Okay, I'm being a tad melodramatic but there is a serious point to my argument so hear me out. As a left-handed person there are certain things that annoy the heck out of me. Writing cheques, using scissors, withdrawing cash from a cash machine (the card slot is always on the right), tapping in with my Oyster card (again, always on the right), writing on a flip chart, using a ruler etc. The list could go on. The chances are, if you are left-handed you will relate to some or all of the above. If you are right-handed, I bet you have never even thought about it! Fact is, left-handers are in the minority (10% of the population) and we live in a right-handed world. That means that life is just that bit easier for right-handed people. Now don't get me wrong, I get by just fine but I'm being forced to adapt to right-handed ways. This is a simple illustration of an insider-outsider dynamic which may sound trite, but when put into a workplace setting has a much more serious impact.
Imagine I am a manager looking after a team of around 20 people. My personal circumstances mean that I am able to stay late at work whenever I need to. Over time, I might make unconscious assumptions about staying late and things like commitment and loyalty. If I'm not careful, I might offer more opportunities to those who are also part of my insider group (those in the team who also stay late regularly) versus those who need to run out of the door at 5pm (the outsider group). My decision making might be impacted (and blinded) by this dynamic when thinking about things like work allocation, who to take with me to a client meeting, who to offer a secondment to, who to put up for promotion etc. In essence I might give those who are part of my insider group a 'leg up' without realising that i'm doing it - i just have an unconscious preference for those who are part of my group. Those being offered the leg up also won't see it - it's hard to notice when you're on the inside. The outsiders however are painfully aware of their outsider membership and notice opportunities passing them by in favour of those who are part of the insider group. Imagine the impact this has on engagement, morale and inclusion.
Of course the above is just one example of an insider-outsider group dynamic at work. In any organisation there will be multiple groups formed by things like nationality, language, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, how you behave, hours you work, client facing / non-client facing role and so on. If left unattended insider-outsider group dynamics can have a hugely negative impact on inclusion. So if you are a manager what should you do? Firstly, this is not about avoidance - this is about human behaviour. It is almost impossible to avoid insider-outsider groups forming but as a manager there are a few simple steps you can take to ensure your decisions are less impacted by any group 'membership':
- Be honest. Think about the insider-outsider groups that exist in your team. Ask yourself which groups you belong to and whether you have unconscious preferences as a result.
- Create an environment that allows the outsider voice to be heard. As a leader you need to ask those on the outside how things look from their perspective. They have a smaller voice and you therefore need to create the space for everyone to be heard.
- Challenge the decisions you make. Do the decisions you make afford opportunities to everyone in your team, regardless of their group 'membership'?
- Make a change. Sometimes small adjustments to the way you make decisions can have a huge impact.
This is mostly about noticing the dynamic and slowing our thought processes down. A little extra thought can go a long way to help those in outsider groups to feel valued, motivated and engaged. It doesn't have to be earth-shattering, just something like the equivalent of giving your left-hander a pair of left-handed scissors!