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Ostracism more damaging than bullying

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Written by Julia Menard

That was the headline of a recent study from the University of BC. The study looks at the impact of “ostracism” in the workplace. This includes the subtle behaviours like not saying hello, not making eye contact or other ways of not acknowledging an individual’s presence.

I don’t know about you, but I have found at times, when I’ve been upset about something, it seems easier to simply walk away. Like the old adage says: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

However, over the years, I learned that although I may need to walk away to calm down (especially with family members!) – I need to say when I will return.

This small addition has made all the difference. It changed my impact from abandonment to taking a break.

This study says that being ignored at work is “worse for physical and mental well-being than harassment or bullying. Feeling excluded is significantly more likely to lead to job dissatisfaction, quitting and health problems. Ostracism actually leads people to feel more helpless, like they’re not worthy of any attention at all.”

Through a series of surveys, the researchers discovered that “people who claimed to have experienced ostracism were significantly more likely to report a degraded sense of workplace belonging and commitment, a stronger intention to quit their job, and a larger proportion of health problems.”

In one large organization, they have written into their policy that “ignoring someone” is one example of “bullying” behaviour.

Putting ignoring behaviour into your bullying policy allows employers a lot more leeway with how to deal with the behaviour in provinces in Canada that have personal bullying and harassment legislation. It can also give employees more concrete vocabulary to identify behaviours that aren’t working for them and speak up.

Ostracism, according to Purdue University psychologist Kipling D. Williams, is experienced in three stages. In the first, “immediate,” stage, the rejected person feels pain. Williams’ research has found that it doesn’t matter who you’re being rejected by or “how slight the slight appears”. People playing a computerized ball-toss game feel “the grief of exclusion” when a cartoon figure ignores them. In the lab, “African-Americans feel immediate pain when a Ku Klux Klan member leaves them out.”

An alarm has gone off in the brain — the same part that registers physical pain: Belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful recognition are under attack.

The second stage is the “coping” stage, when people figure out how to “improve their inclusionary status.” They pay attention to every social cue; they cooperate, conform, and obey. If belonging is a lost cause, they look to regain control. In extreme cases, “they may try to force people to pay attention.” For instance, a 2003 analysis of school shootings found that 13 of the 15 perpetrators had been ostracized.”

The third stage is resignation. Ostracism is depleting, so at some point, you give up. You become depressed, helpless, and despairing.  Even memories of rejections that are from a long time ago can bring up those feelings.

What is the action going forward if you think ostracism might be a way of coping in your team or organization?

The first step could be to talk about it generally – with a few people and eventually with your whole team, your supervisor, your organization. Decide together what you think about ostracism. Enage in an inquiry together. What do you think about it? What do you think it looks like? How does it impact you? What’s a person to do instead of ignoring someone? After all, even small children are taught to “walk away” when they can’t cope with the present situation. We also don’t want workplaces where everyone is forced to talk with each other. So what are the minimum standards for respectful behaviours when upset? And what are the mechanisms to engage in conflict constructively? And to repair harm?

You could also share information – this article or the link to the new study. This can also be a starting point for more conversation about people’s opinions about ignoring as a coping mechanism for upset feelings.

You can review your bullying policy. Does it have specific agreements around what ostracism look like in your organization? Do people know about the policy? Does the policy work or does it need to be revised in some way?

If you have any stories to share about how to deal with ostracism at work, I’d love to hear them!

“In contrast to how a child belongs in the world, adult belonging is never as natural, innocent, or playful. Adult belonging has to be chosen, received, and renewed. It is a lifetime’s work.”
… John O’Donohue

About the author

Julia Menard

Have you ever wondered why you can be so calm and rational for your clients, but when it comes to your own life, stress can creep in so easily? That’s the quest I set out on when, after 20 years as a mediator, my own marriage disintegrated. I teamed up with a therapist from Portland, and we wrote a book that captures much of what I’ve learned over the last five years about finding a the calm in the chaos. Hold On To Yourself: How to Stay Cool in Hot Conversations is the result. If you are interested in mindfulness, finding the leader within and engaging the gifts in conflict, then check out my website and sign up for my free monthly newsletter at: http://www.juliamenard.com/.

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