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Are Office Outsiders Holding Your Company Back?

Five Warning Signs You May Have a Culture of Exile (and Why That’s a Problem)

By: Christine Comaford

As a leader, you may not spend too much time thinking about whether all your employees feel “included.” After all, they receive money and benefits in exchange for coming to work and completing certain tasks. Especially in an economy that’s still struggling to find its feet, isn’t that enough? Anyway, you’re too busy doing your own job and putting out other people’s fires to worry about all of that high school stuff.

Okay, this may be a little harsh. Most leaders do care how their employees feel—up to a point, anyway. And they certainly don’t purposely make employees feel left out. But what very few of them realize is (a) that “high school stuff” still applies to their adult employees and (b) when those employees feel like outsiders, they’ll never realize their full potential, and neither will your company.

Speaking of high school, it’s a perfect showcase for how powerful a force belonging really is to the human psyche. Adolescents will change their speech, dress and behavior to “fit in” with their peer group, and some inner-city teens will even commit violent crimes for the privilege of wearing gang colors. To be “outside” means a lack of identity, a lack of community and, often, a lack of respect.

Guess what? We don’t outgrow it. Belonging, along with safety and mattering, is a basic human drive throughout life. If these needs aren’t met, we can’t seek self-actualization or, as I call it in my new book, SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together, “being in our Smart State”—meaning we can’t perform, innovate, collaborate or do any of the other things it takes to survive—much less thrive—in today’s economy.

This is Maslow 101. When employees feel that they’ve been exiled—that they’re not accepted, valued members of the tribe—their primal “critter brain” takes over. It thinks: If I’m not part of the tribe, then I must not matter, and I’m surely not safe. My only goal right now is survival, so I am going to do and say whatever it takes to stay alive.

In other words, they hide out, procrastinate or say what the boss wants to hear instead of what she needs to hear. Such behaviors are devastating for business. When they occur chronically, not only will your company be unable to move forward, it may flounder and fail.

The opposite is also true. Foster a culture of belonging, and a struggling company may turn things around (and a successful one may become even more successful). I teach leaders neuroscience techniques that get teams unstuck, out of their “Critter State” and into their “Smart State”—and clients who master these techniques quickly see significant ROI. Results include employee productivity increasing 35 to 50%, employee engagement increasing 67 to 100%, and revenues and profits soaring by up to 200% annually.

As a leader, it’s up to you to diagnose the problem. Here are some red flags that indicate you may be fostering a culture of exile:

• Certain people get preferential treatment. Maybe there are different sets of rules for different employees: “exempt” people and “nonexempt” people. (Many companies harbor “untouchables”—people who were hired and most likely overpromoted because they are related to--or friends with--someone in power.) Or, maybe the CEO always plays golf with Drew and Tonya, but not Sue and Alan. Preferential treatment is an extremely damaging leadership behavior that always makes people feel exiled.

• Cliques and inside jokes flourish. Sure, we all “click” with certain people more readily than with others. But if you notice some employees seem to regularly exclude others—for example, members of a certain department socialize after work but one or two people are not invited—take it seriously. Those who are left out know it…and it doesn’t feel good.

While leaders can’t (and shouldn’t) interfere with friendships between employees, they can set an example of inclusion. They can have frank discussions on the hurtfulness of making someone feel exiled. They can hold fun workplace events and celebrations to strengthen bonds among all coworkers.

The point is, it’s worth making an effort to help everyone feel they belong. Generally, leaders do set the tone, so when you focus on belonging, everyone will.

• There are obvious and visible signs of hierarchy. Some companies have a stark division between, say, the executive suite and the hourly workers. The white-collar guys are on a higher floor with nicer furniture, while the blue-collar guys are lucky if the bathroom is maintained. To many people this may seem like the natural order of things—but this attitude is precisely the problem.

When my company launches innovation initiatives with clients, I find it’s the union employees on the manufacturing line who often have the best ideas for streamlining production and boosting quality. It’s just that no one has ever looped them in on initiatives before—and therefore they don’t feel like part of the tribe.

Admittedly, this is a huge, messy, sensitive topic. But what belonging really means is that everyone is equal and marching forward together. We really need to do all we can to work toward this goal, and getting rid of some of the symbols of divisiveness is a good start.

• Entrenched silos lead to information withholding and turf wars. Of course, departments are, by definition, different from each other. Still, they needn’t be alienated from each other. It’s healthy for departments to have differing identities—maybe IT is a band of cool pirates, while salespeople are wild and crazy cowboys and cowgirls out there on the range—while still marching forward together.

That’s the beauty of helping to get people out of their Critter State—when they have that reassuring sense that they belong to the company overall, they don’t have to close ranks and play power games. They can share and collaborate because now it’s safe to do so—we’re all in this together.

• There is no path for personal development or advancement. True belonging is knowing you’re not just a cog in the machine. It’s knowing employers care about your future and want you to live up to your potential. It’s knowing “I might just be a stock clerk right now but I could be a division manager one day—and the company is willing to help me get there.” That’s why I encourage my clients to implement Individual Development Plans for every employee at every level.

When people see their IDP, they think, Okay, the company’s purpose is this, my part is this, and we’re all going into this glorious future together. It tells them, “You’re safe here; we’re planning on you being here for a long time.”

When people feel they truly belong, they will open up their minds and do everything in their power to make sure the tribe is successful. They’ll come to work jazzed and engaged and 100% on.

You absolutely cannot inspire this kind of presence, this deep involvement, in employees with coercion or bribery or even logic. It happens on a primal, subterranean level, and when it does, the transformation is amazing to witness.

About the Author(s)

Christine Comaford is a neuroscience-based leadership and culture coach who helps executives navigate growth and change, and the author of New York Times best seller SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together (Portfolio/Penguin, June 2013, ISBN: 978-1-5918464-8-2, $26.95, www.smarttribesbook.com). To learn more, visit www.christinecomaford.com.