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When You’re the “Other” at Work

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The-Other-at-Work

It’s easy to feel alone and alienated when you don’t fit in at your workplace. But executive coach Roshini Rajkumar believes that difference can be a strength.

Expert Source: Roshini Rajkumar, business communication coach, host of News and Views With Roshini Rajkumar on CBS Radio Minneapolis, and author of Communicate That!

No one likes being the odd person out. And in the workplace, where fitting in can mean the difference between success and failure, outsider status is especially stressful.

Being the only one of your kind (person of color, gay, older, younger, female, male, etc.), you might be tempted to pretend your difference doesn’t matter, or to overcompensate in order to fit in. Either of these tactics can be an additional source of stress and discomfort.

Depending on the workplace, you might also feel excluded from coworker camaraderie, or even find yourself the target of insensitive remarks or outright stereotyping. It can be hard to know how to handle these challenges and still remain professional — all while doing your best at the job you were hired to do.

Different groups will face different biases in the workplace, says executive coach Roshini Rajkumar, depending on a number of factors — history, office culture, and the values of that particular group. But everyone has probably felt like the “other” at some time in his or her working life. This is true even if the “otherness” was just being a new hire.

Rajkumar’s coaching often addresses workplace-culture issues, and she shares some tips to help you turn your status as “the exception” into exceptional strength.

Challenges to Overcome

  • Feeling helpless. Being in the minority can be paralyzing. “You may feel that there’s no safe place to ask questions, air grievances, or otherwise get your bearings,” Rajkumar says. You might worry that if you show confusion or ask too many questions, you will play into whatever prejudices others may have. This can lead to a tendency to isolate yourself. The tragedy, she adds, is that this keeps you from reaching out and “doesn’t allow you to add your rich texture to the work environment.”
  • The quota question. “You may feel that you’re only in your job because you’re filling some kind of quota,” she notes. Under these circumstances, you may also be concerned that your work will never be taken seriously, or you’re not really a full member of the team.
  • A sense of scrutiny. You may feel you’re under a microscope, “with everything you’re doing being questioned,” Rajkumar says. Doubts about whether you’re being fairly evaluated can keep you on edge.
  • Mismatched social interests. In most organizations, socializing after work is an important part of bonding with your colleagues. “But if you’re feeling your ‘otherness,’” Rajkumar says, “you may be hesitant to invite others out or invite yourself along.” What’s more, she adds, you might feel like a cultural misfit at the sports bar (or juice bar) where your colleagues like to hang out.
  • Insensitive remarks. Even people with good intentions will make thoughtless remarks from time to time (“Wow, you don’t look that old,” for example, or “You’re good at that — for a woman!”). It might seem like a compliment to the speaker, but probably not to the receiver.
  • Resentment. Biased remarks can easily make you feel resentful, Rajkumar admits, but stewing silently or expressing heated anger is counterproductive in the workplace. Not only will you feel awful, but you’ll likely put the other person into fight-or-flight mode, making a clear-headed discussion almost impossible.

Strategies for Success

  • Bond with other “outsiders.” Even if there’s nobody who shares your particular identity, Rajkumar says, there are bound to be others in your workplace who feel they don’t belong in some way. Build friendships with them, she suggests. As you begin to relax and feel connected to someone at work, it will become easier to expand your circle.
  • Share your unique strengths. Rajkumar recommends reminding yourself of your strengths and gifts (whether it’s the wisdom of age, the energy of youth, the pragmatism of humble means, or even the insight of being on the margin), and bringing them confidently into the workplace. “I’m a Sri Lankan American,” she notes. “I’m very American, but I also try to bring to work an Eastern sense that there are many paths to the solution of a problem, and all paths are worthy of respect. If I don’t bring that with me, I can’t show my best self at work.”
  • Take a moment to pause. “If somebody says something offensive, the first and most important thing to do is pause,” she advises. “Breathe deeply and keep a calm, comfortable presence.” When you make time to collect yourself, you can be assertive without being confrontational. This doesn’t mean you can’t take a problem to HR when appropriate. Pausing simply allows you to get through a tough moment without escalating the situation, which could be damaging to you.
  • Turn awkward moments into opportunities. If you’re feeling especially grounded, Rajkumar suggests turning an offensive remark into a chance to educate your colleague. You might say something like this: “I know some people hold that view of us, but I’m very proud to be Asian, and very aware of the contributions we make.” Then let the person know you’re sincerely interested in learning why he holds that particular view. You might be the first person to ever ask him.
  • Know your audience. Being effective builds confidence, Rajkumar notes, and effective communication depends on knowing the values of your audience. This is true whether it’s one person or many. “If you’re talking to a data-driven person or group, use data rather than emotion to convey your perspective,” she explains. “If it’s a group that responds to humor, show your sense of humor.” Your intention belongs to you, but your “performance, how you convey your intention, is about the audience.”
  • Remember why you’re here. Stay focused on your intentions. Make it your goal to contribute your unique perspective to this workplace, she advises. You can always adjust how you perform that intention to fit the audience and the job. When you keep this distinction between intending to offer your perspective and being willing to adjust your performance, she says, you can maintain your integrity while doing your job well. Then you’ll be exceptional in more ways than one.

Illustration by James Yang

Jon Spayde is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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