Surviving as an outsider

Published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 60, October 2009, pp. 13-14

Brian Martin

A book titled Fitting in is overrated is surely ideal for whistleblowers. The subtitle is even more promising: The survival guide for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. Some are outsiders before they blow the whistle, and nearly all become outsiders afterwards.

The author, Leonard Felder, is a psychologist; his intended audience is just about anyone, including children who weren't part of the in-crowd at school, individuals who are not fully accepted by their relatives, and people with innovative ideas. Despite its wide ambit, Felder's book has some useful tips that can be used by whistleblowers.

Felder starts with an important point: most people want to fit in. If someone snubs you, why worry? There are plenty of others in the world. But even a single snub can be hurtful. I have some friends who are popular with nearly everyone they know but who are terribly hurt when someone appears to give them the brush-off. Wanting to be liked is very common. Felder counters with a simple yet crucial message: it's okay to be different.

So what do you do when someone is rude? Felder has a simple approach: say to yourself "I'm going to handle this with decency and integrity no matter what." In other words, don't stoop to the level of those who are being insulting or standoffish. This is surely good advice for anyone raising concerns at work. When co-workers start reacting nastily or give you the cold shoulder, there's a great temptation to react in kind, to reply to an insult with one of your own, or to avoid those who are avoiding you. Felder gives several examples of individuals who escaped this downwards spiral by reminding themselves of their commitment to decency and integrity.

As well as not worrying about being different, Felder recommends looking at possible benefits. Benefit #1 is "After experiencing the pain of being an outsider, you might come up with creative solutions that the insiders don't see." This is a common experience of dissenters in all sorts of areas: rejection may be a blessing in disguise, forcing you to pursue an alternative path.

Benefit #2 is "An outsider perspective can be an important advantage in your business or career." Many whistleblowers would laugh at this - their outsider perspective is that of being spat out by the system, sometimes with a career entirely destroyed. But if you can survive the whistleblowing experience, you may be able to forge a new career in an area in which your insight and integrity are positives.

Benefit #3 is "Having a reputation as an outsider gives you the freedom to speak your truth and do what matters, whether it makes a lot of money or not." I think this is highly relevant to those who somehow survive in the system despite rocking the boat, perhaps because reprisals in early stages of their careers were not debilitating. If you establish a reputation as an insider who is willing to question orthodoxy, then sometimes - if you're careful and don't push too hard in the wrong places - you may be tolerated or even given some respect. Sure, you may not be promoted as rapidly as those who toe the line, but your ability to speak out and take action is a big compensation.

Another chapter is about the biggest mistakes outsiders make. The first is having a chip on your shoulder. One example: "Maybe it's someone in your social circle who can't let go of a frustrating incident that happened long ago, because it still clouds his vision and causes him to launch into tirades about bad drivers, slow clerks ..." Whistleblowers have much more reason to have chips on their shoulders than someone annoyed by bad drivers, but the same principle applies - you need to rise above rages and internal turmoil triggered by those around you, even though they may be corrupt and uncaring. To counter the urge to behave badly, Felder suggests first imagining what you would do if you were permitted to do anything (throw your worst tantrum!) and then imagining what you would do if you were strong, calm and centred. It sounds too easy and doesn't always work, but the key idea is worthwhile: stop and think about the consequences of your own attitudes and actions. Felder has similar exercises for the other types of mistakes outsiders make.

Fitting in is overrated follows a formula: list key points, illustrate each one with illuminating stories about individuals, and finally offer exercises to help overcome the problem. Felder has chapters dealing with work, cliques, families, being a mentor, and turning your own circle into the one people want to be in.

For whistleblowers, the chapter on work is probably most relevant. Felder lists four skills useful to outsiders at the workplace. Skill #1 is "see each unpleasant interaction not as a personal failing, but as a workout for getting wiser." If you're suffering reprisals, this skill would certainly be valuable. But how hard it is to develop! Some bullies develop the opposite skill, learning how to humiliate and demoralise their targets, in some cases making the target feel responsible. Felder's approach is worthwhile in encouraging you to step back from the nastiness and hurt of an encounter, instead adopting a learning perspective. Rather than suffering in the moment, psychologically you try to become removed, examining events for clues on responding more effectively. It's very hard to do but the skill can be developed.

Felder gives examples in which workers have turned around the attitude of bosses and co-workers. He advises breathing smoothly, being strong using an approach he calls "quick refocusing," and not being intimidated. These techniques can be supplemented by skill #2, "know your comeback lines."

Finally, with skill #3, we come to the challenge for whistleblowers: "know what to do if you are faced with something unethical, illegal, or dangerous." Felder's recommendations are designed for survival. They involve carefully planning to move to a new job in an ethical environment, at the same time documenting the dubious activities at your current job. He also has suggestions about financial planning. Felder's recommendations, though brief, are entirely compatible with the usual advice given to whistleblowers. There is little new for whistleblowers on this point, but Fitting in is overrated is not aimed at them specifically, but rather at a much wider audience.

For whistleblowers, there is much wise advice in this book, especially for dealing with your own emotions through practical techniques. It may not be easy to survive as an outsider, but if you're going to persist then developing a few additional skills is most sensible.

Leonard Felder, Fitting in is overrated: the survival guide for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider (New York: Sterling, 2009).

Brian Martin is editor of The Whistle.

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