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The damage to your business created by exclusion.
Your business case for an inclusive culture

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We recently conducted research with companies about their diversity and inclusion initiatives. We wanted to understand how these successful ‘lighthouse’ organisations were moving the dial on creating an inclusive culture with particular reference to gender bias. Virtually every senior HR person and business leader we spoke to said their priority was to create an inclusive culture. There were various definitions of what this meant and quite a few people who couldn’t describe what an inclusive culture would look and feel like.


In asking people about the business case for inclusion one variable that was missing was the business impact of the exclusion people felt in a culture that failed to focus on inclusion or wasn’t getting the definition of inclusion right.

Focus on difference a mistake

In our research, there was still a majority of companies which were focusing on minority groups and this may be one of the reasons we are seeing little progress on inclusion surveys and targets. Research by Valarie Purdie-Vaughns, from Yale found that focusing on difference makes minorities uncomfortable, increasing feelings of exclusion rather than decreasing them. Whilst people in the majority can feel resentful, confused and anxious, particularly if they are implicitly blamed for a lack of inclusive behaviour and when expectations about the “correct” behaviour are unclear, according to research by Victoria Plaut from Berkeley.

By focusing on minorities, we are emphasising some people are excluded and we are scrambling to bring them into the group.

The biological impact of exclusion

Studies by Naomi Eisenburger at UCLA found being excluded activates our pain system, suggesting that it is a threat to our very survival. When we’re excluded from a meeting, when we don’t get invited to key meetings, when our ideas are ignored… the pain we feel is experienced in the same areas of the brain as physical pain.

The pain of rejection or humiliation is just as real as a stubbed toe. Whilst social pain may “feel” different (just as the pain of a stubbed toe feels different to stomach cramps), the networks processing it in the brain are the same. And the research found one of the by-products of pain is a numbness and lack of emotion. When first hit with a severe and painful injury, the body goes into shock that brings numbness (such as by releasing opioids). This potentially explains some of the passivity we see around exclusion in the business environment.

Taking a conventional painkiller like aspirin, actually relieves the pain of social rejection. Lieberman who did the research with Eisenburger maintains that the existence of this tangible social pain is evidence that evolution has treated social inclusion as a necessity, not a luxury and exclusion as a threat to survival.

We are first and foremost social

Human beings are social, and they are social in ways that no other animal is. Most animals take their cues about behaviour from their five senses, but humans mainly learn about the world from each other. Social connection is crucial to many factors we value in business: we learn better in a social environment, we are more creative when we have positive relationships, we have more energy and are more resilient.

Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary reviewed extensive research findings for their article ‘The need to belong’, which showed that people are primarily guided by the drive to connect with others and that the majority of their thoughts, emotions, impulses and behaviours are at least indirectly the results of that drive. The way people think, act, feel and want are deeply linked to this drive to of connect with others.

In that context, social exclusion is not simply a misfortune, “He didn’t get invited to the off-site, he’ll get over it”. It’s painful for someone. We tend to think of the pain of exclusion as somehow less impactful than physical pain. The pain of a bad back for example. But the research suggests we should be more concerned about the potential pain generated by excluding others especially when this is done inadvertently without the opportunity for amends.

In the late 1990s Baumeister and his colleagues did a number of laboratory studies on the effects of social exclusion and rejection. They wanted to test their theory that belongingness is important, and social exclusion creates issues in several areas. Areas important to business and the quality of life generally. They found a number of behavioural impacts related to being excludes.

Aggression and withdrawal

Their research found that excluded people became more aggressive toward others. The aggression was not limited to attacking the people who rejected them. Aggression was increased towards a new person who criticised or otherwise provokes the rejected person. Aggression even increased toward a neutral, innocent third party. The only exception they found was that if a new person treats the rejected person favourably, offering friendly praise, then there is no increase in aggression. (No decrease either, compared with non-rejected control groups.) Apparently, exclusion prepares people to view the world with suspicion and hostility.

Aggression was not the only behaviour to increase. The researchers found increases in other types of antisocial behaviour. For example, socially excluded people were more likely to cheat on a test

Prosocial behaviour, was also reduced. Excluded people were less likely to help others in a variety of ways. The research included – donating money to the Student Emergency Fund, cooperating with another participant on a Prisoner’s Dilemma game, granting a favour requested by the experimenter, or even just bending over to help pick up pencils after the experimenter had accidentally spilled them onto the floor.

Excluding people in work may well increase the likelihood of interdepartmental tension (especially where departments are clustered by gender, race or age), criticism of the ‘in-group’ and a lack of cooperation. Only if someone clearly comes across as a friend is this aggressive, unhelpful attitude suspended.

