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March 14, 2018 | Dr. Joan Fulton, Dr. Kipling D. Williams and Dr. John Foltz

Enhancing Employee Performance

An employee feeling included (or ostracized) can have major effects on their performance

It is a real understatement to say that today’s business environment is highly competitive. As feed and grain business managers, you know the importance of efficiency and making full use of all of your resources to remain competitive and stay in business. This includes all of the inputs you use in your business. Keeping your capital equipment in good repair increases operational efficiency. Having an efficient system for ordering grain and feed ingredients, transportation and logistics for these input purchases and then managing this inventory is critical for your bottom line.

But what about your human resources? Putting programs in place to ensure that your employees are as productive as possible is as important (and maybe more important) for the success of your feed and grain business as your other inputs. We all know the impact on productivity and business when employees are giving their best. Then there are other times when it just doesn’t seem to “click” for employees. In this column we look at whether or not employees feel included (or ostracized) in the organization, and the impact that can have on their performance — and in turn the bottom line for your business.


We collaborated with Dr. Kipling Williams for this article. Dr. Williams is a professor of Psychological Sciences at Purdue University who conducts research in ostracism and social influence. His research results provide important insights concerning the impact of ostracism or “being left out” on employee performance.

Williams reports that he became interested in ostracism back in 1978, having watched a television documentary on WestPoint “silencing” a cadet for 2-1/2 years for an honor infraction. It wasn’t until 1985, however, that he found a method that distilled the feeling of ostracism quickly, and minimally so that he could — from a research perspective — examine the impact of ostracism in the laboratory. At a park (with his dog), an errant Frisbee rolled up to him.   He turned around and threw it back to the two guys who had thrown it. He was going to sit down again but, to his surprise, they threw it back to him, so he joined them. After a few minutes, however, they began to throw it only to each other, and never again to Williams. He was hurt and surprised! 

He returned to his dog – and then the realization hit him. This interaction provided all of the aspects of a perfect episode for future research. The Frisbee/ball toss involved very little context, no conversation, and no complicated background.  Thus he adopted it as his method for inducing ostracism for his research. Initially, he used a face-to-face ball toss game. The research unfolded as follows. Groups of three individuals waiting for the experimenter to have things set up began tossing a ball around. Two of the individuals were actually assisting the experimenter – or in other words, the experiment began without the participants realizing (to obtain the full human reaction). As the balls were being tossed, half the actual participants continued getting the ball for the five-minute experiment while the other half had been randomly assigned to only get a few throws at the beginning, and none thereafter. This experimental approach was very powerful, and so he searched for another method that could be easily replicated for research experiments.

While in Australia at the University of New South Wales, Williams collaborated with two undergraduate honors students Christopher Cheung and Wilma Choi, and developed “Cyberball.” In this task, participants sitting alone in front of a computer are told to toss a virtual ball to two other players, by positioning the mouse over their animated icons and clicking. Half the participants were included in this virtual ball toss, the other half got the ball once or twice at the beginning, and never again. The results of these experiments are much more powerful than many would have expected. Even though participants in these experiments didn’t meet the others ahead of time, had no expectation of meeting them afterward, and were told by the researcher that it didn’t matter who was throwing and who was catching, they still experienced powerful negative consequences of being ostracized. These research results shed critical light on the importance of individuals feeling included and have implications for employee productivity in the workplace.

Figure 1. A screenshot of “Cyberball.” The participant is represented by the hand at the bottom of the image.

In the following few paragraphs we summarize the outcomes of Kipling Williams’ research. Ostracism — being ignored and excluded — is employed across cultures, genders and ages, and has been identified as an important force in the workplace. Individuals report experiencing one act of ostracism a day in which they feel they are being, at least temporarily, ignored and excluded by others. In the workplace, this could mean that one’s co-workers don’t give eye contact, don’t respond to questions, don’t invite the person to important work-related meetings or opportunities or don’t invite the person to after-work social gatherings.

Although workplace bullying is also important and prevalent, ostracism appears to be more prevalent because it is more difficult to monitor and punish. Workers also claim that it seems to be a less severe option. However, research on employees who experience ostracism and/or bullying have shown that, while both are damaging and threaten important psychological needs of belonging, self-esteem and control, ostracism further threatens the need to be acknowledged and noticed. Perhaps this is why research has shown that the downstream consequences of workplace ostracism are more longlasting than workplace bullying, resulting in more absences, higher rates of withdrawal, poorer workplace performance, lower workplace civility and quitting.

