“If you don’t feel you fit in, then you’re not going to stay around.”
These were the simple words offered by Tim Shriver at a dropout prevention conference I attended earlier this year. And, while Tim is known for his work with Special Olympics more broadly and specifically with Project UNIFY as it relates to inclusive education, his statement captures something fundamentally human. It applies to teams, schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces. It basically applies wherever more than one person is gathered.
So, what does it mean to fit in?
1. You understand the rules and norms and feel a part of them. Every group, community, or even ad hoc gathering of people has rules and norms that guide and inform its function and purpose. Some are stated. Some are not. Almost all are culturally informed and guided by experiences (or lack thereof) of race, class, gender, physical and intellectual ability, and many other variables. Unless you are explicitly part of creating norms (or at least have the opportunity to understand and accept them explicitly), there’s a good chance you won’t feel a part of them.
2. Your strengths are as present as your weaknesses. You can see and articulate both what value you add to a group and what things you know you need to work on. You receive (and learn how to process) feedback from others accordingly. Alternately, you can identify the strengths of others without jealousy and their weaknesses without judgment.
3. You feel accepted for who you are. You don’t have to be like others, but instead your differences are acknowledged, accepted, and celebrated. Our differences are our common connection. NOTE: Acceptance should not be confused with its committed-but-less-invested cousin tolerance.
4. Your opinions matter. Your opinion does not have to be acted upon or even accepted as correct all the time. You just need to know someone listens to you and shows you that they take what you say seriously, whether they agree with it or not.
5. You have the same opportunities as others around you – opportunities that match your interests and abilities. As I have written before, presenting an opportunity doesn’t make it an opportunity. We all need the support, tools, and pathways to claim opportunities for them to feel like real opportunities to us.
6. You can fail successfully. I really don’t want to pontificate here about how failure is required for success. But, you do need to know you can “fail forward” and understand, and know that others understand, that this is what it means to be human.
7. Your effort is respected even if your outcomes are not perfect. In honor of Tim Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver who coined it, I’ll share the motto of Special Olympics: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
8. You can banter. Banter is something often not understood by someone outside of a group. So, the ability to talk nonsense, laugh at old jokes, verbally spar with others in good fun, and just riff on ideas and conversations can prove that the most meaningless content can generate the most meaningful connections.
So, as leaders, whether we want to retain students in our schools, talented employees in our office, or valued members in our communities, we need to start with processes, policies, and practices that help them fit in.