Evolving Workplaces: Isolating IndividualsSep 08, 2022
The History of Isolation – our workplaces have a long and dark history with separation, isolation, and disconnection. Those in charge of the workplace had a fear of workers rebelling or refusing to do the work required so they kept a tight control on everything individuals did. One very effective method of control is to keep people separated and unable to connect, form bonds, and create relationships. If you’ve watched or read the Handmaid’s Tale, you’ve seen the extreme example of trying to prevent people from developing relationships or creating connections. But this example is not just fictional, in fact, the slaves in the south regularly experienced this type of treatment, as did those years later in factories, throughout history there are examples of trying to prevent people from connecting and bonding. This legacy has carried forward into today’s workplace, although it may be less obvious in its application. Rather than outwardly preventing connection, boding, and relationships – workplaces have allowed this but within very key limits.
Workplaces are isolating to those who are not the same as everyone else!
Whether the following behaviors are intentional or unintentional is arguable (depending on the workplace), but their effect is the same. When workplaces define their “cultures” or the “type of employee” who works there, they begin to establish practices that will have an isolating impact. These businesses create this list of “cultural fits” and then use that to hire people. Then, once hired, individuals are onboarded into these cultural behaviors and norms that “teach” them how to be like everyone else, operate like others, and what the limits are in the workplace. Individuals are quickly encouraged to assimilate to the expected norms in the workplace.
Now, some will argue that is a good thing, it creates clarity, community, and a clear culture. However, often what is determined to be “cultural fits” is underneath nothing more than an attempt to keep everyone the same or even cover for outright discriminatory behavior. Where some roles are considered more appropriate for a particular gender (e.g., sales guys and women in administrative roles), where those with “different backgrounds” (aka from another country) were not considered culturally aligned, where those who have piercings and tattoos are considered too liberal for this type of work, where someone with those “beliefs” is contrary to our culture.
How are cultures of isolation created?
Decisions are often made based upon gut instinct. Hiring managers will say things like, “I have a good feeling” “I can see this person in X role” “I know he’s got it.” These insights are actually tied to the individual’s self-identity. The hiring manager is attempting to hire based upon their own identity or image of what is needed - what a person who performs that role is supposed to look like, think like, and be like.
Hiring decisions are then based upon who fits the closes to that individual’s self-identity. Who feels like a cultural fit to that person? I’ve seen it so many times when we were hiring salespeople. I could guarantee I knew who they would pick because they would always pick the person who had the most similar education, background, and looks as they did (which meant they never chose women).
Say someone makes it past the hiring process (often because they kept a part of their true identity secret), now they are getting onboarded. They must learn all the ways this business operates and interacts - what is safe and what is not safe in terms of expressing opinions, perspectives, failing, challenging, and making mistakes.
They also learn which groups are favored, get more money and attention, which groups are considered unimportant, etc. As they assimilate to the culture (good or bad), they begin to learn what is needed to succeed in the organization (for better or worse).
I wish the decisions stopped at hiring and onboarding, but it actually continues from there. When there is a decision to provide development opportunities to another person research shows we are most likely to pick someone from our inner circle. Our inner circle is almost always made up of individuals who are the most like us – the most similar in terms of looks, background, and beliefs. Which means that then, growth and development is limited to those who fit the mold. If an individual is too different – in how they express themselves, how they think, what they believe, etc., then they are significantly less likely to be considered for development opportunities.
These development opportunities are not just the formal training events. They are the dinners, happy hours, and lunches that some individuals get invited to and others do not. Some get the opportunity for more development while others do not. I’ve seen this a lot in cultures where male leaders won’t go to lunch, dinner, or drinks with female employees, but they do with males. They take the male employees golfing or on trips, but the women are left out or behind. They don’t get the same exposure, relationships, or support as the male employees do.
Which leads us to promotion - how are individuals selected for promotion into a new role or leadership position? If they’ve had limited exposure to those who make the decisions, if they are different from those who make the decisions, they are significantly less likely to be chosen.
What happens as a result of these practices?
For those that do not match the cultural identity either outwardly or inwardly (because they are hiding their authentic self) it becomes very isolating. Workplace isolation is about whether they feel like they don’t fit in, don’t feel they’re welcome or they feel left out. This leads to:
- Lack of colleague bonding – they may not be able to work together smoothly, hinders trust, impacts the ability to get work done efficiently and effectively
- Lack of engaging workplaces – connection is a fundamental element to engagement, without these connections the workplaces become less engaging.
What are the problems with isolation and lack of connection?
First, people feel unsafe. This lack of safety causes their mental health to deteriorate – loneliness leads to depression, anxiety, and even suicide. It also weakens physical health. People are more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol, and we see a 29% increase in risk of heart disease; Stress of disconnection contributes to ADHD, addiction, anxiety, depression, heart disease, and suppressed immune systems
Secondly, they can’t be themselves. It affects interpersonal relationships because they start to experience emotional withdrawal, avoid events, stop communicating, which all disrupt healthy relationships between peers. It also perpetuates imposter syndrome where they are questioning their value and purpose of their work. Then these feelings lead to increases in turnover because they feel no attachment and are hiding themselves, so they leave the organization.
Finally, it prevents taking action. Most significantly, it decreases employee engagement due to a lack of belonging which reduces commitment to organization, and then they become detached from the organization and its success. It also declines job performance. We see people are less motivated to do work, they lack connection and attachment which translates to their work. Furthermore, it affects upskilling efforts. Studies show that those with social isolation experienced an above average decline in memory function.
All of which lead to the current reports of loneliness…
Report after report after report has demonstrated the epidemic of loneliness occurring in the workplace and it’s not just from people working remotely.
Loneliness is not the absence of people, but the absence of connection.
- Loneliness is impacting your team – 72% of global workers are experiencing loneliness right now!
- Loneliness hinders work performance
Why do people need inclusion and connection?
Human connection is when two or more people choose to engage in vulnerable interactions where each person is heard, seen, known, and valued.
We need to shift from isolating people to creating inclusive cultures that encourage connection.
Creating inclusion is not about making everyone be the same, it is about making it safe to be your true self no matter what that is. Stay tuned for a follow-up article on how to workplaces can transform their cultures to limit isolation and encourage connection!
Check out the Evolving to Exceptional Podcast Episode that talks about this topic more in depth here!
To get you started, here are some resources Evolving to Exceptional has to offer:
(1) Take our FREE course on Creating Exceptional Work & Life Experiences
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(5) Listen to the Evolving to Exceptional Podcast to hear our series on "Evolving Workplaces" from the old corporate machines of the past into new living beings!
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