No one likes being excluded from a meeting or decision making process, unless the reasons are fair and clearly defined. However in an organizational context exclusion is an essential filter – we need to prioritise and focus our efforts. The problem is not exclusion, according to Justine Lutterodt1. It is ‘mindless exclusion’ – exclusion based on automatic responses and prejudices.
Much damaging mindless exclusion is based on subtle perceptions of ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’. But in some cases exclusion is more extreme and is based on race, gender, colour etc. and in these cases the results can lead to deviant behaviour and be extremely damaging to the organization.
In his recent research Darden Business School Professor Peter Belmi looks at the damage caused when people feel excluded not just for mindless inter-organizational hierarchical reasons but because of their social identity (ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation) or membership in a particular group. Belmi’s work, conducted over a four-year period with colleagues from Stanford University, showed that people who feel devalued because of their group memberships were also more likely to engage in anti-social behaviours. In the workplace, individuals who felt devalued showed more willingness to misuse company time and resources, to cut corners, and to do things that deliberately hindered productivity.
“People have a universal desire for respect,” says Belmi, who specializes in leadership and organizational behaviour. “There are substantial costs when people feel that they are not accorded the respect that they think they deserve.”
“What we saw was that if people perceive that the game’s unfair, they’re less likely to internalize a system’s values and play by its rules,” Belmi says.
In one research study 303 participants were asked to imagine they were up for promotion at a prestigious consulting company. Some the group were told the firm’s MD was heard disparaging black people’s intelligence. Others were told that the MD had said there was no difference in intelligence among racial groups. All participants in the first group expected poor treatment from the firm, particularly if they were black. And these participants, in turn, were more likely to endorse counterproductive behaviours at work, such as stealing company supplies, over-reporting hours, deliberately working slower, damaging company equipment, searching for a new job on company time and so forth. The first group were roughly 55% more likely than black Americans in the no-threat or control groups to say they would engage in these bad behaviours.
Interestingly social identity threats appear to be more powerful on the psyche than personal threats. In another study, Belmi and colleagues asked female participants to imagine that they faced the possibility of being denied a promotion either because their boss didn’t think a woman was suitable for a leadership position, or because their boss didn’t believe that their personality was suitable for the job. The former triggered stronger anti-social responses.
This is because, says Belmi, “it can be easier to dismiss and move on from a personal conflict whereas social identity threats aren’t perceived as ‘isolated’, — they reflect pervasive, negative and systemic bias toward a particular group. Over time, these experiences can cohere into a painful narrative: My group or my society does not respect me, simply because of my group membership.”
Fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion not only helps avoid deviant behaviour, nor is it merely the ethical thing to do. Perhaps most importantly from a business point of view it brings competitive advantage. It increases engagement and commitment and can also strengthen innovation and decision making across the organization.
“How we exclude determines the effectiveness of our decision making” says Lutterodt “If we allow our perceptions of similarity and/or status define our filter, we severely limit the pool of perspectives available to inform our judgment.”
In conclusion Belmi points to some specific subtle forms of bias “such as when managers persistently use the term ‘guys’ to address a group of men and women, or when minorities see that people like them are visibly under-represented in high-ranking positions in the company. These things can inadvertently signal what qualities are valued or respected in an organization and can have an impact on employee behaviour.”
“What we’re seeing is how much the chemistry of the environment matters,” says Belmi. “It’s not necessarily bad apples; it’s bad barrels.” He further added the importance of vigilance. “Because of strong social norms, most people today reject the notion of explicit prejudice. But prejudice and bias today take subtler forms, and that’s what managers need to watch out for.”
1. See Mindful Exclusion, Justine Lutterodt, Developing Leaders, Issue 22, 2016.
This article is based on and includes extracts from a recent article by Peter Belmi and Katherine Bowers: The Meaning of Demeaning: Social Identity Threats and Deviant Behavior.