Fitting in v. Belonging

In your team, do you feel like you fit in? Do you have a feeling of belonging?

These are very different questions.[2] When I fit in, it’s because everyone is sufficiently alike. We have inside jokes, TV shows or sports we talk about, opinions we share and common targets of ridicule. New people can fit in by adopting these opinions and following these sports.

When I belong, it’s because everyone wants me to be there, because the group wouldn’t be the same without me. We value each other for our differences. We have values that we share, and opinions we discuss. New people are integrated as we come to know and appreciate each other.

“Fitting in,” that superficial team culture of common interests and inside jokes, is much easier to establish. And it’s easier to hire for, because we can base choices on appearances and social cues. Hoodies and quotes from The Princess Bride. But it doesn’t get us a strong team. On a strong team, people share ideas, they pull from their varied perspectives, they emphasize their differences because that’s their unique contribution. This weaving together of various strengths, respect for the unexpected — this is how a team can be stronger than its parts, this is where novel solutions come from. It emerges from feelings of belonging, which come from the group’s deeper culture. That’s much harder to establish.

On a wholehearted team, we show up as our whole selves and put all our creativity into the team’s goals. How can we achieve this? Hire for value fit, not culture fit. Don’t settle for the comfort of “fitting in” – aim for the safety of belonging.

I had this kind of team at my last job, at Outpace. We loved each other as people and respected each other as developers. And this was a remote team – we didn’t fall back on physical proximity as appearance of teamwork. We shared goals, discussed them and evolved them. We shared our frustrations, both work and personal. When opinions clashed, we asked why, and learned. On this team, I explored ideas like the sea map. We grew individually and together.

That feeling of belonging makes it safe to express ideas and to run with them. And to take ideas from others and expand on them. Poof: innovation. Without that feeling of belonging, when the aim is to fit in, we express agreement with dominant voices.[1] Superficial cultural fit actively represses new ideas.

How can we move our teams toward a greater sense of belonging? Ask people about their interests that you don’t share. Respect each person’s experiences and opinions, especially when these are unique among the group. Instead of “We all agree, so we must be right,” say, “We all agree. This is dangerous; can we find another view?” When pair programming, if you think your pair has the wrong idea, try it anyway. When someone says something dumb, their perspective differs; respond with curiosity, not judgement. Cherish our differences, not superficial similarities. Sacrifice the comfort of fitting in for the safety to be ourselves.


[1] Research has shown that teams of similar-looking people emphasize similarities. They’re driven toward groupthink, quiet silencing of dissent. When someone breaks the uniformity, the not-obviously-different people starts expressing the parts of them that are unique. (I can’t find the reference, anyone know it?)

[2] The dichotomy between fitting-in and belonging comes from Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly.

Accidental vs Deliberate Context

In all decisions, we bring our context with us. Layers of context, from what we read about that morning to who our heroes were growing up. We don’t realize how much context we assume in our communications, and in our code.

One time I taught someone how to make the Baby Vampire face. It involves poking out both corners of my lower lip, so they stick up like poky gums. Very silly. To my surprise, the person couldn’t do it. They could only poke one side of the lower lip out at a time.

Turns out, few outside my family can make this face. My mom can do it, my sister can do it, my daughters can do it – so it came as a complete surprise to me when someone couldn’t. There is a lip-flexibility that’s part of my context, always has been, and I didn’t even realize it.

Another time, I worked with a bunch of biologists. Molecular biology is harder than any business domain I’ve encountered. The biologists talked fluently amongst themselves about phylogenies and BLAST and PTAM and heterology and I’m making this up now. They shared all this context, and it startled them when developers were dumbfounded by the quantity of it.

Shared context is fantastic for communication. The biologists spoke amongst themselves at a higher level than with others. Unshared context, when I don’t realize I’m drawing on a piece others don’t share, is a disaster for communication. On the other hand, if I can draw on context that others don’t have, and I can explain it, then I add a source of information and naming to the team.

In teams, it’s tempting to form shared context around coincidental similarities. The shows we watched growing up, the movies we like, the beer we drink. The culture we all grew up in, the culture we are now immersed in. It gives us a feeling of belonging and connection, shared metaphors to communicate in. It’s much easier than communicating with someone from a different culture. There, we have no idea how many assumptions we’re making, how much unshared context there is.

Building a team around incidental shared context is cheating. It keeps all the worst of context: the assumptions we don’t know we’re making. It deprives us of the best of unshared context: the stock of models and ideas and values that one person alone can’t hold.

Instead, build a deliberate shared context. Like the biologists have: a context around the business domain, the programming language we use, the coding styles and conventions that make the work flow, that make the code comprehensible. Team culture is important; we should understand each others’ code through a shared context that’s created deliberately.

Eschew incidental shared context by aiming for a diverse team. Create consciously a context that’s conducive to the work.