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Pushed Outside the Inner Circle at Work

Exclusion as a form of workplace bullying.

Key points

  • Bullies use exclusion as a tactic to enforce compliance and obedience.
  • Employees who are perceived as different, possess a unique expertise, or exhibit high cognitive functioning are more likely to be excluded.
  • Bullies who practice exclusion tend to have a conflict-avoidant leadership style.
Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

Workplace bullying, according to Jerry Carbo, president of the National Workplace Bullying Coalition, is “the unwanted, unwelcome abuse of any source of power that has the effect of or intent to intimidate, control, or otherwise strip a target of their right to esteem, growth, dignity, voice or other human rights in the workplace."

Tactics of workplace abuse include gossip, beratement, humiliation, gaslighting, sabotage, exclusion, and ostracization. Often the presence of workplace abuse is blatant, but other times the bullying is passive, ambiguous, and easy to discount. Exclusion is one of those fly-under-the-radar strategies in the bully’s playbook that results in the victim’s thwarted sense of belonging and intense and prolonged psychological suffering (Riva & Eck, 2016).

Exclusion is an act of omission not commission, distinct not in what is done to the victim but what is left undone. Though at times all of us are mistakenly left out of a meeting or consultation in which it makes logical sense for our inclusion, such instances are oversights, evident by the fact that when we call the matter to the responsible party’s attention, she acknowledges the omission and offers us an opportunity in the future to contribute. However, when it comes to workplace bullying, the exclusion is purposeful, calculated, and repeated, resulting in the victim’s body registering the hurt similarly to physical pain (Riva, Wirth, & Williams, 2011). Despite the intense suffering caused by purposeful exclusion in the workplace, research shows bullies and bystanders consistently underestimate and dismiss the extent of their torment (Nordgren, Banas, & MacDonald, 2011).

Why Do Bullies Use Exclusion as a Tactic?

Imagine a nurse who is left out of a case study meeting concerning her long-term patient, the principal who is denied access to staff salary reports when attempting to advocate for equal pay amongst teachers, or the colleague with the most marketing expertise who isn’t consulted on issues of the company’s rebranding. What are the motives behind these exclusions?

Bullies often create an inner circle of compliant colleagues who will not threaten their reign, while purposefully excluding talented and curious employees who could question them. Research shows the act of exclusion is rooted in Social Control Theory, which charges perpetrators to use diverse strategies to enforce obedience. Exclusion is effective in reaching this goal, for humans’ innate need to belong makes some willing to abandon their values and beliefs in order to gain access to the inner circle. Research indicates that employees who assimilate and conform to cultural norms, refraining from asking critical questions, are less likely to be excluded because their presence tends to be neutral, allowing the bully to maintain the dominating voice without pushback (Robinson, O’Reilly, & Wang, 2013).

Who Gets Excluded and Why?

Employees who are consistently relegated to the outside of the inner circle tend to share three common characteristics. First, they may hold opposing objectives to their superiors (Wu, Ferris, Kwan, Chiang, Snape, & Liang, 2015). For example, perhaps the head of a company is focused on covering up the unethical behaviors of several employees while one of the managers is interested in diving into the entanglement to search for the root causes of the knot. Such employees hold what researchers refer to as an “agency,” as opposed to a “communion” perspective. Workers with agency tend to be self-starters, original thinkers, and internally motivated. Those with a communion perspective, on the other hand, have a higher need to belong and hence prioritize group cohesion and group membership over productivity and originality (Kim & Glomb, 2010).

Second, employees who are perceived as different are more likely to be excluded from critical conversations, meetings, and projects. Unfortunately, though many schools, organizations, and companies proclaim a desire for diverse thoughts, experiences, expertise, and backgrounds—in practice they have a history of excluding those who look, sound, think, and act differently (Jones & Kelly, 2010).

Third, employees who are highly skilled and exhibit exceptional cognitive ability, are frequently pushed to the periphery, likely because their competence serves as a threat to those in leadership positions. This trend, however, means those with the most expertise in solving problems are often excluded from decision-making in order for the bully to maintain a sense of self-worth and power (Mao, Liu, Jiang, & Zhang, 2018).

