HUMAN RESOURCES / SEP. 23, 2014
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Why Ostracism Is So Damaging At Work

I’ve written a number of times on this blog about the popularity recognition has in the workplace.  We dearly love to feel valued and respected, and this desire underpins the need to make feedback a much more regular event in our working lives.

It’s probably rather logical therefore that the opposite of recognition would make us feel pretty awful at work, and that is what a recent study shows.

The study, led by a team of researchers from the University of British Columbia, found that being ostracised was one of the single most upsetting things we can experience at work.

It’s an important finding because traditionally the creation of negative emotions in the workplace have revolved around bullying.  Whilst this is still a major issue, with some 20% of employees reporting that they had to leave a job as a result of bullying, the research suggests that ostracism is even worse, both for our physical and mental well being.

Ostracism hurts more than bullying

The research involved a series of surveys conducted by the research team.  The surveys were designed to discover how people felt about both harassment and ostracism in the workplace, and also their experiences of both conditions.

Interestingly, the survey results appear to suggest that people generally felt that ostracising a colleague was something that was socially ok to do, and certainly much more acceptable than bullying that person.

The perception was that ostracising them would be much less hurtful to their feelings than actively bullying them.

A second survey revealed a quite different picture however.  This additional study explored the respondents’ actual experience of both bullying and ostracism, and this direct experience painted a very different picture.

Whilst the perception was that ostracism wasn’t really so bad, when they themselves experienced it, it was found to be much more damaging than direct bullying and harassment.

Why ostracism leads to resignations

Respondents would reveal that they were much more likely to resign from their job as a result of ostracism.  They also revealed they were much less engaged in their work, and even reported a greater number of health problems as a result.

“We’ve been taught that ignoring someone is socially preferable — if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.  But ostracism actually leads people to feel more helpless, like they’re not worthy of any attention at all,” the researchers say.

What’s more, a final study revealed that ostracism was the most effective way of getting people to leave their jobs.  If you imagine they aren’t they, then it literally becomes true.  Respondents revealed that when they experienced ostracism in their workplace, they were much more likely to have left the role within the next few years.

This compares to those who were bullied, who revealed that they weren’t really any more likely to leave their jobs as a result of their treatment.

“There is a tremendous effort underway to counter bullying in workplaces and schools, which is definitely important.  But abuse is not always obvious.  There are many people who feel quietly victimized in their daily lives, and most of our current strategies for dealing with workplace injustice don’t give them a voice,” the research team concluded.

The conclusions make sense, don’t they?  Part of why recognition is so powerful is that it makes us feel wanted and valued.  Ostracism does the opposite.  We’re not even worth the effort of being bullied.

Have any of you experienced this in your workplace?  How did it make you feel? Plese comment.

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