The importance of an inclusive work environment is on the minds of many leaders today. Exclusionary behaviors are dangerous for a business, with the impacts extending from dysfunctional workplaces and difficulties with recruitment all the way to serious legal issues.
Exclusionary behaviors can have a significant negative impact on business performance. When people feel excluded, it reduces their sense of belonging and security in the workplace. This can drive them to use protective, unproductive behaviors, such as defensiveness and avoidance, which are detrimental to productivity and growth.
As a business leader, creating an inclusive work environment should be one of your top priorities. It will contribute to a positive corporate culture and improve the confidence of your employees so they are more productive, focused, and able to reach their full potential.
The Influence of Coworkers
Although we go to work to earn a living, we also develop relationships there. Dysfunction within those relationships can impact us as deeply as dysfunction within our personal relationships.
Some people may be able to ignore or rise above exclusionary behavior from a peer. However, for those employees with lower patience, higher sensitivity, or who are already dealing with challenging issues in their lives, the negativity created by the conduct may become unbearable.
Exclusionary behavior at work can be driven by self protection. I’ve seen this behavior occur when employees are too fearful of the potential toxic conduct of others to include them in their projects or meetings, even when that person could have helpful insight.
Exclusionary behavior can also take the form of a group of employees shunning a coworker or category of coworkers. This is often referred to as a clique. A clique is a group of people who have a common purpose or shared interest that spend time together and don’t let others join their group. There can be a fine line between connected teams and exclusionary cliques. A connected team also has a common purpose or shared interest, but they don’t function at the exclusion of others. They still welcome external opinions and participation. Connected teams can boost morale and engagement with their camaraderie. But if this team begins to exclude others, without a justifiable business reason, they can form a toxic, intimidating clique.
In one organization I observed, people who had worked there for many years formed a clique. They always sat together at company events, made a show of their group lunches, and snubbed new staff or ignored them altogether. The top leader in this business had a tendency to play favorites; new people were viewed as threats to the longtime employees’ relationships with the leader. The result was this exclusionary conduct that made it difficult for new hires to integrate into the company and feel at home there.
I’ve also seen this behavior occur after acquisitions, when employees from the original company form a clique as a social barrier against the employees from the acquired organization or vice versa. This is a form of collective self-protection that can occur when there is significant uncertainty and change due to an acquisition.
The Price of Exclusion
Exclusion can greatly reduce the success of initiatives to create a merged and connected culture. The forming of cliques likely reminds you of high school. There, it’s common for teenagers to form groups and shun those who don’t align with their style or level of popularity. When adults use this same conduct in the workplace, it can cause feelings of insecurity in those who are excluded.
You may think that as adults we can ignore this behavior and not let it get to us. However, even if we’re able to see the conduct as immature and realize that it’s about the perpetrators, not us, it can still damage our sense of belonging within the organization and work against collaboration and productivity. It’s not pleasant to be excluded, even if we understand the psychological explanation for it.
Exclusionary Behavior Increases in Negative Work Environments
Exclusionary behaviors are connected to dysfunctional work environments. However, there is a “chicken or egg” scenario here—that is, which one causes the other?
I’ve found the prevalence of exclusionary conduct is higher in toxic work environments. Employees seem to react to the perception of danger in the workplace self-protectively with their own toxic behaviors, like excluding others.
For this reason, before taking serious actions against this conduct, leaders must try to determine its root cause. There may be correctable aspects of the work environment triggering it. An exception to this advice is if the exclusion is on the basis of a factor covered by employment discrimination regulations. These are grave offenses and should be taken seriously by organizations, reported when they occur and managed immediately.
The bottom line is that, if you want your business and employees to thrive, you must create an inclusive environment. Otherwise, a whole host of problems will arise, not least of which is that employees may feel alienated from their peers. If that happens, it will increase your employees’ feelings of insecurity, and lead to reduced collaboration and lower productivity.
Remember, too, the quality of coworker relationships significantly influences employees’ ability to maintain a healthy mindset about the workplace. Dysfunction within those relationships can greatly impact an employee’s performance.
The following is adapted from Detox: Managing Insecurity in the Workplace by Melanie Pump, CPA, CGA. For advice on how to create an inclusive work environment, you can find Detox: Managing Insecurity in the Workplace on Amazon.
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