Feeling left out or ignored at work can have tremendously negative effects on workers’ well-being. In a recent survey, researchers at the University of Ottawa found that workplace ostracism does greater harm to employees’ happiness than outright harassment. But what does feeling “included” at work even mean? And how can managers foster an environment where all employees — regardless of age, race, gender, or personality type — feel valued?
What the Experts Say
Creating a workplace where employees feel included is directly connected to worker retention and growth, says Jeanine Prime, leader of the Catalyst Research Center for Advancing Leader Effectiveness. Yet many corporate diversity programs focus more on creating a diverse workforce, and too little on the harder job of fostering inclusion. Prime’s organization recently completed a survey of 1,500 workers in six countries that showed people feel included when they “simultaneously feel that they both belong, but also that they are unique,” Prime says. When managers can achieve that balance, the business benefits are profound. Employees who feel included are “much more productive, their performance is higher, they are more loyal, they are more trustworthy, and they work harder,” says Christine Riordan, provost and professor of management at the University of Kentucky. Here’s how to foster more inclusion on your team.
Set an example
Inclusive attitudes start at the top. “Most people are blind to the everyday moments that leave others feeling excluded,” says Prime. Managers should take care to constantly examine their biases and behaviors. Be on the look out for what Riordan calls “micro inequities,” which occur when people are treated differently — whether it’s overlooked, avoided, or ignored — by yourself or others. As an example, Riordan cites a woman who complained recently that when she stood with other colleagues in a group, a male colleague only shook hands with the other men. It might be an inadvertent omission, but the woman still felt excluded. “Leaders have to recognize those micro inequities in themselves and others and work to correct them,” says Riordan.
Don’t diminish differences
Helping people feel that they belong isn’t the same as making them feel interchangeable. Employees want their managers to recognize and value their uniqueness, says Prime, and that means acknowledging “the distinct talents and perspectives they bring to the table.” Leaders might want to say that they are blind to race or gender or sexual orientation, but that attitude can prevent them from seeing instances of ostracism, as well as the unique perspectives that employees can bring to problem-solving and innovation. “If you say you don’t see gender, then you might not recognize when woman scientists don’t get mentored or aren’t invited onto research projects,” says Riordan. Don’t assume that people want their differences erased in order to be part of the group.
Share the spotlight
According to Catalyst’s survey, leaders who support their employees’ development are more likely to foster a sense of inclusion. For instance, suggesting that employees rotate as meeting leaders might help an untested employee showcase her value to others. Handing some management responsibilities for a new project to a more introverted worker might help build his confidence and give him facetime with others. “Anything a manager can do to create a positive message that every person is valued and has equal access in that group is a good thing,” says Riordan.
One simple way to make employees feel more included, particularly if they are more introverted, is to ask for their input and opinions in front of others. Listening to employees not only signals to them that you value their contributions, but also demonstrates to other employees that everyone has value. Plus, you get the added benefit of a diverse set of opinions. “Inclusive leaders do a good job of drawing out the unique perspectives of different followers and engaging with those different points of view,” says Prime. If an individual still has trouble speaking up or gets interrupted or talked over, keep offering her the floor, and don’t be stingy with deserved praise.
Keep at it
Fostering inclusion is an ongoing process. “Being inclusive is not a ‘check the box’ activity,” says Prime. “It’s a way of being, and you never stop working at it.” Changing practices to incorporate inclusive policies and behaviors can be difficult, but creating an environment where everyone feels they can speak up will only result in better business outcomes. Managers “have to be proactive,” says Riordan, because when they are, employees will work more effectively, and your business will reap the rewards.
By: Carolyn O’Hara