“I used to think the worst thing in life is to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone” (Robin Williams, 1951-2014)

A UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) study by Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman discovered that the part of the brain that experiences pain when you cut your finger is the same part activated and agitated when you feel excluded. They hooked a student up to a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine (fMRI) and had him take part in a computer simulation game throwing the ball to two other people. After about 10 minutes of inclusion in this exercise, he was then excluded and was never thrown the ball again. The act of being excluded showed up in his brain patterns as a physiological reaction (Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams 2003). The study further concluded that taking a painkiller minimised the pain of exclusion, just as it reduces the pain when you cut your finger. (This, however, is not recommended as a strategy for organisations to deal with exclusion!)

The pain of exclusion is devastating. It gnaws away at your self-respect. It blunts any feelings of personal value and self-confidence you may have had. It produces anxiety and self-doubt. It impedes discretionary effort and lowers levels of productivity. It induces depression and disrupts sleep patterns. It makes you ill. Research shows one in four employees don’t feel like they belong. The results are relevant across companies, industries, and demographics. One can only imagine the statistics for under-represented employees.

Alinda Nortje, founder and chairperson of Free To Grow, pertinently notes: “A sense of belonging is such a critical engagement driver for most people. We feel we belong when we feel safe to be fully ourselves. Psychological safety is where every person in an organisation can bring their whole self to work – no hiding, no censoring, and no pretending to be someone else. When you have a psychologically safe environment, people communicate and collaborate effectively, and a culture of curiosity and creativity is cultivated”. Altman adds: “When a team or organisational climate is characterised by interpersonal trust and a climate of respect, members feel free to collaborate and they feel safe taking risks. This ultimately enables them to implement rapid innovation”.

A psychologically safe workplace begins with a feeling of belonging. Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — which shows that all humans require their basic needs to be met before they can reach their full potential — employees must feel accepted before they’re able to improve their organisations.

According to Dr Timothy Clark, “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation”, employees must progress through the following four stages before they feel free to make valuable contributions and challenge the status quo:

  1. Inclusion Safety: Inclusion safety satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong. In this stage, you feel safe to be yourself and are accepted for who you are, including your unique attributes and defining characteristics.
  2. Learner Safety: Learner safety satisfies the need to learn and grow. In this stage, you feel safe to exchange in the learning process, by asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting, and making mistakes.
  3. Contributor Safety: Contributor safety satisfies the need to make a difference. You feel safe to use your skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution.
  4. Challenger Safety: Challenger safety satisfies the need to make things better. You feel safe to speak up and challenge the status quo when you think there’s an opportunity to change or improve.

The reality in workplaces today is that people are more and more diverse than ever before. Diversity, however, does not equal inclusion. As Verna Myers wisely notes: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance”. Managers, at all levels, should follow the Society for Human Resource Management’s definition of inclusion: “The achievement of a work environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organisation’s success”. Nortje valuably adds: “Managers need to create more opportunities for contact, create safe containers for conversations and meetings, and confront bias or disrespectful behaviour”.

Accelerating inclusion at work requires intentionality and effort from managers. An included workforce performs better, offers more suggestions for improvement, and are more loyal to the brand.

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