New York, NY (July 2013)—Consider the power of belonging. Adolescents will change their speech, dress and behavior to “fit in” with peers. Inner city teens will commit crimes—including murder—for the privilege of wearing gang colors. Adults, too, gain much of their identity from the neighborhoods they live in, the churches they attend, the political parties they align with. Yes, belonging to “the tribe” is a human need we never grow out of—yet Christine Comaford says most leaders neglect it in the workplace.
“Many companies have fostered cultures of exile,” says Comaford, author of the New York Times best seller “SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together” (Portfolio/Penguin, June 2013, ISBN: 978-1-5918464-8-2, $26.95, www.SmartTribesBook.com). “No one is purposely making people feel they don’t belong, but they’re also not proactively making them feel they do—and that’s a huge, huge mistake.”
Belonging, along with safety and mattering, is a basic human drive. After food-water-shelter needs have been met, we must feel that we’re safe, that we matter and that we belong. If not, we can’t seek self-actualization, or as Comaford calls it “being in our Smart State”—meaning we can’t perform, innovate, collaborate, or do any of the other things it takes to survive in our global economy.
“This is Maslow 101,” Comaford said. “Exile is a deep-rooted, very primal fear. The way our critter brain sees it is: ‘If I’m not part of the tribe, then I must not matter and I’m surely not safe. A lion is going to eat me. My only goal right now is survival so I am going to do and say whatever will keep me safe.’ ”
When employees feel this way, they hide out, procrastinate, or say what the boss wants to hear instead of what she needs to hear. Such behaviors are devastating for business. When they occur chronically, not only will your company be unable to move forward and grow, it may flounder and fail.
No wonder Comaford’s business—teaching leaders neuroscience tactics that get teams unstuck, out of their “Critter State” and into their “Smart State”—is booming. (“I regularly see clients who master these techniques and quickly see their revenues and profits increase by up to 200 percent annually,” she notes.)
“People will never speak up and say they feel they don’t belong,” she says. “It’s just too scary. It’s up to you as the leader to diagnose the problem and take steps to fix it.”
Here are several red flags that indicate you may be fostering a culture of exile:
• Certain people get preferential treatment. Maybe there are different sets of rules for different employees: “exempt” people and “non-exempt” people. (Many companies harbor “Untouchables”—people who were hired and most likely over-promoted because they are related to (or friends with) someone in power.) Or maybe the CEO always plays golf with Drew and Tom, but not Greg and Alan.
“Preferential treatment is a leadership behavior, and it’s extremely damaging,” says Comaford. “It’s a major culprit in making people feel exiled. I counsel companies who have this problem to include it in their Leadership Code of Conduct and insist that all leaders adhere to it.”
• Cliques and inside jokes flourish. Sure, we all “click” with certain people more readily than we do with others. That’s only natural. But if you notice some employees seem to be regularly excluding others—maybe members of a certain department socialize after work but one or two people are not invited—take it seriously, advises Comaford. Those who are left out know it … and it doesn’t feel good.
“It’s amazing how little difference there can be between high school dynamics and workplace dynamics,” she says. “And while leaders can’t (and shouldn’t) interfere with friendships between employees, they can set an example of inclusion. They can have frank discussions on the hurtfulness of making someone feel exiled. They can hold fun workplace events and celebrations to strengthen bonds between all coworkers.
“The point is, it’s worth making an effort to help everyone feel they belong,” she adds. “Generally leaders do set the tone, so when you focus on belonging, everyone will.”
• There are obvious and visible signs of hierarchy. At some companies there’s a stark division—maybe even a chasm—between, say, the executive suite and the hourly workers. The white-collar guys are on a higher floor with nicer furniture, while the blue-collar guys are lucky if the bathroom is maintained. To many people this may seem like the natural order of things—but Comaford says this attitude is precisely the problem.
“Is it really a good idea for the physical workplace to say, ‘We’re in the gated community while you’re in the trailer park’?” asks Comaford. “Leaders may not think of it that way but, believe me, those under them do. In my work I see a lot of tension between white-collar workers and union workers—there’s this pervasive attitude that because the union guys don’t have the same level of education they can’t be part of the tribe.”
(Comaford notes that when her company launches innovation initiatives with clients, she finds it’s the union employees on the manufacturing line who often have the best ideas for streamlining production and boosting quality. It’s just that no one has ever looped them in on initiatives before—and therefore they don’t feel like part of the tribe!)
“I know, I know: This is a huge, messy, sensitive topic,” she adds. “But what belonging really means is everyone is equal and marching forward together. We really need to do all we can to work toward this goal, and getting rid of some of the symbols of divisiveness would be a good start.”
• Entrenched silos lead to information withholding and turf wars. Of course, departments are, by definition, different from each other. Still, they needn’t be alienated from each other. Comaford says it’s possible for departments to be “different” in a healthy way—IT is a band of cool pirates, while salespeople are wild and crazy cowboys and cowgirls out there on the range—while still marching forward together.
“It’s okay for groups to have their own identity, yet they must still be able to link arms and help each other toward that end goal,” she adds. “That’s the beauty of helping get people out of their Critter State—when they have that reassuring sense that they belong to the company overall, they don’t have to close ranks and play power games. They can share and collaborate because now it’s safe to do so—we’re all in this together.”
• There is no path for personal development or advancement. True belonging is knowing you’re not just a cog in the machine. It’s knowing employers care about your future and want you to live up to your potential. It’s knowing “I might just be a stock clerk right now but I could be a division manager one day—and the company is willing to help me get there.” That’s why Comaford encourages her clients to implement Individual Development Plans for every employee at every level.
“When people see their IDP, they think, Okay, the company’s purpose is this, my part is this, and we’re all going into this glorious future together,” she explains. “It tells them, ‘You’re safe here; we’re planning on you being here for a long time. You belong. We bothered to lay out this plan just for you, and you clearly know what you need to do to grow here. You’re part of the tribe, and we’re putting energy into figuring out how you can be part of the tribe in a bigger way.’”
Making employees feel that strong sense of belonging can send performance into hyperdrive, says Comaford.
“When people feel they truly belong, they will open up their minds and do everything in their power to make sure the tribe is successful,” she says. “They’ll come to work jazzed and engaged and 100 percent on.
“You absolutely cannot inspire this kind of presence, this deep involvement, in employees with coercion or bribery or even logic,” she adds. “It happens on a primal, subterranean level, and when it does, the transformation is amazing to witness.”