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Misfits and the Three R’s of Fitting in, or Not

Stacy L. Astrove

A round man cannot be expected to fit in a square hole right away. He must have time to modify his shape. Mark Twain (1897)

Round pegs and square holes have been around for a long time, much longer than Mark Twain, in fact. The expression dates back to the moral philosopher Sydney Smith in 1804. So it’s safe to assume that this issue isn’t going away any time soon. And all those round pegs better find a way to sharpen their edges, or smooth the corners of those square holes, or get used to an uncomfortable fit.

Nearly a century of research has explored how people fit into their work environment, but not much attention has been paid to the misfits. These are the workers that Stacy L. Astrove, in the Boler College of Business, and her coauthors Elizabeth H. Follmer, Danielle L. Talbot, Amy L. Kristof-Brown, and Jon Billsberry study in their article “Resolution, Relief, and Resignation: A Qualitative Study of Responses to Misfit at Work,” published in the Academy of Management Journal.

The authors conducted their study in two phases. Phase 1 asked: “How do people become aware of and experience misfit at work?” And Phase 2 asked: “What do people do in response to misfit?” They interviewed 81 workers in the United Kingdom and United States in diverse occupations and industries, ranging from factory workers and accountants to nonprofit managers and research consultants.

The authors found that some workers didn’t even know they were misfits until they were treated that way by their coworkers. Others came to the realization after a new boss or coworker was hired, the company was restructured, or they were awarded a promotion. And for some, the realization was a lot more blunt. One worker discovered she was labeled “a bit of a freak” by coworkers, and another was told her performance was not up to par by her supervisor.

Whereas misfit is painful, good fit equals less stress and more trust, team cohesion, and job satisfaction. When employees don’t fit, they engage in effortful processes to fit. The authors identify the three R’s of fitting in: resolution, relief-seeking, and resignation.

The easiest path to resolution is the one that leads out the door and to a new job. And though this was the first option considered by many, it was often not possible or not desirable. Instead, many workers tried to fix their misfit by changing their environment where others focused on changing themselves. This personal change was often the most effective strategy to fitting in, but it was also a whole lot of work.

Workers who turned to relief-seeking did so to reduce the pain and discomfort of misfit: they couldn’t change the underlying source of misfit, so they attempted to minimize the damage associated with it. Some focused on the positive, like great coworkers or a sense of vocation. And others sought the appearance of fitting in. They adopted the behavior and language of coworkers, living by the mantra “If you can’t take it, fake it.” Of course, this strategy increased stress levels.

When resolution and relief-seeking didn’t work, misfits turned to their last line of defense: resignation. For these workers, resignation took two diametrically opposed forms: distancing themselves and embracing their misfit. Workers either kept their heads down, got to work, and accepted that they were never going to fit in. Or they lifted their chins with pride and embraced what makes them different. Understandably, follow-up interviews revealed that when resigned workers—both dismissing and embracing—were offered the opportunity to leave for a new job, they jumped at it.

Misfits have been around for a few hundred years, and will undoubtedly be around for a few hundred more. But as Mr. Twain notes, though a round man (or woman) cannot fit in a square hole right away, with time and effort, they might just fit in.


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