Here's Why Popping Out For Coffee With A Colleague Can Devastate Team Morale

Fear of not being liked – trouble. Picture: Paramount

Fear of being left out can motivate workers to engage in dodgy behaviour that can bring down your business, a new study found.

With the pitfalls of being excluded already well-documented, a University of Georgia team set out to find what lengths workers will go to to protect their position within a group.

Singling out a coworker for coffee or lunch is often something of a mindless act, but the new research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows its effect on those excluded can actually be harmful.

“When a person believes that they are at risk for exclusion, they assume that there is something about their personality or their makeup that suggests they’re not a valued group member,” Marie Mitchell, co-author of the research and professor of management at the University of Georgia said.

“So they have to do something above and beyond what they’re currently doing in order to demonstrate their value to the group.

“They engage in behaviors that are pretty seedy. They undermine anybody outside that workgroup, they cheat to enhance their group’s performance level, they lie to other workgroups.”

That in turn can have a ripple effect throught the whole company, creating suspicion, unrealistic goal-setting and even affecting the bottom line, the team said.

How to create fear of exclusion

Mitchell and her team created a lab setting which deliberately saw participants feel like they were on the verge of exclusion.

Participants took a personality test and were divided into four groups.

They were told they would be taking two tests and be scored against the other groups, but only three members would make it to the second test.

Before either test began, they all were asked to report privately on who they thought was most likely to be excluded from the second test.

As they started the first test, some were told they were wanted by the team for the second test, others were told they were unlikely to be chosen.

As it turned out, there was only one test – asking how many words can be formed out of a deliberately chosen set of jumbled up letters. The correct answer was none, yet the team found one group reported a higher instance of claiming to have formed common words from the letters.

“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,” Mitchell said.

“There was definitive cheating. If they put down even one thing, that was cheating,” Mitchell said.

“So the risk of social exclusion essentially motivates some pretty unsavory behaviors out of individuals at work.”

The cost of exclusion and how to deal with it

“Research from others suggests that these are pretty costly behaviors, and that they’re a lot more prevalent than people think that they are,” Mitchell said.

“The cost to organizations ranks into the billions of dollars annually.

“Those kinds of cheating behaviors have taken down companies like Enron and World Com.”

So how do you manage staff who are willing to bend the rules just so they feel loved?

Reward them for doing things the right way in a manner that benefits the entire group, Mitchell suggested.

“Look at the internal dynamics and norms of what constitutes performance behaviors for your employees,” she said.

“Employees who are at risk of exclusion are far likelier not to engage in these behaviors if they think the entire work group will be held accountable if they behavior isn’t ethical.”

Read more about the work politics of exclusion at UGA’s website

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