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Understand the true cost of leaving people out

3 min read


This guest post is by Heidi Grant Halvorson, a motivational psychologist and author of “Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals,” which will be published Dec. 23. She is also the author and co-editor of the academic book “The Psychology of Goals.” Follow her on Twitter at @hghalvorson.

It happens all the time in the modern workplace: Someone gets left out of the loop.

Often, it happens unintentionally. A recipient gets left off an e-mail, or your colleague is on vacation when a development occurs and you simply forget to tell him about it when he gets back.

Sometimes, though, we leave people out of the loop on purpose, or strategically. We choose not to share information for political reasons, to consolidate power, for expedience or just to avoid dealing with someone who can be kind of a pain.

I’m sure that every manager who has ever decided to intentionally leave a team member out of the loop has realized that this strategy comes with some risk. You expect the excluded person to be, at the very least, a little annoyed.

You probably don’t understand, however, the magnitude of the risk you are taking and the psychological damage inflicted by this simple act. Getting “annoyed” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Human beings are acutely sensitive to social rejection and ostracism — it’s hardwired into our system, having evolved as a result of our reliance on other humans for survival. Psychologists call being “out of the loop” partial ostracism. You aren’t completely excluded from the group, but you feel that you aren’t completely included, either.

Research shows that even partial ostracism is quickly detected, and that lacking information that others in your group seem to have undermines not one but four fundamental human needs: the need for belonging and connection to others, self-esteem, the need for a sense of control and effectiveness, and the need for meaningful work.

A new set of studies shows that when people feel out of the loop, they immediately (often unconsciously) interpret it as a subtle sign of rejection. As a result, they report trusting and liking their bosses and colleagues less, feeling less loyalty to the company and feeling less motivated to perform.

Interestingly, this is true even when we believe that we have been left out of the loop unintentionally. Why? Well, even when someone accidentally leaves you out of the loop, you often suspect that they could have remembered if it was really important to them, if they really respected you. In the end, even inadvertent exclusion feels like a sign of low status.

So, when you are deciding whether to leave someone out of the loop, think seriously about the consequences of your actions. The short-term gains could be far outweighed by the significant losses of trust, cooperation, loyalty and motivation you create. Is it worth it?

Also, when you find that you have accidentally left someone out of the loop, remember that it’s important for people to feel that their status is respected and acknowledged. It’s worth it to go out of your way to repair the damage by letting them know how much they are valued.

Image credit: DoxaDigital, via iStockPhoto