One of the most distressing experiences is not feeling welcomed. People crave a sense of belonging. The need for belonging is wired in. It’s practical: being a valued part of a group brings a survival advantage in a hostile world. People are highly sensitive to subtle cues that communicate whether they are on or off the island. That simple theme has enough power to make a decade long hit of a television show with an ever-changing cast of untrained actors. In the competitive world of broadcast television, these successes are not random: they reflect a deep emotional power.
A challenge for many workplaces is that they give too little attention to the power of belonging. The implicit hope is that the social skills and charm of new employees will encounter the generosity of the continuing employees to create a welcoming atmosphere. It’s a testament to the general good will of people that this scenario usually plays out.
The scope of problems that emerge when that scenario hits a snag is a testament to the power of belonging. They tolerate incivility among their employees. Distressing workgroups are left to sort things out on their own.
Here’s an example:
Betty had lost her enthusiasm for the job. She joined the design team at XQZ Graphics upon graduating with her commercial art degree. For her first summer, life was perfect. She was assigned a mentor, Katherine, showed her the ropes, explaining how to make herself a vital part of a design team. At the end of the summer, the preparation all came together beautifully as Betty was assigned to a major project that was designing signage for the city’s newly expanded airport. When Katherine saw Betty at a company gathering the following summer, she greeted Betty with a huge smile, asking how the project was going, what she was learning, and how she applied Katherine’s guidance on teamwork. Betty burst into tears. After Katherine had calmed her down enough to be coherent, Betty explained that everyone—well not everyone, but a bunch of people—on the team were mean to her. They disparaged her ideas and mocked her mannerisms. It was just awful and Betty had no idea how to make it better.
Being excluded from a group hits people hard. When feeling ostracized, people often become overwhelmed by anxiety or even anger. They do not calmly stand by awaiting their readmission into the group. They withdraw, often bitter and hurt.
This dynamic creates a major problem for employers. Employees bring to a job their personal energy, knowledge, experience, and skills. The more employees contribute these qualities to their work, the better the employer benefits from the investment in hiring, training, and employing them. In an age when work occurs primarily through teams, a major part of employees’ contributions occur through teamwork. In effective teams, individuals support one another’s efforts by generously sharing their individual potential to a shared objective. That sort of contribution occurs much more readily when individuals have a sense of belonging to the team.
When individuals feel excluded, bullied, harassed, or simply disliked by their group, they become less likely to make that contribution. When anticipating criticism, they keep their thoughts to themselves. When anticipating harassment, they avoid contract with others: they stay on the fringes of the work area and call in sick whenever possible. With the slightest encouragement, they will take any opportunity to move on to another job.
From the employees’ perspective, distress dominates their worklife. Lacking a sense of belonging, they cannot be fulfilled at work. Lacking opportunities to contribute their full potential to their teams, they cannot experience the flow of effective work engagement. Lacking motivation to even show up at work, they lose the opportunity to make the most of their job.
From the employers’ perspective, the company is wasting a crucial investment. It is wasting the talents, energy, and knowledge that employees could contribute under the right circumstances. It is losing a valuable return on their investment because of completely unnecessary dynamics among employees. In a highly constrained financial environment with staffing often trimmed to the bone, no company can afford to blatantly waste employees’ potential to contribute to the business.
No employer makes a deliberate policy of cliques, bullying, or abuse among employees, but quite a few tolerate the situation for a long time.
The reasons for inaction:
- Some employers don’t realize they have a problem. Information on the problem is being screened before it reaches their offices. They don’t recognize the dynamics underlying chronic problems of high turnover, high absences, and poor morale in operational units.
- Some employers recognize a problem but are not convinced that they can do anything about it. Problems of workgroup incivility or abuse often defy management interventions. Employers may conclude that no solution is possible.
- Some employers fear that misguided attempts to solve problems of workplace incivility may backfire, resulting in an even worse problem.
- Some employers see the costs of workplace incivility as minor compared to the costs of taking action.
The reasons for action:
- Problems in workgroup incivility are not subtle. They have real costs that are evident in attendance, employee retention, human rights complaints, grievances, and workgroup productivity. A necessary question about any poorly functioning workgroup is: How are they getting along?
- Workgroup incivility is a manageable problem. The solutions are not simple, but they’re feasible.
- Actions to address workplace incivility will make a positive contribution when carefully managed.
- The costs of action are minor compared to the insidious costs of continuing problems of workplace incivility.
What to do:
- Bring the affected unit into the discussion. Resolution is more available when all agree they have something to resolve.
- Become part of a community of interest with other organizations committed to improving worklife communities.
- Call upon outside help if your staff lacks the expertise or the arms-length distance necessary to facilitate a trusting, constructive process.
- Initiate a group process that brings employees to reflect on the impact of their behavior and commit to a constructive, kind quality of worklife.