Self-defeating behaviour

In addition, exclusion led to significant increases in self-defeating behaviours. Excluded people were more likely than control participants to take foolish, risky decisions. They procrastinated more, they made more unhealthy choices, such as preferring a fattening snack over a healthy option.

The research team felt that the combination of findings presented a puzzle. Why would rejected people become both selfish and self-defeating? Clearly, self-interest is not a full explanation. These findings lead the researchers to look at self-regulation. Self-regulation helps people overcome selfish, antisocial impulses and do what is socially desirable. It also helps prevent self-defeating behaviour, which often comes as a result of impulsive behaviour without considering the long term consequences. A breakdown in self-regulation might therefore produce both the antisocial and the self-defeating behaviour patterns.


Given the hints in their studies that self-regulation was an important factor Baumeister conducted a series of experiments to test the impact of exclusion on self-regulation. The results found a strong and consistent reduction in self-regulation among socially excluded people. They ate more snack food, consumed less of a healthy but bad-tasting medicine, and gave up faster on a task requiring them to hold their hand submerged in ice water. Asked how they would advise a friend choosing between two jobs, they took the short-term gain (high starting salary but poor prospects for career advancement) over the long-term one (lower salary but better long-range prospects). They also found it difficult to maintain attention on tasks.

In one study the researchers offered people money to perform well on an attention control task. In that condition, rejected people performed well. Thus, they could regulate their attention if given a good reason to do so, but they don’t exert themselves to self-regulate on behalf of someone else.

Overall the results showed that if inclusion is withheld, then people cease to self-regulate. They lose the willingness to make the efforts and sacrifices to alter their behaviour according to the norms of the group.

Exclusion makes people stupid

Baumeister and co also looked at intellectual performance. They say the results provided dramatic evidence of the harmful nature of exclusion.

It’s possible to hypnosis that social exclusion would improve intelligent thought. If you are part of a group, you can benefit from what others know and do. In contrast, if you can’t count on others, you need to be much smarter to get by. In nature, humans can survive with help from others or by their own problem-solving capabilities and efforts. An increase in intelligent thinking would be an adaptive response to exclusion.

Social exclusion led to substantial drops in intellectual performance when the task required the individuals to actively guide or supervise their thinking process. There were large drops in logical reasoning, and in making links between information, and in the ability to read a passage and then make inferences or draw conclusions from the information contained in it. These are just the types of intellectual processing we need in business. Excluding people may well be reducing the intellectual capacity of large groups of people in your workforce. In contrast, rote memory was unaffected, as was answering questions based on general knowledge.

These findings link to the self-regulation results. Excluded people seem poor at controlling mental processes, whereas their automatic information processing is relatively unaffected. Social exclusion mainly impacts intellectual performance on tasks where concentration, focus and control of distractions is needed.

In summary we can expect being excluded to impact performance, intelligence, social control, self-awareness and wellbeing. Baumeister’s research shows exclusion leads people to be less helpful, to be lethargic and to have low self-esteem.

How to mend exclusion

The research found that when previously excluded people are invited into the group they are more likely than others to choose to work with someone, to allocate praise and cash rewards to a new partner, to self-regulate, and to view others as potentially friendly and accepting. And if exclusion is threatened the researchers found similar efforts to connect with others to avoid exclusion.

These finding make sense given the need to belong is a basic and powerful motivation. Excluded people should try harder than others to secure acceptance. This points to the value of creating an inclusive culture. Obviously, it’s not as simple as saying “Welcome”, especially when exclusion is endemic and repeated. In many cases rejection makes people suspicious, hostile and antisocial. But when a reassuringly safe prospect of forming a new relationship does present itself, people who were recently excluded seem willing and even eager to take it.

One important thing to remember is our brain notices something like 3-5 times more negative behaviour than positive. This is our negativity bias at play. Whilst this was of course useful for survival it makes creating an inclusive culture even more challenging. What this means is if the culture is neutral people are probably experiencing it as excluding. Inclusion needs to be consistent and deliberate.

Our research found the data on exclusion is rarely used as part of the business case for creating an inclusive culture. Yet there is compelling evidence that exclusion is damaging to relationships and business goals like collaboration and making the most of the intellectual capacity of the workforce.


Jan Hills is the author of several books including Brain-savvy Wo+man. You can read more on creating an inclusive culture in the book. Her company Head Heart + Brian uses an understanding of neuroscience in leadership development, gender consulting and inclusion.    



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