Direct Marketing Article
Are You Creating a Culture of Exile? Five
Warning Signs Your Employees May Lack a Vital Sense of Belonging
By Christine Comaford
When employees feel they belong, they'll give you their all. When they
don't, well, you'll get only crumbs. Christine Comaford explains why
belonging is such a powerful human drive and offers tips on what you can do
to foster it.
Consider the power of belonging. Adolescents will change their speech,
dress, and behavior to "fit in" with their peer groups. Inner city teens
will commit crimes-including murder-for the privilege of wearing gang
colors. Adults, too, gain much of their identity from the neighborhoods they
live in, the churches they attend, the political parties they align with.
Yes, belonging to "the tribe" is a human need we never grow out of-yet
Christine Comaford says most leaders neglect it in the workplace.
"Many companies have fostered cultures of exile," says Comaford, "No one is purposely making people feel they don't
belong, but they're also not proactively making them feel they do-and that's
a huge, huge mistake."
Belonging, along with safety and mattering, is a basic human drive. After
food-water-shelter needs have been met, we must feel that we're safe, that
we matter, and that we belong. If not, we can't seek self-actualization, or
as Comaford calls it "being in our Smart State"-meaning we can't perform,
innovate, collaborate, or do any of the other things it takes to survive in
our global economy.
"This is Maslow 101," says Comaford. "Exile is a deep-rooted, very
primal fear. The way our critter brain sees it is: 'If I'm not part of the
tribe, then I must not matter and I'm surely not safe. A lion is going to
eat me. My only goal right now is survival so I am going to do and say
whatever will keep me safe."'
When employees feel this way, they hide out, procrastinate, or say what the
boss wants to hear instead of what she needs to hear. Such behaviors are
devastating for business. When they occur chronically, not only will your
company be unable to move forward and grow, it may flounder and fail.
No wonder Comaford's business-teaching leaders neuroscience tactics that get
teams unstuck, out of their "Critter State" and into their "Smart State"-is
booming. ("I regularly see clients who master these techniques and quickly
see their revenues and profits increase by up to 200 percent annually," she
"People will never speak up and say they feel they don't belong," she says.
"It's just too scary. It's up to you as the leader to diagnose the problem
and take steps to fix it."
Here are several red flags that indicate you may be fostering a culture of
• Certain people get preferential treatment. Maybe there are different sets
of rules for different employees: "exempt" people and "non-exempt" people.
(Many companies harbor "Untouchables"-people who were hired and most likely
over-promoted because they are related to (or friends with) someone in
power.) Or maybe the CEO always plays golf with Drew and Tom, but not Greg
"Preferential treatment is a leadership behavior and it's extremely
damaging," says Comaford. "It's a major culprit in making people feel
exiled. I counsel companies who have this problem to include it in their
Leadership Code of Conduct and insist that all leaders adhere to it." (NOTE:
See Sample Leadership Code of Conduct, attached.)
• Cliques and inside jokes flourish. Sure, we all "click" with certain
people more readily than we do with others. That's only natural. But if you
notice some employees seem to be regularly excluding others-maybe members of
a certain department socialize after work but one or two people are not
invited-take it seriously, advises Comaford. Those who are left out know
it…and it doesn't feel good.
"It's amazing how little difference there can be between high school
dynamics and workplace dynamics," she says. "And while leaders can't (and
shouldn't) interfere with friendships between employees, they can set an
example of inclusion. They can have frank discussions on the hurtfulness of
making someone feel exiled. They can hold fun workplace events and
celebrations to strengthen bonds between all coworkers.
"The point is, it's worth making an effort to help everyone feel they
belong," she adds. "Generally leaders do set the tone, so when you focus on
belonging, everyone will."
• There are obvious and visible signs of hierarchy. At some companies
there's a stark division-maybe even a chasm-between, say, the executive
suite and the hourly workers. The white-collar guys are on a higher floor
with nicer furniture, while the blue-collar guys are lucky if the bathroom
is maintained. To many people this may seem like the natural order of
things-but Comaford says this attitude is precisely the problem.
