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Coping With “ The Only One Syndrome”

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

Have you experienced being “the only one” in a work environment?

If so, it’s not uncommon. Some have adjusted to it while others have had a challenging time. In this post, the only one refers to African American females and is written from that perspective.

Throughout most of my elementary and high school years, I was the only African American student in my class or one of two at best. I learned to live with it but I was always very aware that I was different.  Despite that, my parents inspired me to excel academically and that’s what I did.

Twenty years ago, as a new Assistant Dean, I was still experiencing the only one syndrome. I received some push back from a few faculty because I was a young African American woman serving in a leadership role with influence over faculty old enough to be my parents.  This was my interpretation of the experience and my truth. Fortunately, the Dean was a great mentor who had confidence in me and guided me through many situations.

According to the McKinsey & Co. study on Women in The Workplace 2018 survey, women of color are not only significantly underrepresented, they are far less likely than others to be promoted to management, more likely to face everyday discrimination and less likely to receive support from their supervisors.

Even though Black women are underrepresented in leadership, Black women are making strides in entrepreneurship. As an entrepreneur myself, this was promising to read. There are 2.4 million African American women-owned businesses in 2018 owned by women ages 35 to 54 which is more than their male peers (Black men) according to Federal Reserve.

Women of color face many barriers and biases to advancement.  Fortunately, work has begun in the area of diversity and inclusion in the workplace and still has a way to go. Here are a few tips to help you cope at work when you’re “the only one”.

Create Your Own Support System

The lack of Black women in my professional space has been a reoccurring theme.  Everyone’s needs are different and some may or may not experience feelings of isolation.  I’ve had the good fortune of cultivating great working relationships over the course of my career.

Find a sponsor in leadership within the organization who supports you behind closed doors. If available, join an Employee Resource Group (ERG) or Affinity Group on site or join professional organizations outside of the company.

Network, network and network some more.  Tap into  your connections.

One word of caution, don’t assume all women are supportive of one another. Be aware of unspoken competition and sabotage.  Some people love being a big fish in a little pond and feel threatened when others come on board.

Bring Your A Game

This goes without saying.  The expectation is that you’ll always do your best if you want to be considered for that promotion, or special project.

Be mindful that there are many factors at play and your best may not be good enough. Depending on who is evaluating you, it’s possible that you may be judged by a different standard than others based on the individual’s perception.

If you feel that you’re fighting a losing battle, don’t be afraid to pursue other options. Create a plan for your next move. Sometimes you have to step out in order to move up.

Research the Organization

Research companies that you are interested in working for ahead of time.  Learn about the diversity demographics for the company and support systems for various groups.

Make it your business to learn about the company culture and create thoughtful interview questions in order to get a feel for the environment.

Use LinkedIn and your network to get different perspectives on the company.  It’s better to know ahead of time what you are facing if offered a position.

Find Your Voice

Your desire to be heard will depend on your personality and professional goals for yourself.

Over the years I’ve learned to use my voice to share what I know, or to speak out on a debatable topic.  Be aware that it may not be viewed favorably, but it comes with the territory.

I’m more concerned with doing what’s right than being right.  At the end of the day, you want your name to be associated with something that is positive.

Step Up To The Plate

If your life and work load permits, take on projects that allow you to showcase your talent and gain visibility.

The way I see it, if you are going to be one of few, everyone might as well know who you are.  Shine your light and lead with confidence. 

Use Microaggressions As A Teachable Moment

It is not your job to teach adults how to behave and what not to say but addressing issues privately can lead to more thoughtful and respectful engagement.  Use your discretion and make the best choice for yourself.

There are a host of microaggressions that Black women experience but overlook on a day to day basis.  Comments about style of dress, hair, demeanor and family life are not unusual.

Questions about competence and lack of confidence in your decision-making is also a common experience.

If you feel led to do so, follow protocol, and address these issues.  Recommend implicit bias training to your manager or Human Resources to further develop the team.

Protect Your Mental and Physical Well-Being

Quitting your job is not always an option for countless reasons.  Microaggressions, lack of support, job-related stress, inability to connect and frustrations about the pay and lack of upward mobility can take a toll on you.

Make sure you take care of your mental and physical well-being.

Exercise, take a class, travel or schedule time to hang out with friends.  Downtime is a must. Another option is to consider hiring a coach or finding a trusted mentor to give you the support you need and to help you create a career plan. Having a plan is always a good thing even if you have no immediate need to change jobs. Continue to show up for yourself every single day.

How have you coped with being the only one?

What strategies have you used to adjust to being the only one if any?

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