Effective Coaching Blog
Kevin William Grant- Counsellor and Life Coach

Five critical warning signs your organization has a culture of exclusion

  • Kevin William Grant

When employees feel they belong, they’ll give you their best. When they don’t, you’ll get only scraps from them. Consider the power of belonging as a motivator for engagement.

Adolescents will change their speech, dress and behaviour to “fit in” with their peer groups. Inner-city teens will commit crimes — including murder — for the privilege of wearing gang colours. Adults also gain much of their identity from the neighbourhoods they live in, the places of worship they attend, the political parties they align with. Belonging to “the tribe” is a human need we never grow out of. Unfortunately, most leaders neglect the power of belonging in the workplace.

Many organizations have fostered cultures of exile. Belonging, along with safety and mattering, is a primary human drive. After food-water-shelter needs have been met, we must feel that we’re safe, matter, and belong. If not, we can’t seek self-actualization, meaning we can’t perform, innovate, collaborate or do any of the other things it takes to survive in our global economy. Exile is a deep-rooted, primal fear. The way our critter brain sees it is: “If I’m not part of the tribe, then I must not matter, and I’m surely not safe. A lion is going to eat me. My only goal right now is survival, so I am going to do and say whatever will keep me safe.”

When employees feel this way, they hide out, procrastinate or say what the boss wants to hear instead of what needs to be heard. When that occurs chronically, not only will your company be unable to move forward and grow, it may flounder and fail. 

People will never speak up and say they feel they don’t belong. It’s up the leadership to diagnose the problem and take steps to fix it.

Five Indicators of a Culture of Exile

Here are five indicators that your organization is fostering a culture of exile:

1. Certain people get preferential treatment

For example, maybe there are different sets of rules for other employees. (Many companies harbour “Untouchables” — people who were hired and most likely over-promoted because they are related to or friends with someone in power.) Or maybe the CEO always plays golf with Drew and Tom, but not Greg and Alan. Preferential treatment is a leadership behaviour, and … it’s a primary culprit in making people feel exiled.

2. Cliques

If you notice some employees seem to be regularly excluding others — may be members of a particular department socialize after work but one or two people are not invited — take it seriously. Those who are left out know it … and it doesn’t feel good. While leaders can’t (and shouldn’t) interfere with friendships between employees, they can set an example of inclusion. They can have frank discussions on the hurtfulness of making someone feel exiled. They can hold fun workplace events and celebrations to strengthen bonds between all coworkers.

3. There are visible signs of hierarchy

There’s a stark division at some companies — may be even a chasm — between, say, the executive suite and the hourly workers. The white-collar guys are on a higher floor with more excellent furniture, while the blue-collar guys are lucky if the bathroom is maintained. This may seem like the natural order of things to many people, but this attitude is precisely the problem. Is it a good idea for the physical workplace to say, “We’re in the gated community while you’re in the trailer park?” Removing some of the symbols of divisiveness is a good start. 

4. Entrenched silos lead to information withholding and turf wars

Departments are, by definition, different from each other. Still, they needn’t be alienated from each other. Departments can be “different” in a healthy way while still marching forward together. It’s okay for groups to have their own identity, however, they must still link arms and help each other toward that end goal. When they have that reassuring sense that they belong to the company overall, they don’t have to close ranks and apply power tactics. 

5. There is no path for personal development or advancement

True belonging is knowing you’re not just a cog in the machine; it knows employers care about your future and want you to live up to your potential. Making employees feel that a strong sense of belonging can send performance into overdrive. When people feel they truly belong, they will open up their minds and do everything in their power to make sure the tribe is successful. They’ll come to work engaged and happy.

You cannot inspire this kind of presence, this deep involvement, in employees with coercion or bribery or even logic. It happens on a primal, subterranean level. When it does, the transformation is amazing to witness.

What’s Next?

Most employees won’t ask about the future, so you need to be proactive about putting it in front of them. "Individual Development Plans" can be planned with a one- to three-year time horizon. It is important that they are monitored, and the individual’s development is in progress, not just theoretical. 

Here are some components "of an Individual Development Plan:

Professional Development

  • Two or more possible career evolutions that can occur in the coming one to three years
  • Job skills that need to be gained for each 
  • Leadership skills that need to be achieved for each
  • A timeline for acquiring these skills
  • A plan, budget, leadership commitment to support the plan
  • Next steps and monthly or quarterly check-in on goal progress
  • An agreement that the plan will be driven by the individual, not by their leader

Personal Development

  • Personal growth that the individual wishes to undertake (weight loss, fitness goals, learning a new language, stop smoking, etc.)
  • Mapping of how this personal growth will benefit the company
  • A timeline for acquiring these skills/creating this growth
  • A plan, budget, leadership commitment to support the plan
  • Next steps and monthly or quarterly check-in on plan progress
  • An agreement that the plan will be driven by the individual, not by their leader