In addition, workers' careers benefit from belonging. Individuals who felt highly connected at work received twice as many raises and were 18 times more likely to be promoted in a six month period than people who felt excluded.
Finally, BetterUp conducted online simulations of exclusion in team settings and found that excluded people were 25% less productive in working toward their team's goals.
“Literally the most important you thing you have in your company are your people,” said Alexi Robichaux, cofounder and CEO of BetterUp, during a recent phone interview about the research. "Belonging should be at the heart of every human capital strategy."
This is especially needed since more than 40% of people feel emotionally and physically isolated at work, a finding that transcends gender, age and ethnicity.
Thankfully, four ways to foster belonging in the workplace have emerged from research.
1. Create Allies At Work
A powerful preventative solution BetterUp found through their simulations was the addition of an ally to the team, defined as "someone who acknowledges and includes you." With an ally in place, active exclusion by others had no impact on the person being left out, counteracting the 25% productivity loss seen in excluded people who had no ally.
“It can be as simple as having one person who you feel has your back," Robichaux said. "Not even defending you, just including you. That’s really enough to bring performance and prosocial behaviors back to normal levels. That’s one of the most hopeful, exciting takeaways of our research."
Also hopeful is the fact that any of us can choose to be an ally, and that we can enlist our own allies at any level.
“The beauty of the ally is that there was no hierarchy in the process. The ally can be a peer," Robichaux said. "There’s something really empowering in the fact that everyone can be a leader in a company. If the job of a leader is to connect with a mission and bring their best selves to work, certainly managers have more of a megaphone, but every person in the company can be an ally to one another and do the important job that leaders do.”
2. Engineer Empathy-Building Experiences
While some instances of workplace exclusion are intentional, many are accidental - yet just as painful. We may simply fail to realize that we're leaving a co-worker or direct report out until we've experienced the workplace the way they do.
Robichaux provided an example from his own company: supporting remote work is a founding value of BetterUp, yet all meetings were held in their San Francisco office, making remote workers feel less included. In response, "we started creating remote weeks when the whole company goes remote in order to build empathy about what it’s like to be the person on the Hangout," Robichaux said.
He said the awarenesses built during remote weeks enable them to structurally design meetings differently than they had in the past. For instance, they came to realize that certain hands-on activities they did during meetings actively - albeit unintentionally - excluded people who were attending remotely.
“Sharing experience is a great fuel for empathy," Robichaux noted.
3. Encourage Healthy Interactions
We can also look to the power of the moment to build belonging. Organizational psychologists Jane Dutton and Emily Heaphy coined the term high-quality connections (HQCs) to describe interactions that have a positive impact on our lives and work.
"During a high quality connection, each person is tuned in to each other and both reciprocate positive regard and care," Emily Esfahani Smith writes in The Power of Meaning. "As a result, both people feel valued. High quality connections play a role, of course, in making our close relationships with friends or romantic partners meaningful - but they also have the potential to unlock meaning in our interactions with acquaintances, colleagues, and strangers."
HQCs have been found to improve organizational functioning; employees' levels of engagement, resilience and teamwork; and the physical and mental health of individuals at every level of a company.
High-quality connections can be brief and they need not be joyous; even emotionally neutral encounters can help build connection. "The key is that they happen on a regular basis and are not negative," Smith writes.
Similar to the cultivating of allies, we have the power to make this change regardless of our seniority or title.
"We can't control whether someone will make a high quality connection with us, but we can all choose to initiate or reciprocate one," Smith writes. For instance, "we can decide to respond kindly, rather than antagonistically, to an annoying colleague."
4. Process Exclusion Verbally
While it's ideal to avoid exclusion before it happens or to set up an ally to vaccinate against exclusion's negative effects, sometimes neither is possible. BetterUp's simulation research found that there are ways to intervene even after exclusion has occurred.
They tested asking the excluded team member:
- ...what they would say to support someone else who was left out
- ...what they would change to make the situation more "fair, inclusive and enjoyable"
- ...to read written reports by others who had been excluded, including how they worked through the experience
BetterUp found that all three of these post-exclusion interventions worked to ease the pain of exclusion, particularly the first two. In fact, after experiencing either of those two interventions, participants showed the same or higher levels of teamwork as people who had felt fully included throughout the simulation.
In other words, processing exclusion in a proactive manner may enable us to bounce back fully and quickly from social isolation. This, in turn, allows us to re-engage and return to experiencing connection in our workplace - and the many benefits that result.
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