You come into work late from a doctor’s appointment—you have a pre-arranged agreement with your boss for your tardiness. Your officemates greet you with an icy stare and then, with a quick turn, begin whispering something barely audible to their cubicle mates. You take your place at your desk while peeking quickly at your smartphone to see if any of your kids have sent you a text message. Seeing none, you settle into your morning work routine. You begin setting up your phone to receive calls when all of a sudden a work colleague startles you by tossing a piece of paper onto your desk. She says in a snarky tone, loud enough for the adjacent cubicles to hear, “You screwed up this order and I had to fix it—no thanks required.” You observe more huddling and whispering. And then she follows with, “Oh by the way, check your personal email on your own time!” Despair and total shutdown…
According to Judith E. Glaser in her article on the HBR Blog Network entitled, Preventing Rejection at Work, “Rejection, or the fear of it, is a powerful social trigger — and, at work, it can be a debilitating one.”
So why is this effect so debilitating? The brain manages rejection in a manner similar to a threat to one's life. These types of threats are a blow to one’s status within the workgroup. They trigger threat mechanisms resulting in a fight or flight response and a massive injection of stress hormones. When these mechanisms take over, the ONLY thing the human mind is capable of doing is responding to the threat.
Consequently, the analytical and reasoning parts of the brain, shutdown and defer to the hardwired responses in our limbic system, the most primitive parts of the brain. When we are threatened the limbic system goes on autopilot. Once triggered there is nothing a person can do. The phenomena can continue for hours.
Why is this a problem? Aren’t we simply talking about personality conflicts in the workplace? First and foremost, the problem hinders an employee’s performance by reducing the ability to think through problems, thus increasing the worker’s susceptibility to errors. A rejected employee will become preoccupied and incapable of managing anything more than the simplest of tasks until the threat response and chemical cocktail (adrenaline, testosterone and cortisol to name a few) subside and the affect wears off. If these threats are allowed to continue over time, or if they become widespread within workgroups, the entire team’s performance will suffer.
Second, the triggering behavior (the rejection) is in essence a form of harassment. This type of harrasment is becoming known in academic circles as “status blind harassment" (yes, there is actually a name for this behavior!). Harassment in all its forms is unacceptable in a professional workplace. Aside from exposing the company to legal action, it is morally wrong to allow this abuse to continue once it is discovered.
To look past these incidents by simply passing them off as “childish behavior” or characterizing them as “drama” does a disservice to the aggrieved individual and to the team. After all in today’s workplaces employees should be held to account as much for their contribution to the team’s performance as they are for their own performance.
This behavior is common where cliques are allowed to form. Cliques can form based on tenure, profession, social or economic class, race or ethnicity, gender, or any other factor that differentiates people from one another. In most cases cliques are easily managed, however under stress a clique’s behavior can deteriorate into “tribal warfare” (i.e. conflict between cliques), bullying or mobbing.
Tribal warfare is easy to understand, but what is bullying and mobbing? Bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators (source: Workplace Bullying Institute). Mobbing is "ganging up" by co-workers, subordinates or superiors, to force someone out of the workplace through rumor, innuendo, intimidation, humiliation, discrediting, and isolation (source: Mobbing-USA). Both constitute severe forms of emotional abuse.
How do managers break these vicious patterns of behavior? Effective strategies can be deployed; however, they require adept management and well-developed interpersonal skills. Unskilled managers can very easily make matters worse.
Key strategies from the literature include: addressing the issue by isolating the “king pins” or “ring leaders,” discussing with the team ways to create a more inclusive culture, mixing up seating arrangements at meetings, populating task forces with members from inside and outside the clique—i.e. making employees work together, sitting with employees in the workplace or mingling with them at breaks or at lunch to build relationships.
In our practice we've successfully used strategies such as defining acceptable and unacceptable workplace behaviors, establishing healthy team norms, creating agreed upon processes for communications, and writing policy for handling workplace conflict. All of these can be easily established and committed to in a workshop setting. All require strong, decisive leadership. Once these teams have rules in place, they should be able to police themselves.
If problems persist and a supervisor must intervene, these norms can serve as standards of conduct by which individuals can be held to account. Managers should use these criteria to gauge performance and gain compliance from those who don't honor the team's norms. Chronic misbehavior should be documented using the performance management toolsets already in place. Documentation can establish a record that may be used to justify future disciplinary actions.
Working through rejection issues and eliminating the potentially destructive practices of cliques is very delicate work. Managers, partnering with their Human Resource colleagues, must work through a full range of options and create a well-thought-out execution plan BEFORE attempting to address the problem.