Are You Creating a Culture of Exile?

employeeFive warning signs that your employees may lack a vital sense of belonging in your corporate environment.

By John Lofstock, Editor.

Consider the power of belonging. Adolescents will change their speech, dress and behavior to fit in with their peer groups. Adults, too, gain much of their identity from the neighborhoods they live in, the political parties they align with. Yes, belonging to “the tribe” is a human need we never grow out of. Yet, Christine Comaford believes that most leaders neglect it in the workplace.

“Many companies have fostered cultures of exile,” said Comaford, author of SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together. “No one is purposely making people feel they don’t belong, but they’re also not proactively making them feel they do—and that’s a huge, huge mistake.”
Belonging, along with safety and mattering, is a basic human drive. After food-water-shelter needs have been met, we must feel that we’re safe, that we matter, and that we belong. If not, we can’t seek self-actualization, or as Comaford calls it “being in our Smart State”—meaning we can’t perform, innovate, collaborate or do any of the other things it takes to survive in our business structure.

“This is Maslow 101,” Comaford said. “Exile is a deep-rooted, very 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. 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 he needs to hear. Such behaviors are devastating for businesses. When they occur 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,” Comaford said. “It’s just too scary. It’s up to you as the leader to diagnose the problem and take steps to fix it.”

Here are several red flags that indicate you may be fostering a culture of exile:
• Certain people get preferential treatment. Maybe there are different sets of rules for different employees: “exempt” people and “non-exempt” people. Many companies also harbor “Untouchables”—people who were hired and most likely over-promoted because they are related to or friends with someone in power.

“Preferential treatment is a leadership behavior, and it’s extremely damaging,” Comaford said. “It’s a major culprit in making people feel exiled. I counsel companies who have this problem to include it in their Leadership Code of Conduct and insist that all leaders adhere to it.”

• Cliques and inside jokes flourish. Sure, we all click with certain people more readily than we do with others. That’s only natural. But if you notice some employees seem to be regularly excluding others—maybe members of a certain department socialize after work, but one or two people are not invited—take it seriously, Comaford said. Those who are left out know it…and it doesn’t feel good.

“It’s amazing how little difference there can be between high school dynamics and workplace dynamics,” she said. “And 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 to strengthen bonds between all co-workers. The point is, it’s worth making an effort to help everyone feel they belong. Generally leaders set the tone, so when you focus on belonging, everyone will.”

• There are obvious and visible signs of hierarchy. At some companies there’s a stark division—maybe even a chasm—between, the executive suite and the hourly workers. The white-collar guys are on a higher floor with nicer furniture, while the blue-collar guys are lucky if the bathroom is maintained. To many people this may seem like the natural order of things—but Comaford said this attitude is precisely the problem.

“Is it really a good idea for the physical workplace to say, ‘We’re in the gated community while you’re in the trailer park’?” Comaford said. “Leaders may not think of it that way but, believe me, those under them do. In my work I see a lot of tension between white-collar workers and union workers—there’s this pervasive attitude that because the union guys don’t have the same level of education they can’t be part of the tribe.”

While this can be a sensitive topic, it is vital to address it. “What belonging really means is that everyone is equal and marching forward together,” Comaford said. “We really need to do all we can to work toward this goal, and getting rid of some of the symbols of divisiveness would be a good start.”
• Entrenched silos lead to information withholding and turf wars. Of course, departments are, by definition, different from each other. Still, they needn’t be alienated from each other. Comaford said it’s possible for departments to be different in a healthy way.

“It’s OK for groups to have their own identity, yet they must still be able to link arms and help each other toward that end goal,” Comaford said. “That’s the beauty of helping get people out of their Critter State—when they have that reassuring sense that they belong to the company overall, they don’t have to close ranks and play power games. They can share and collaborate because now it’s safe to do so—we’re all in this together.”

•There is no path for personal development or advancement. True belonging is knowing you’re not just a cog in the machine. It’s knowing employers care about your future and want you to live up to your potential. It’s knowing, “I might just be a stock clerk right now but I could be a division manager one day—and the company is willing to help me get there.” That’s why Comaford encourages her clients to implement individual development plans for every employee at every level.

“When people see their individual development plan, they think, the company’s purpose is this, my part is this, and we’re all going into this glorious future together,” she explained. “It tells them, ‘You’re safe here; we’re planning on you being here for a long time. You belong. We bothered to lay out this plan just for you, and you clearly know what you need to do to grow here. You’re part of the tribe, and we’re putting energy into figuring out how you can be part of the tribe in a bigger way.’”

Making employees feel that strong sense of belonging can send performance into hyperdrive, Comaford said.

“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,” she said. “They’ll come to work jazzed and engaged and 100% on their game. You absolutely 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, and when it does, the transformation is amazing to witness.”

The Leadership Code of Conduct
If an employee doesn’t know what his future at the company looks like, he will not feel that crucial sense of safety, belonging and mattering. Information and transparency empower people, while vagueness keeps them off-balance and anxious. Most employees won’t ask about the future, so you need to be proactive about putting it in front of them.
“Each leader is responsible for making his or her own areas of responsibility exceptional,” said Christine Comaford, author of SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together. “Exceptional teams create exceptional companies. Exceptional companies make a difference for the world.”

To that end, Comaford suggested that employers develop a Leadership Code of Conduct like this one:
* We treat all employees fairly, respectfully and equally. We strive to avoid preferential treatment, reward on merit and hold everyone (including ourselves) accountable to the same set of standards. Everyone gets to speak up. We treat others with the respect we expect to be afforded us.
* We deal with issues directly with the person in question. No complaining about others behind their back, passive aggressive behavior, or backstabbing of any type will be accepted or tolerated. We are bigger than this.
* We value the privilege to serve on the leadership team. Monthly management meetings must be a priority, along with weekly leadership meetings and huddles. Coming prepared is a must. Missing more than two leadership meetings a year is automatic cause for removal from the leadership team.
* We debate in the room, execute out of the room. We are accountable to each other for timely and quality results. Once we debate and decide, there is no more debate. We are all on the same team, giving the same message to our teams, focusing on relentless execution and the victory that comes from it.
* We are powerful creators. There are no victims, rescuers or persecutors on our team. We are outcome creators, insight creators, action creators.
* We promise only if we have the authority and ability to execute. Our word is our bond. We commit to anything we can deliver upon to customers and employees, but not until we get needed approval or resources lined up first. We under-promise and over-deliver.
• We are the model of accountability and leadership. Everyone emulates our actions. We provide the example of accountability and leadership that everyone can follow to success. If our team may not act a certain way, we will not either.

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