Characteristics of Leaders and Cultures Who Practice Exclusion

Leaders who maintain a tight inner circle tend to be passive-avoidant; in other words, they surround themselves with people who validate their ideas and worth, while excluding those who are curious and question (Glambek, Skogstad, & Einarsen 2018). These bullies often possess a fragile ego, inclining them to use the concealment of information as a strategy for avoiding confrontations that may expose their shortcomings (Yuan, Yang, Cheng, & Wei, 2021). Cultures that promote and maintain conflict-avoidant leaders, often lack accountability measures and a shared system of values that direct decision-making (Robinson, O’Reilly, & Wang, 2013). As a result, those who reside on the periphery, feel discounted, disconnected, and invisible.

Repercussions of Exclusion on the Victim and the Culture

Employees who are consistently excluded from conversations and opportunities in which they could positively contribute are more likely to withdraw from the work community, suffer increased physiological suffering, give their superiors lower ratings, and start to actively seek out new employment (Williams & Govan, 2005). Cultures that employ conflict-avoidant leaders breed an “us against them” mentality, which over time, diminishes the vitality and trust amongst group members (Jones & Kelly, 2010). As a result, these cultures tend to drive out their most productive and creative thinkers, leaving them with passive and compliant box-checkers who stagnate the organization's growth and innovation (Robinson, O’Reilly, & Wang, 2013).

How Can We Prevent Exclusion at Work?

Organizations that are committed to evolution and growth and openly proclaim the power of difference, need to make a conscious effort to widen the circle and invite deep and diverse thinkers to the table. To do this work, organizations must promote courageous leaders who profess original ideas and welcome the opportunity to engage in fruitful debate (Wirth, J. H., & Williams, K. D. 2009). Employees can facilitate this change by soliciting the ideas and expertise of those who have historically been silenced, sending the message they value excellence and complexity of thought over compliance and conformity.

References

Glambek, M., Skogstad, A., & Einarsen Ståle Valvatne. (2020). Does the number of perpetrators matter? An extension and re-analysis of workplace bullying as a risk factor for exclusion from working life. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 30(5), 508–515.

Glambek, M., Skogstad, A., & Einarsen, S. (2018). Workplace bullying, the development of job insecurity and the role of laissez-faire leadership: A two-wave moderated mediation study. Work and Stress, 32(2), 297–312.

Jones, E. E., & Kelly, J. R. 2010. ‘Why am I out of the loop?’ attributions influence responses to information exclusion. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(9): 1186–1201.

Kim, E., & Glomb, T. M. (2010). Get smarty pants: Cognitive ability, personality, and victimization. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(5): 889–901.

Mao, Y., Liu, Y., Jiang, C., & Zhang, I. D. (2018). Why am I ostracized and how would I react? A review of workplace ostracism research. Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 35(3), 745–767.

National Workplace Bullying Coalition. (N.d). Retrieved from https://www.workplacebullyingcoalition.org/workplace-bullying.

Nordgren, L. F., Banas, K., & MacDonald, G. (2011). Empathy gaps for social pain: Why people underestimate the pain of social suffering. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 120–128.

Riva, P., & Eck, J. (Eds.). (2016). Social exclusion: Psychological approaches to understanding and reducing its impact. Springer International Publishing.

Robinson, S. L., O’Reilly, J., & Wang, W. 2013. Invisible at work: An integrated model of workplace ostracism. Journal of Management, 39(1): 203–231.

Riva, P., Wirth, J. H., & Williams, K. D. 2011. The consequences of pain: The social and physical pain overlap on psychological responses. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41: 681-687.

Williams, K. D., & Govan, C. L. (2005). Reacting to ostracism: Retaliation or reconciliation. In D. Abrams, M. A. Hogg, & J. M. Marques (Eds.), The social psychology of inclusion and exclusion (pp. 47–62). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Wirth, J. H., & Williams, K. D. 2009. They don’t like our kind: Consequences of being ostracized while possessing a group membership. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 12: 111-127.

Wu, L. Z., Ferris, D. L., Kwan, H. K., Chiang, F., Snape, E., & Liang, L. H. (2015). Breaking (or making) the silence: How goal interdependence and social skill predict being ostracized. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 131, 51–66.

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