Why performance improves when you avoid inflicting social pain

by | Nov 14, 2016 | Blog | 0 comments

in-group-of-birdsYes, you — the kind, considerate, empathetic person who respects others at work.

Even if your office nickname is “Mother Teresa” (or Saint Teresa of Calcutta), you still could accidentally be hurting your colleagues.  

For example, based on what you do – or don’t do — your colleagues might react in some or all of these six ways:

  • Experience a drop in their intelligence and reasoning skills
  • Become unwilling to cooperate and show other pro-social behavior
  • Have greater challenges regulating their emotions
  • Face difficulties in making healthy choices
  • Feel defensive and start to lack a sense of purpose
  • Suffer from impaired sleep, depression, and other health problems

What on earth could you do to provoke these strong reactions?

Make them feel excluded.

Perhaps they’re not part of your in-group. Or maybe they’re not on any special teams or projects. They possibly may believe they’re not being heard or their opinions don’t count. Or they may think they don’t have any opportunities to share what’s on their mind or their ideas.

Sound extreme?

The science says otherwise.

A number of neuroscientists and psychologists through brain-imaging and studies have shown that the brain reacts intensely to social situations, especially feelings of social inclusion and exclusion.

For example, let’s take you. Say you’re in an environment in which you feel social threats, such as you perceive that people think negatively of you for any reason. It could be because you’re outspoken, you’re quiet, or you’re of a certain age. Or it’s your gender, race, sexual orientation, dress, looks, or whatever.  And you start getting disinvited to important meetings or left out of small-group gatherings.

When you feel threatened, including feeling excluded, your brain reacts to the social pain by activating similar circuits as if you were experiencing physical pain. (See the blog post What’s your tolerance for pain at work?)

Yet, unlike the effects of physical pain, there’s no bodily evidence…no blood, no breaks or bruises of skin, no bones sticking out, etc.

Instead, when you feel social pain, especially feeling excluded, you can react in some or all of the six ways mentioned above. And you’re not alone. According to the neuroscientists, the consequences of exclusion – and inclusion – are universal to people everywhere.

These findings have major implications for our workplaces, especially since we’re living in a cognitive age in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.

To perform at our peak, all of us need to be in tip-top shape mentally as well as physically. This means being able to focus, think clearly, gather input, collaborate with others, make a case, decide, articulate plans, execute, evaluate, meet deadlines, etc.

So how do you avoid accidentally excluding others though your words, body language, habits, work processes, systems, and everything else?  

It’s not easy, especially since we can always misinterpret a slight. Plus, there’s evidence showing that educating people on the topic of inclusion and exclusion can actually make some individuals feel worse. As Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson of the NeuroLeadership Institute has explained, the education draws attention to those in the out-group who can become more anxious and threatened by their status.

Nonetheless, knowing about the science is better than being ignorant, especially if individuals also learn that our brains are biased toward detecting potential threats.

Every one of us is unconsciously scanning our environment all the time looking for things that could hurt us physically and socially, and then figuring out how to act.

Compared to physical threats, social threats are much more personal and nuanced.

To try to avoid unintentionally threatening others socially, all of us should make more of an effort to provide an environment that feels inclusive and rewarding. This means acknowledging others and the value they bring, helping them feel that they belong, providing opportunities and choices, and keeping everyone informed and involved.

And if you say or do something that comes across as more exclusionary than inclusionary, call yourself on it, publicly if possible.

For example, you can join me and exclaim:  “Bless my heart!” (I always have the best of intentions of being inclusive but the road to good intentions is paved with hell. For more about this, see Bless your biased brain!)

When we feel safe as well as included and valued, we can work smarter, more creatively, make better decisions and feel better mentally and physically.

What can you do to be more inclusive to have a positive impact on people and performance?


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