"Is it really a good idea for the physical workplace to say, 'We're in the
gated community while you're in the trailer park'?" asks Comaford. "Leaders
may not think of it that way but, believe me, those under them do. In my
work I see a lot of tension between white-collar workers and union
workers-there's this pervasive attitude that because the union guys don't
have the same level of education they can't be part of the tribe."
(Comaford notes that when her company launches innovation initiatives with
clients, she finds it's the union employees on the manufacturing line who
often have the best ideas for streamlining production and boosting quality.
It's just that no one has ever looped them in on initiatives before-and
therefore they don't feel like part of the tribe!)
"I know, I know: This is a huge, messy, sensitive topic," she adds. "But
what belonging really means is everyone is equal and marching forward
together. We really need to do all we can to work toward this goal, and
getting rid of some of the symbols of divisiveness would be a good start."
• Entrenched silos lead to information withholding and turf wars. Of course,
departments are, by definition, different from each other. Still, they
needn't be alienated from each other. Comaford says it's possible for
departments to be "different" in a healthy way-IT is a band of cool pirates,
while salespeople are wild and crazy cowboys and cowgirls out there on the
range-while still marching forward together.
"It's okay for groups to have their own identity, yet they must still be
able to link arms and help each other toward that end goal," she adds.
"That's the beauty of helping get people out of their Critter State-when
they have that reassuring sense that they belong to the company overall,
they don't have to close ranks and play power games. They can share and
collaborate because now it's safe to do so-we're all in this together."
• There is no path for personal development or advancement. True belonging
is knowing you're not just a cog in the machine. It's knowing employers care
about your future and want you to live up to your potential. It's knowing "I
might just be a stock clerk right now but I could be a division manager one
day-and the company is willing to help me get there." That's why Comaford
encourages her clients to implement Individual Development Plans for every
employee at every level. (NOTE: See attached tipsheet.)
"When people see their IDP, they think, Okay, the company's purpose is this,
my part is this, and we're all going into this glorious future together,"
she explains. "It tells them, 'You're safe here; we're planning on you being
here for a long time. You belong. We bothered to lay out this plan just for
you, and you clearly know what you need to do to grow here. You're part of
the tribe, and we're putting energy into figuring out how you can be part of
the tribe in a bigger way.'"
Making employees feel that strong sense of belonging can send performance
into hyperdrive, says Comaford.
"When people feel they truly belong, they will open up their minds and do
everything in their power to make sure the tribe is successful," she says.
"They'll come to work jazzed and engaged and 100 percent on.
"You absolutely cannot inspire this kind of presence, this deep involvement,
in employees with coercion or bribery or even logic," she adds. "It happens
on a primal, subterranean level, and when it does, the transformation is
amazing to witness."
About the Author:
Bill Gates calls her "super high bandwidth." Bill Clinton has thanked her
for "fostering American entrepreneurship." Newsweek says, "By reputation,
Christine is the person you want to partner with."
Christine Comaford is a global thought leader who helps mid-sized and
Fortune 1000 companies navigate growth and change, an expert in human
behavior and applied neuroscience, and the bestselling author of Rules for
Renegades. Her latest book, New York Times best seller SmartTribes: How
Teams Become Brilliant Together, was released in June 2013. She is best
known for helping CEOs, boards, and investors create predictable revenue,
deeply engaged and passionate teams, and highly profitable growth. Her
coaching, consulting, and strategies center on increased accountability,
communication, and execution. The results? Hundreds of millions of dollars
in new revenue and value for her clients. Under her guidance, clients often
see their revenues increase by 30-110 percent annually, profits increase by
17-200 percent annually, and sales close 50 percent faster.
During her incredibly diverse career, Christine has consulted to the White
House (Clinton and Bush), built and sold five of her own businesses with an
average 700 percent return on investment, and has helped over 50 of her
clients to exit their businesses for $12-425 million. She is a leadership
columnist for Forbes.com and is frequently quoted in the business and
technology media. To learn more, visit