Tuesday / June 18

Fish Out of Water: What Happens To People Who Don’t Fit In?

There are three reasons for working to create a diverse and inclusive organizational climate. Diversity within means, for instance, translates into better customer service. If the people within the organization are familiar with groups that are different from them, they will be more understanding, empathetic, and appropriate in delivering their service or product to others. Working with a diverse group of people means that you will be in a richer, more fertile environment.  You will be inspired, challenged and supported; you will also have the benefit of people contributing to the work product with viewpoints, experiences, and styles different from your own. The third benefit of a diverse and inclusive workplace is that the people in the system will, at some point, be encouraged to stretch outside of their comfort zone. You will be invited to grow as you learn from the differences in your environment.

"[Fish out of Water] can be in the wrong size pond, or be the wrong species, or just one of a few of their kind, for the pond they are in."

“[Fish out of Water] can be in the wrong size pond, or be the wrong species, or just one of a few of their kind, for the pond they are in.”

These are tremendous benefits, and they don’t come easily. To benefit from a diverse and inclusive environment, every member in the system must learn to recognize the differences that matter, value diversity, adapt to it, and manage the dynamics as a whole. Marginalizing the people who don’t fit the organizational norms perpetuates a system where everyone looks alike, thinks alike, and acts alike. People who don’t fit in feel uncomfortable and inauthentic when they are feeling invisible or voiceless, or when they are forced to mask their differentness.

People don’t fit in for lots of reasons, and unfortunately, those who don’t get targeted.  They become the victims of micro-aggression. They get targeted because of the way they dress, talk, think, or relate to others. The Fish out of Water are the people on the edges of the bell curve: they are too smart, too dumb, too fast, too slow, too fat, too tall, too short, too large or too small. Fish out of Water can be extremely attractive, or very unattractive.

Fish out of Water may be funny talkers, or different thinkers. Their cognitive style may be abstract, random, and their organization’s culture may be concrete and sequential.  They can be in the wrong size pond, or be the wrong species, or just one of a few of their kind, for the pond they are in. They may not be the only introverts in the environment, but because the culture is shaped for the extroverts, they feel all alone and isolated.  Visionaries, without social skills, are Fish out of Water. Paradigm shifters, without patience, are Fish out of Water. Truth-tellers, who can’t keep quiet, are Fish out of Water. Shadow Dwellers, or ones who are unseen and unheard by the powers that be, are Fish out of Water.

Some people are Fish out of Water in a particular environment or social group—like schools, organizations, and families. People who don’t fit in can develop adaptive skills so they can survive on land, or in a pond that is not of their choosing. In the best circumstances, it is hard to be a Fish out of Water. When in an environment that is not committed to be healthy and inclusive, it is even more difficult and all one can do is survive.

The skill of code-switching, learning the cultural codes of a particular environment, will help these Fish out of Water learn to swim in a variety of ecosystems. When organizations learn to code switch as well, they can create a healthy, diverse, and inclusive environment in which all can work, learn, and grow.




Nuri-Robins is presenting at the 2014 Learning Forward Texas Cultural Proficiency Institute on October 15-16. To learn more about the conference, please click here.

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