to lunch as much as I used to. I feel like an outcast. What’s going on? What do I do?”

Did you used to feel like part of the group at work? Maybe now you feel left out or like a misfit, like Kathy? You miss the cheerful greetings when you walk in the door. You long for the shouts of “way to go” appreciation you used to get on projects. You yearn for the days when your manager used to sing your praises, because now, you feel anxious as you constantly watch your back.

This feeling of being a misfit — a “square peg in a round hole”? It’s painful. But not permanent. If you take action as soon as soon after you start feeling left out, you’ll return to that uplifting feeling of inclusion and support.

I care about you and your work well-being. So I’ve laid out four reasons why feeling like a misfit for more than a short period can actually be a positive wake-up call. And, to support you, I’ve got a prescription for what to do in each case.

(1) You’ve outgrown your work

If you’re constantly sharing ideas and having them shot down, or you’re no longer part of the group, you may have milked all that you can from your current role.

Jobs don’t come with expiration dates, like bottles of milk. It’s up to you to know when the learning and challenges are growing stale. Best to recognized the shifts as early as possible.

Dr. Susan’s Recommended Prescription:  If you’re feeling like you know more or have lots more experience than most of your peers, it’s probably time for you to move on. Keep your chin up and start looking for a new role.

(2) A reorganization has shifted things

When companies change up the organizational chart, they’re shifting the structure of the company. And that has serious repercussions. Because structures shape us.

If the structure of the organization makes it more difficult for you to contribute your talents and wisdom, you’ll feel stifled and shunned. That’s a recipe for depression. So take the misfit feeling as a serious warning sign.

Dr. Susan’s Recommended Prescription:  Keep valuing yourself. And either find a new, more permissive place to fit in the structure, or find a new organization where you can contribute.

(3) Your company culture is in flux

If you started your job at a company and stayed for a while, the organization has likely matured. And as companies get older, practices get codified. Rules and regulations take hold. And cultural norms get set.

Where once it was fine to be your free-flowing. creative, quirky self, if you’re now noticing (or being told) that your way of doing things is looser and less formal, you’re catching a whiff of “re-org fever.” You also might be feeling like a Traveler in a Tourist culture.

Like a deflating balloon, the creative energy starts to flow out when most cultures mature. Of course, that’s not your fault. But unless you crave a defined box to play in, you’ll want to find a place that celebrates your differences.

Dr. Susan’s Recommended Prescription:  
Take a deep breath and plan a career development conversation with your manager. Ask your manager about your most valuable traits.

If your manager describes things about you that seem off-the-mark from what makes you tick, ask about how you can contribute in a new way that has value. That’s often about talking about the bottom-line results you can create, rather than the process you use for creating those results.

But if things really feel too confining, let’s be honest. It’s probably time to start looking for work elsewhere. 

(4) A bully is at work

Ever worked somewhere with a person who loved to shoot down or poke holes in your ideas? Or who criticized your most meaningful contributions? You’re dealing with a bully. That person is operating out of envy.

Instead of channeling his or her resentment into improving their job, the bully acts out like a teenager and creates havoc. And you’re an unfortunate recipient. The bully may play tricks like creating cliques or telling mistruths about you. Ugh!

Dr. Susan’s Recommended Prescription:  Uncomfortable as it may be, If you can confidently confront the bully about his or her behavior, and ask what’s happening, you may be able to head off the situation.

Otherwise, consider talking to HR or an employment lawyer.

Should things seem intolerable, I suggest you get out before your self-esteem takes an unnecessary beating.

Are You a Misfit — or Maverick?

If you’re telling yourself that you’re a “misfit” or a “square peg in a round hole” or someone who “doesn’t belong,” stop! You do fit somewhere. But your current workplace may no longer fit you. So it’s time to see the bigger landscape of where to contribute your talents.

Take the time to check out with your manager how you can make your biggest contribution and be your authentic self. You might find out that something about your quirkiness is upsetting to others.

Like you tend to yell when you get passionate. That’s fixable. Or you describe your ideas in super creative ways that confuse people. You can learn how to tell stories that others understand. 

But if you get an unsatisfying answer (like “could you please be more like everyone else?”), please take it with a grain of salt.

Sure, some companies need you to play by their rules. They are just at a different stage than you. Your uniqueness does have value — to an organization at the right stage, with the right needs that match your talents and personality.

Instead of thinking of yourself as a misfit, what if you imagine that you’re a maverick? What if you’re ahead of the curve on creativity, imagination, and quirkiness? What kind of an organization needs your leadership? What kind of a manager would value the big picture that you can see?

Maybe, just maybe, you’re a pioneer, someone who is further evolved in your ideas than the people around you.

You don’t need to put them down or resent them.

You do need to build yourself up, regain your confidence, and reposition your out-of-the-box, bold, unorthodox ways of doing things. That way, you’re making your biggest contribution. And the gifts you have to give will fit in the right kinds of companies — and with the right kinds of people — who can value them.

Next steps

If you’re a smart, highly accomplished professional who is feeling like you’re a misfit, what are you doing to build back your confidence and reposition yourself for your next career move?

I’d love to help you. Apply for a complimentary career consultationand we’ll get you into work that truly fits you…and where you fit in, too.

One Response to “Feel Like a “Square Peg in a Round Hole” at Work? Here’s the Unexpected Upside”

  1. Lily says:

    Wow, again, I love everything about this post. Thanks!

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