Ostracism, even very brief episodes by strangers, is detected as pain in the brain. The same parts of the brain that respond to physical pain respond to the social pain of ostracism. Ostracism causes people to feel less “belonging,” a psychological need that is associated with resilience, rising to challenges when faced with obstacles, and persistence. Loss of belonging can also result in compromised immune functioning, physical ailments, depression, suicidal ideation and attempts, and shorter lifespans. Ostracism lowers self-esteem, and reasonably high self-esteem is also a predictor of rising to challenges, working hard, and being engaged and invested in tasks. Ostracism reduces a sense of control over your environment.

Unlike disagreements or even physical abuse, which involve some degree of give-and-take, ostracism is unilateral. If co-workers (or employers) don’t respond to what you are doing or saying, you can’t stop them from using it. It’s as though you are invisible and have no influence over what is taking place. This feeling of control loss can result in the desire to regain a sense of control that can be achieved through acts of provocation, aggression, theft, dishonesty and even workplace violence. Finally, ostracism deprives the individual of a very basic human desire — the desire to be noticed and acknowledged. Research has shown that people would prefer negative feedback than no feedback at all. When workers feel invisible, then they are apt to do anything to draw attention, even negative attention, to themselves.

Ostracism also affects performance. While targets of ostracism may try to “get along to go along,” their creative input might suffer because they try too hard to be like everyone else. They feel less effective on the job and are quicker to quit difficult tasks. Prolonged ostracism leads to demotivation for all tasks — feeling disengaged, giving up and not trying. Physiological stress (cortisol increases, irregular heart rate, physical coldness) also occurs, resulting in erratic and error-filled performances.

Impact on employee performance

An important takeaway from Kipling Williams’ research is that ostracism in the workplace can negatively impact your bottom line; or if addressed — can positively impact your bottom line! Remember, the research demonstrates that even small things that result in employees not feeling included can negatively impact the individuals and their performance. The good news is that, as a manager, you can take action to help ensure the creation and maintenance of an environment that is inclusive — where everyone feels valued and included.

Your first step is to look out for and identify those situations where some employees may feel excluded. To get started, here are a few situations where some employees often feel left out or excluded: fantasy sports leagues, local softball team, lunch or happy hour groups. You are probably thinking — “wait a minute these activities involve long-standing traditions in our business that result in very positive interactions for a certain group of employees.” This is very true and a key part of the challenge — since you don’t want employees feeling excluded — but you may also not want to abolish activities that are beneficial to other employees. Instead, work to adapt situations so that all are included.

Being conscious of whether invitations and/or announcements for events are distributed to everyone is very important. There are often subtle things in the workplace that result in some employees feeling excluded. For example, if the décor in the office consists primarily of older white males (often because pictures of former managers are hung throughout the business), then women and people of color will not feel like this is a place where they belong and certainly where their career can excel. You can’t change the roster of your former managers, so consider other things for the wall. This could be an opportunity to bring in some artwork — perhaps highlighting the art from children in your local schools.

In many of your businesses, there is a lot of jargon/terminology associated with grain marketing and selling feed. Most of your employees will be very comfortable with this terminology. Pay attention when you hire new employees who may not be familiar with all of the terms and help them to understand what is going on.

Watch for these points and then act. A good way to watch out for this is to think of the concepts of diversity and then inclusion in your workforce. We have written several recent columns where we have provided insights on how you can diversify your workplace as a winwin situation (Enhancing a Diverse Business Environment, January 2016 and Embracing Diversity Because It Means Good Business Sense, January 2017). Once you bring diversity into your business it’s important to work on inclusion. As we see from Kipling Williams’ research, employees from different backgrounds may experience feelings of ostracism. Ensuring that your employees all feel included as part of your business team is critical to getting the most from your employees and in turn can be critical for the bottom line of your business.

Possible actions

So, what are some things you can do? Find informal/formal mentors for new employees so they can learn and thus feel part of your team. Encourage the establishment of new and different office traditions — don’t eliminate the fantasy sports — but ensure that those practices are in fact open to everyone and encourage other ways that your employees can interact and build community. Lunch or happy hour events — move those from being the “good ole boys club” to more official events and ensure that everyone is invited and encouraged to participate. Call on people equally in staff meetings. Evaluate your reward structure and change as needed. Facilitate training/education to enable new employees to get up to speed on grain markets and specialized terminology.

In conclusion, full productivity from all of your inputs and especially your human resource inputs is critical for success in today’s competitive marketplace. Ensuring you have an environment where all of your employees feel they can “bring their whole selves to work” will improve employee productivity and in turn your bottom line!

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