11 April 2024 | Dr Jo Kandola

The impact of exclusion

Exclusion at work doesn’t just hurt individual people – it hurts the performance of the entire organisation and can have huge repercussions for your reputation and ability to attract talent.
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If you’ve ever been made to feel excluded, you’ll know that it hurts – and we’re not just talking about hurt feelings. Studies show that even small exclusive behaviours, like being cut off mid-sentence in a meeting, left off an important email or nobody saying hello when we enter an office can activate the same part of our brain that experiences physical pain. So exclusion actually hurts – and it can cause businesses considerable pain too.

Acts of inclusion make us feel that we belong, that we’re valued, and that people take us seriously. We feel comfortable being ourselves and safe to contribute ideas, express opinions or raise concerns. Much research, such as McKinsey’s 2020 study on inclusion, shows that inclusive organisations enjoy a wealth of advantages over their non-inclusive rivals, benefiting from better communication, more productive collaboration, improved problem-solving, a heightened ability to spot risk and significantly greater agility, productivity and efficiency.

The reputational enhancement that inclusive organisations gain means that they are also better able to attract and retain top talent, as well as benefiting from lower staff turnover and lower rates of sickness absence. To put it simply, inclusion is good for business. But the opposite is also true – exclusion is actively harmful.

What does exclusion in the workplace mean?

Exclusive behaviour can range from very blatant actions to micro-incivilities – tiny behaviours that we do (or don’t do) that make colleagues and employees feel minimised, rejected or under-valued. The blatant things are easy to spot – belittling a person in front of the team, for example, giving them offensive nicknames, or shouting at a colleague. The perpetrator is aware of their behaviour and the person on the receiving end is clear the behaviour is aimed at them. Such behaviours are incredibly toxic and stressful, both for the recipient and for those who witness them. In contrast, micro-incivilities are much harder to spot – for the perpetrator, recipient and bystanders.

Exclusion examples at work

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Take, for example, an occurrence a colleague once shared with me. Whenever we attended a team meeting with our boss, my colleague mentioned that our boss never looked at them. Now on the surface, this may seem a bit petty. However, studies have found that lack of eye contact in a conversation has an immediate impact on the recipient’s self-esteem. Eye contact transmits value and respect. At its most basic level, eye contact acknowledges a person’s presence in the room and indicates the extent to which we trust them. So for my colleague to repeatedly have no eye contact made with them sent a very clear signal that they were not valued and did not belong.

Now, I imagine our boss was not even aware they were committing this micro-incivility and as a bystander, I certainly didn’t notice until it was pointed out to me. And while it was obvious to my colleague, even they weren’t clear as to whether the behaviour was intentional or not. Needless to say, it was not long before my colleague left the organisation – with me not far behind them. In isolation, micro-incivilities may seem small and trivial, but when looked at in their totality they can have a significantly detrimental impact on the recipient. These small behaviours can impact on how valued and included people feel – particularly if they repeatedly experience the same exclusive behaviour from the same people.

The impact of exclusive behaviour at work

Being on the receiving end of exclusive behaviour at work can have a profound and long-lasting effect on us.

  • Our physical health is affected

Exclusion has a very real physiological impact on us. It can cause us to feel stressed, and this can mean our blood pressure rises, our cortisol levels go up and our heart beats faster. This is our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reaction kicking in. In the short-term, this may help us deal with a tricky situation, but if it’s activated multiple times a day, on a regular basis, it’s going to have a major impact on our long-term health and wellbeing.

  • We become less effective in our jobs

Exclusion can also affect what’s known as our working memory. When we feel excluded, we may spend a lot of time worrying about the reasons for it and whether the behaviour was intentional. We may become so preoccupied with these concerns that we no longer have the bandwidth to do what we’re supposed to be doing. Over time, this psycho-social stress impairs our cognitive control processes. In other words, it affects our ability to keep our eye on the ball and shift our focus between tasks, and as a result, it impacts our ability to work effectively and achieve our long-term goals. We lose confidence and our self-esteem suffers.

  • Exclusion destroys our confidence and self-esteem.

If we don’t feel like we belong, our knee-jerk reaction is to take it personally – to internalise it and assume we’re being excluded for something that we’ve done, or because we lack something or have some kind of personality flaw – and this in turn can make us doubt our abilities. Over time, this can also lead to unhealthy coping strategies as we try to numb the feelings of low self-esteem. We might start to eat unhealthily or irregularly or turn to drugs or alcohol, or we might experience a general lack of energy and drive, which can lead us to withdraw from people or stop exercising, which in turn impacts both our physical and mental health.

The impact of exclusion on organisations

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It’s clear that exclusion really does affect us as individuals. But what sort of impact does it have on an organisation?

  • Quiet quitting

We know that when people feel they don’t belong, they put in less discretionary effort; they won’t go the extra mile for their colleagues, their teams and their employer. This phenomenon has come to be known as ‘quiet quitting’, where people do the bare minimum to stay in their job, but no more. A study by the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute and Globoforce’s WorkHuman® Research Institute found that discretionary effort is almost twice as likely to be reported when employee experience is positive (95 percent compared to 55 percent), which clearly gives inclusive organisations a significant edge over their competitors.

  • People withdrawing

If we feel excluded, then we’re also likely to withdraw from those around us and disengage from the business. We’ll be less inclined to speak up, make suggestions or raise any concerns. This in turn will lead to a lack of innovation, hindering how well the organisation can compete with others in the market and seize new opportunities, as well as its ability to respond to change or spot risks.

  • Increased levels of staff turnover and sickness absence

Exclusion can cause people to take time off sick with stress, and they may ultimately decide to leave the organisation altogether. When you consider the cost of absence days, hiring temporary cover staff and recruiting and training new people, this factor alone can have a significant impact on the bottom line – not to mention the knock-on effect on people’s morale of seeing their colleagues frequently absent or resigning from their jobs.

  • Reputational risk

Finally, there’s reputational risk to consider. Hitting the news headlines or trending on social media due to a toxic corporate culture is never good for business and it can have a huge impact on how the organisation is perceived by potential clients and customers. Crucially, too, a reputational hit can also make it hard to hire new people, attract investors and expand operations. Exclusion clearly has very tangible, real-world impacts. Consider the 2023 Wildgoose study that found that one in five (20%) people in the UK don’t think their company is an inclusive place to work and 57% of employees have witnessed discrimination or a lack of inclusivity whilst at work. That’s a lot of people who may be unhappy in their job, putting in minimal effort or considering leaving – and perhaps going to join a more inclusive competitor.

How to deal with exclusion at work

Diversity and inclusion isn’t just a nice-to-have – it’s the key to your company’s success. Contact us at Kandola+ today to find out how we can help your organisation create an inclusive team culture that unlocks your people’s true potential.