Bad things happen when people feel left out at work, according to new research from the University of Georgia Terry College of Business. And those behaviors can impact your business.
"We already know how some people react when they're definitely being excluded from a group, when someone is mistreating them or abusing them," Marie Mitchell, co-author of the research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and professor of management at UGA, told Science Daily. "But what we sought to examine this time is: What if you're not sure?"
It's easy to feel left out when everyone "forgets" to invite you to lunch or happy hour. But trouble arises when you fail to give colleagues the benefit of the doubt. "When a person believes that they are risk for exclusion, they assume that there is something about their personality or their makeup that suggests they're not a valued group member, so they have to do something above and beyond what they're currently doing in order to demonstrate their value to the group," Mitchell told the blog.
Simply put: These overlooked co-workers are more likely to go out of their way to undermine colleagues, cheat to advance their work group, and tell bold-faced lies to other work groups. It's the kind of behavior that creates a toxic work culture where distrust runs rampant.
To test the idea that perceived outcasts are bad seeds in a company, Mitchell and her co-authors ran an experiment. Participants took personality tests, then were divided into groups of four and asked to hold conversations with each other for 15 minutes. Afterward, they were told they would take two tests that would be scored against another group.
All four members took the first test, they were told, but the group needed to vote on three members to move on to the second. The researchers then asked participants to write who they thought that should be. Afterward, those participants completed a computer task and received an update about whether they would advance to the next test. Some were told only one member voted for them, while others were told three members voted for them.
Now that the participants were primed to feel excluded, the researchers had them begin unscrambling a set of anagrams, or jumbled up letters that form common words. They were asked to record how many they solved. But there was one problem: the anagrams couldn't be solved, so anyone who said they did solve them was lying.
As a result of the priming, a lot of people cheated. "There's a generally human tendency when faced with these kind of situations for individuals to misreport what they did," Mitchell told Science Daily. "But those who had a high-need for social approval and were in the group that were being excluded, they were far more likely to cheat."
For a manager, the takeaways are these: If you notice an employee's not fitting in, try to find ways to include him or her. Beyond that, encourage your team to be more inclusive and reassure the frustrated employee not to take everything so personally. Sometimes people really are too busy.
Finally, encourage your employees to let their freak flag fly. Not only will they begin to feel better about themselves, others will appreciate them too, since nothing draws people in more than embracing your quirks.