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Volume 20, Issue 25;   June 17, 2020: An Introduction to Workplace Ostracism

An Introduction to Workplace Ostracism

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We say that a person has been ostracized from a group when that person is ignored by the members of that group or excluded from participating in that group's activities, and when we might otherwise expect that person to be a member. Workplace ostracism can have expensive consequences for the enterprise.
Three gulls excluding a fourth

Three gulls excluding a fourth. Social isolation is a favored tactic of bullies and other perpetrators probably, in part, because outside observers can have difficulty detecting it. Even when targets register complaints with authorities, the evidence they supply can seem subjective, delusional, and overly suspicious. Authorities receiving such complaints tend to dismiss them more often than is justified by the facts.

Perhaps the most common form of workplace ostracism is the isolation tactic used by some bullies against their targets. To employ the tactic, bullies induce their allies to systematically avoid interacting with their targets. The bullies demand that their allies withhold information from their targets, preventing them from attending or even knowing about meetings or upcoming deadlines or opportunities. The goal is to harm the targets emotionally, causing them to withdraw socially, or even better, to strike out against the bullies' allies, which then enhances the targets' social isolation. It's a painful experience for all.

But workplace ostracism has many forms. In terms of the enterprise mission, most of these forms are unhelpful. Understanding ostracism and recognizing it in all its forms can enhance social harmony and make the enterprise more productive.

Not all incidents of excluding or ignoring an individual from an activity constitute ostracism. Two attributes distinguish malignant ostracism from benign exclusion or ignoring.

Expectation of inclusion
There must be a general expectation that the excluded individual would otherwise be included in the activity. Such an expectation on the part of any individual is not enough. For example, we would not characterize as ostracized any individual who expected to be included, but was not, unless such expectation was reasonable and widespread among the larger group.
Intentional exclusion
The exclusion or ignoring of the individual must have occurred as a result of a deliberate and conscious choice to exclude the individual so as to make a statement about the individual's rights, abilities, or worth. An accidental omission from an invitation list to join a task force would not be sufficient evidence of ostracism.
But intention Understanding ostracism
and recognizing it in all its
forms can enhance social
harmony and make the
enterprise more productive
to exclude is not sufficient to confirm ostracism. The intention must be such as to cause harm to the target. For example, at times, in some over-constrained situations, we cannot devise a schedule that enables everyone to participate in a given event or series of events. We might then intentionally schedule an event knowing that the schedule will cause a certain individual to be excluded. But because we did not intend harm to that individual, the exclusion is not ostracism.

Understanding these two attributes is helpful in noticing what is (and what is not) ostracism and in devising responses to those observations.

As the excluded individual
If you perceive or suspect that you're being ostracized, take an inventory of the evidence. What data do you have that supports the idea that you were excluded intentionally, and excluded so as to harm you? Are you certain that the exclusion isn't the result of a simple error? Are you certain that the exclusion was unavoidable? Feeling excluded is painful. You can ease the pain somewhat, or even completely, if you can find convincing evidence that the exclusion was benign.
As one of the group excluding an individual
Mistakes happen and scheduling can be difficult. But when someone is excluded by accident or constraint, pain is avoidable. Act preemptively to reduce the risk that the excluded people might feel ostracized. Explain what happened and ask for permission to apologize for the exclusion. And make certain that the slight is not repeated.
When the exclusion is ostracism, the temptation to lie about it — to falsely deny it — can be overwhelming for the people who ostracized someone. Claiming that the exclusion was a mistake, or that it was unavoidable, when in fact it was neither, risks compounding the offense by implying that the person ostracized is also naïve enough to accept such transparently false excuses. Work out whatever problems led to the incident. It's hard work. But failing to do that work only makes the situation more difficult.

Because human society is so complex and rich, workplace ostracism appears in many forms, and can arise in many ways. Watch for it. Watch even more closely for innocent situations that seem to involve ostracizing someone, but which are nothing of the kind. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Planning Dysfunction Cycle  Next Issue

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