The Hidden Workplace Dynamic That Is Killing Your Company’s Inclusion

If your team has insiders and outsiders, you aren’t cultivating a truly inclusive environment.

Diversity and inclusion aren’t just trendy business buzzwords. Research suggests that companies that embrace diversity perform better than companies that don’t make it a priority. But hiring a diverse workforce is only half the equation.

In order for companies to truly reap the benefits of the diverse thinking, backgrounds, and ideas of their workforce, employees have to feel comfortable, safe, and empowered to be themselves. They need to be able to express their opinions and ideas. To take smart risks. To feel not just like they’re invited to the table but that they have a voice at the table. This is what is meant by inclusion.

There are many actions leaders can take to foster an inclusive environment in their teams. I discuss one of the most crucial–psychological safety–in a recent column.

But there are workplace dynamics that can harm efforts at creating inclusion. One of the most damaging is the dynamic of insiders and outsiders.

Who are insiders and outsiders?

The terms “insider” and “outsider” might bring to mind popular teenagers who actively exclude others from joining their clique. But in the context of a corporate environment, the behaviors at play can be much more subtle, embedded, and even undetected to some.

For example, consider one of my clients: Jeff, who works for an international tech company. Jeff’s team is comprised of people in the same time zone as the corporate headquarters, while others, like Jeff, live several time zones away. Jeff often starts his day by working on a project, only to learn the company changed direction or canceled the project completely the night before. He and his immediate colleagues were left out of the decision making because they were asleep. Jeff feels like an outsider, while the rest of his team are perceived as insiders.

Culture can unintentionally create insiders and outsiders.

Jeff’s experience was a result of structural challenges. But workplace culture can unintentionally create an insider/outsider dynamic, too.

Workers who smoke might discuss business with other smokers during smoke breaks, leaving non-smokers out of the loop. A company might schedule activities around drinking during its annual summit, making non-drinkers feel left out. A manager might simply respond more positively to outgoing personalities, elevating their voices and ignoring those who are more reserved.

What’s the impact of an insider/outsider dynamic?

When an insider/outsider dynamic exists, there can be unintended bias in decision making and unconscious biases in the selecting and grooming of individuals for promotion. There can be excessive barriers based on hierarchy–those on the “outside” simply can’t break through the barriers that would place them on the “inside.”

This dynamic can also create unequal and inequitable standards. Simply said, the “insiders” can seem to operate with their own rules and norms, while the “outsiders” don’t know what those are.

What leaders can do to break down the barriers.

The key action leaders can take to dismantle an insider/outsider dynamic is to be mindful of it.

They should be aware of when the dynamic is occurring and take immediate steps to override it: Share information; include all invested parties in decision-making; amplify voices that aren’t being heard; share the unwritten rules with people who don’t know them; elevate and empower people so they can break through the barriers of hierarchy.

Only when insider/outsider dynamics are shattered can leaders start to build toward a truly inclusive environment.