How Exclusion Can Lead to a Company’s Downfall

Excluding fellow co-workers from common activities, such as getting lunch together, leads to more than just feeling like you’re not part of the team. The secondary follow-up effect can be disastrous to a company’s performance. A new study from the University of Georgia finds unethical behavior, such as lying about results, is a likely follow-up to feelings of exclusion. Wanting to make themselves or the team seem better, a teammate may resort to unsavory practices and cheat. The study’s experiment showed that after priming a subject to feeling possibly excluded, a person would much more likely incorrectly report solving a series of otherwise impossible anagrams.

Marie Mitchell is an associate professor of management at the University of Georgia and co-author of the findings. Part of the Faculty Student Mentoring Program in the Office of Institutional Diversity, her research has implications for companies that lack effective accountability policies. Mitchell explained how one can be at risk of exclusion and the ways to minimize its harmful effects.

Diversity Executive had the opportunity to speak with Mitchell. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Marie Mitchell is an associate professor of management at the University of GeorgiaExclusion can be a really subtle behavior. How do such feelings arise in individuals in workgroups?

That’s one the items in the measure we use for our field study. We’re not actually assessing outright exclusion where the person may say, “You don’t belong here, you need to leave.” What we’re assessing is the risk of exclusion if you’re not entirely sure if you’re being valued or if you’re being included by others within the workgroup. When individuals are not included in lunch or asked if you want to get coffee when others are going — if nobody sits by you at the lunch table, that kind of thing — then employees do feel as though they might be at risk of being excluded from others at the workgroup. They’re just not sure, but it does make them feel uncomfortable.

That’s the whole point of risk of exclusion, is that you’re unsure. When individuals feel that they might be being excluded, that’s one item of a series of items where individuals reflect on their workday. And they’re unsure whether others really are valuing them as a workgroup member. When individuals aren’t being included for lunch or aren’t being included in meeting times or what have you, they may begin to question whether they’re being excluded within the workgroup.

What happens then? How do they deal with those feelings?

Our study specifically showed that one way individuals seek to demonstrate their value is by engaging in unethical behavior. Our research found in a field study that when an individual felt a high risk of being excluded by others in the workgroup that enhanced their motives to want to belong. And so that motivation really drove them to engage in unethical behavior, and it was a specific type that sought to show that the person is valuable.

In our field study, it was unethical behavior that sought to enhance the performance of the workgroup by undermining non-workgroup members. Within our experimental study we demonstrated that it motivated unethical behavior by the person lying about their performance to help the overall workgroup’s performance.

Did the study highlight any positive behaviors as results?

Our study did not look at that. However, my colleagues Stefan Thau and Rellie Derfler-Rozin, who is the second author on the paper, have another study that demonstrated that some individuals, when they feel that they’re at the risk of exclusion, will try to engage in trust-building behavior. They’ll engage in more conversation with them; they’ll try to bridge the relational gap.

They can engage in non-unethical behavior. I don’t know if I want to say façade is outright ethical behavior, because when somebody is engaging in a façade you’re actually lying about the value that you embrace. This concept of façade actually does tie into diversity. The woman who created it, [Patricia] Hewlin, her entire research was based on individuals who are minorities within workgroups who are afraid to basically explain their values to other workgroup members. They lie about what they value just to get along. And it causes them a great deal of stress.

What can the workplace do to minimize the risk of potential exclusion and possible unethical behaviors?

There are a variety of things an organization can do. It's really difficult sometimes, for supervisors especially if they have a lot of employees who work with them, to monitor every single employee to see if they’re getting along and being included by others. But what they can do is also reach out to cadres and ask their employees to mentor specific employees. A supervisor should be vigilant when looking at the workers’ dynamic to ensure that employees aren’t being excluded. But if they do find that they can’t do it all, they might get a handful of employees who really show the ability to be great leaders within the organization and ask them to assist them in ensuring that other employees are being included and are not feeling excluded.

And you don’t have to do it necessarily just by having people go to happy hour or involve them in lunch. It’s just a matter of somebody stepping up and saying, “Hey, how’s your day today? How are you getting along at work? Is there anything I can do to help you?” Just those small, little things can actually assist employees in reducing their perceptions that they might be at risk of being excluded. In terms of unethical behavior, I think that for, what our research shows, employees that are at risk of being excluded become very motivated to engage in order to demonstrate their value. But the bottom line is, is that these are lies. These are not accurate representations of their behavior, and the behaviors they engaged in in terms of our field study, those are things that can really tear apart the infrastructure of an organization.

What are some ways for employees to be more sensitive to exclusion?

You want your departments, your divisions, your workgroup getting along so that they can produce a holistic product for the organization. And if groups are undermining one another, that’s just going to dissolve the dynamic in an organization. One thing that we thought would definitely inhibit somebody’s motivation to engage in those types of behaviors would be to hold an entire workgroup accountable. If a particular workgroup member was engaging in unethical behavior, that heightens others’ vigilance to it. It also heightens the person’s vigilance to the fact that they don’t want to hurt the value to the organization and if they’re caught, that would really, really hurt their chances of including the group.

Another is just organizations should hold employees accountable and make employees very aware of those accountability mechanisms so that they don’t engage in these types of behaviors. Rewarding ethical behavior is a good thing.

It’s really just a matter of building respectful and personal interaction. That’s the bottom line. Some individuals might have a personality where they withdraw and they’re not very comfortable coming in and saying hi to everybody, but if you’ve got somebody within your workgroup who demonstrates strong leadership potential, you can ask them as a supervisor, not just yourself, to reach out to the employee and make sure that person feels included, checks in on them throughout the week, just keeps a running dialogue with the person so that they feel like one of the group.