Do you remember the feeling of standing alone at the edge of the playground, watching other kids having fun together? Or the feeling of being the last picked for the school sports team?
Being left out of the group hurts. Neurological studies show that the pain of being excluded is experienced by the same part of your brain that processes the pain from stubbing your toe or cutting your finger. Social belonging is a fundamental human need – we are social animals and crave the acceptance of our pack. The feeling of belonging to our workplace ‘pack’ is vital for our self-esteem and psychological well-being.
Maybe you’ve experienced workplace ostracism yourself. Perhaps you’ve made a difficult decision and you know there’s resistance to it amongst staff. You see people getting together in the office and you imagine they’re discussing your decision; you assume they’re questioning your judgement. You begin to suffer from confirmation bias – you assume that people are excluding you, so everything you see confirms it. It triggers past experiences of being rejected – you see yourself alone in the schoolyard, looking wistfully at the other kids. That hurt childhood feeling comes flooding back.
It can trigger denial, and often I hear this: “I’m fine, I don’t care, I’m here to work, not make friendships.” People have a natural tendency to build walls around their feelings to prevent painful feelings from seeping in. But we are wired to connect, and exclusion can impact us in a deep way that clouds rationality.
If you find yourself in this place, it’s vital to really understand what you are experiencing. Name your feelings, recognise where they are coming from. If hurt from your past is being triggered, acknowledge the emotion and put it in its rightful place – what is happening now bears no relationship to it.
The feeling of exclusion can lead to defensive behaviours. You batten down the hatches rather than remaining curious and exploring other possible explanations for your feeling of exclusion. You may project the behaviour – in fear of being rejected, you reject the other person first.
Instead, try to test your assumptions. Connection can be as subtle as offering to make someone a coffee when you’re going to the kitchen. A simple first approach may be all that’s needed to start softening the feeling of rejection. Confide in other trusted colleagues who may be able to give you a second opinion – even if they can’t validate your experience, they may be able to give you a new, helpful perspective. Spend more time with colleagues who value your contribution and create a broader work network to provide other avenues of information and support.
Workplace exclusion can be a particularly insidious form of bullying. If the situation persists and impacts your ability to effectively perform your role, you should document all instances of exclusion you experience and follow your organisation's procedures for dealing with workplace bullying. That may mean confronting the person or people, or discussing the issue with the HR team.
Above all, don’t ignore the feeling and hope it goes away. Address what you can within yourself, acknowledging your emotions and where they come from, recognising your vulnerability, and practicing self-compassion. Then, if you do need to take further action, you’ll be able to do so from a place of psychological strength and clarity.
I can help resolve conflict and improve workplace culture. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’d like advice or support in creating a psychologically safe workplace for your employees. I can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/debbiesonin or by phone on 0413 145 925.