5 minutes reading time (901 words)

The Exclusion Zone

exclusionPhoto by Markus Spiske on Unsplash


Human beings are fundamentally social animals. Social exclusion tells  our emotional brain that    social relationships are threatened or damaged. Exclusion tells us there is a crisis; we experience a visceral emoptional reaction that stays with us for a long time.


Recently, I was on a company’s collaboration app as a “guest”. We were waiting for others to join and using the time to chat and catch up. One team member began to play with some new functionality on the app. It was clearly fun and the rest of the team joined in. There were a lot of high energy exchanges and laughter as they explored the new stuff.

Being signed-in as a “guest”, I could not see or join in with what they were doing. They were oblivious to this, so no-one made any effort to include me. Now, my rational brain didn’t care, but my emotional “monkey” brain was going crazy with feelings of rejection and exclusion.

Why did I experience such a visceral reaction to such an unimportant event?

Well, it turns out that being excluded triggers all five of the most powerful threat responses;

  • Status – exclusion tells us that our participation is not important to others
  • Certainty – being excluded means that we don’t know, or understand what is happening and why
  • Autonomy – thing are happening that affect us that we cannot control because we are not involved
  • Relatedness – this one needs no explanation!
  • Fairness – I did nothing to deserve being excluded and no-one did anything to include me
    (Ref 2008 by David Rock, "SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating With and Influencing Others."

Of course, I got over the event quickly; my rational brain realised that this was a technical constraint, that the team did not realise they were excluding me and it was only a bit of fun. BUT I have not forgotten the emotional response. That’s the other feature of exclusion; you never forget how it made you feel.

This is something that leaders must keep front of mind. We hear a lot about the benefits of inclusion for the quality of decision-making, problem-solving and innovation. However, we can’t involve everyone in everything. So, we also need to consider how we avoid the negative impact of exclusion.

The Extended Leadership Team
It’s now quite common for C suite teams to create some kind of extended leadership team in order to grow inclusion, develop future executive talent or improve the quality of decision-making. The benefits are clear, however very often such initiatives create the problems related to exclusion.
To mitigate this, consider;

  • Articulating and communicating a clear purpose
  • Articulating and communicating very clear inclusion criteria
  • Give members responsibility to consult/update specific groups
  • Make membership time-bound
  • Rotate involvement around all who meet the inclusion criteria

The Hybrid Working Design Team
Most organisations have had to consider the future design of working practices post-pandemic. The teams entrusted with this are very intent and focused on the crucial task that has been delegated to them. As a result, they often and unintentionally create mistrust and fear in the wider community.
This is true for any project team that is working on something that will affect the lives of others. However, there are ways to be more inclusive and to add value to the work;

  • Publish the purpose and outcomes for the team and create an online space for suggestions and questions
  • Find ways to consult the wider population; surveys, focus groups
  • Delegate some work to cross-functional sub-teams; review of induction, protocols for communication, upskilling on remote working tools.
  • “Test” recommendations with functional teams
  • Consider what need to be a “rule” and what could be a “guideline” and give functional teams as much autonomy as possible to do what works for their customers

The Remote Team
Remote teams, where no-one is co-located, have specific challenges. The most obvious one is how to grow connection and a sense of belonging. Belonging comes from things like;

  • Sharing a clear and meaningful purpose.
  • Being recognised for individual unique accomplishments, talents and value. Being invited to contribute thoughts/ views/ perspective or advice.
  • In meetings, individual contributions are asked for and valued
  • Being able to bring our whole self to work, it’s safe to be vulnerable and also to be yourself, not who you “should be” – the point is made that this is not an excuse for “bad” behaviour towards others, or not adapting behaviour to the situation, but about the psychological safety to express ourself/ have a point of view.

These do not happen by accident; they have to be intentionally created and maintained. Remote teams have a need to create time and space to grow connection and belonging. A great example of this comes from the team at Simon Sinek. They have a weekly check-in which you can watch on You Tube. I like the simple format;

  • A “presence” exercise
  • High Fives – showing appreciation for each other/support
  • A question of the week
  • A personal share; what’s great, what sucks, why I do what I do
  • No “task” stuff
  • Lightly facilitated and good time-keeping
  • Everyone speaks

 So leaders, be aware of the exclusion zone and the SCARF triggers that may be activated. Then use and optimise positive SCARF triggers to offset the negative.

If you have more ideas to offer about avoiding the exclusion zone, please feel free to share.

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