Workplace ostracism: A misunderstood behaviour
- Workplace Behaviour Research Centre
Workplace ostracism is an organisational phenomenon occurring daily in almost every organisation, affecting both managers and team members.
What is workplace ostracism?
Ostracism at work has been recognised by Sandra Robinson, professor in organisational behaviour at the University of British Columbia, and her colleagues as the omission of action taken by an individual or a group in engaging another individual when it is appropriate to do so. It's the failure to invite, include, select, or acknowledge another person or group at the workplace.
At work, ostracising others or being ostracised appears in formal and informal interactions. Regarding the former, ostracism includes not replying to one’s emails and the absence of inclusion during meetings such as when one's opinions are ignored, or eye contact is avoided. Being treated as non-existent intentionally and systematically over a long time denotes being organisationally shunned.
Ostracism via informal interactions includes the deliberate exclusion of someone in casual socialisation or a friendly conversation by, for instance, stopping a conversation when someone walks in or speaking in a language that person doesn’t understand.
No attention is worse than negative attention!
Workplace ostracism is the most 'subtle' form of deviant workplace behaviours. By contrast, other forms of incivility, such as bullying or harassment, are “loud”. In other words, they entail taking action verbally and producing ‘negative attention’, which is easy to witness. On the other hand, no action is taken concerning ostracism. Through avoidance and exclusion, an individual experiences 'no attention'.
Whether emotionally hurting someone, avoiding conflict, or protecting oneself or the group well-being, people tend to omit action – give ‘the silent treatment’ – rather than committing an action, such as overt bullying. The question around whether ostracism has objectively taken place, and the intention behind it, is often hard to detect and prove. This can lead to the person being ostracised feeling even worse.
Workplace ostracism: why it matters?
Treating someone as an invisible entity through avoidance or ignoring not only affects the employee’s performance and productivity but damages their well-being. Some cope by engaging in anti-social behaviour such as deviant workplace behaviours (e.g., sabotaging the organisation's properties as a revenge mechanism) whereas others may behave pro-socially, such as helping others to gain acceptance and strengthen interpersonal relationships to get along.
Laboratory experiments conducted in 2019 show that the psychological or emotional pain felt by someone who is rejected, excluded, or ignored, is the same as that of a physical injury. It is possible to argue that the reason behind this finding is that being treated as unworthy of attention is deeply hard for a person because the silent nature of this phenomenon makes it difficult to determine the intention behind such treatment.
Workplace ostracism across culture
Cultural background plays an integral role in the way people react to and cope with exclusionary situations. In-depth understanding of workplace ostracism considering culture is crucial for organisations due to its powerful prediction of key employees' responses. Culture prescribes social norms that affect how people cognitively interpret social cues that are practiced daily.
In the West, people's emotional expressions (the behaviour that communicates the innate emotions) are congruent with their feelings (inner emotional state) and criticism is communicated explicitly and recorded formally. For example, if someone is angry (a feeling) they may shout at someone (emotional expression). Westerners tend to interpret being ignored or rejected as anti-social behaviour.
By contrast, in the East, confrontation is avoided to maintain social relationships and emotions are suppressed. Thus, indirect communication, such as body language, silence, or facial expressions, in such societies is a normative way to express oneself where people draw conclusions from silence and body language.
Recent studies suggest that cultures that emphasise social harmony and interpersonal bonds, such as Eastern cultures, are more threatened by ostracism. In such societies ostracism is used as a reaction to incivility, or other unfavourable behaviours. Thereby, ostracism is an attractive strategy within interdependent cultures when conflict occurs to avoid confrontation, and maintain harmony.
When an Omani middle manager was asked the reason behind using ostracism instead of confrontation or other strategies with his employee in an interview as part of my research on ostracism in Oman and the UK, he answered: “From my perspective, no one will use the silent treatment unless with the ones close to your heart. I mean, if a stranger did something wrong, you could immediately face him, tell him what bothers you, and punish them because there is a lack of harmony between you... you feel sorry to use that approach and prefer to use the silent treatment instead as a most delicate approach.”
Researchers have only recently recognised that though forms of ostracism are similar across cultures, responding and coping with ostracism might be culture-specific. Therefore, it is still unknown how cultural background impacts ostracism in work environments and what organisational antecedents are influencing ostracism in different cultures.
I aim to understand how ostracism is perceived in Oman and the UK, what forms of ostracism are most common in each culture, and how it affects the coping mechanisms adopted by the target of ostracism. I hope the findings of this study will inform training and seminars on the seriousness of this phenomenon and how to offer a professional helping hand for those suffering in silence.
Share your story!
If you are a British citizen over 18 years old working full-time, have experience of silent treatment at work, and are willing to be interviewed as part of this study on workplace ostracism, please email me at: email@example.com.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.