It hurts to feel excluded

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Carol Kinsey GomanYou are brought into a room to play a computer game. On the screen you see your avatar, a computerized graphic that represents you in this virtual environment. You also spot the avatars for two other players, both of whom you assume are physically located with their own computers in similar rooms.

At first it is fun and easy – a simple ball-tossing game over the Internet. Then, about half way through the game, you notice something odd. It seems as though the other players are excluding you. In fact, soon they completely stop throwing the ball to you and are interacting only with each other. You don’t know why it’s happening, but you know you are being rejected.

Later you are told that there were no other human players, only a software program designed to exclude the test subject (you!) at some point. But even when you learn the truth, you can’t shake the feeling of being snubbed. You still feel as if you were left out of the game for some personal reason . . .

At least that is how you respond if you are typical of the subjects in this experiment held by social neuroscientists at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) a few years back. The research project was designed to make people experience rejection, and then to find out what goes in the brain as a result.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) equipment, researchers tracked the blood flow in the brains of “rejected” subjects and made a surprising discovery: When someone feels excluded there is corresponding activity in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex – the neural region involved in the “suffering” component of pain. In other words, they found that the feeling of being excluded provokes the same sort of reaction in the brain that physical pain might cause. It was also found that both physical and emotional suffering respond positively to Tylenol.

For business leaders this research is meaningful, as the experiment shows that it really doesn’t take much to make people feel left out.

This finding is especially interesting to me as an executive coach and body language expert. As I’ve often told leaders, the nonverbal signals that make someone feel excluded or unimportant are often slight: letting your gaze wander while he or she is talking, leaning back, crossing your arms, or angling your torso even a quarter turn away (in essence, giving someone “the cold shoulder”).

If you were my client, I’d also let you know that an occasional lapse won’t demoralize your team. But if you are continually off-handed, neglectful or unresponsive to certain individuals, your nonverbal behaviour could be seriously destructive to the trust and collaboration you are seeking to foster.

I’ve seen how team spirit can disintegrate as those individuals who feel that they are being discounted simply withdraw. The sense of unease created by that withdrawal then broadcasts itself subliminally (by a processes called “emotional contagion”) to the whole group. And there goes the leader’s hopes for high morale, collaboration, and productivity.

So think about the UCLA research the next time you lead a meeting. Realize that when you appear to play favourites by using more positive nonverbal signals – smiles, eye contact, forward leans, etc. – with some people than with others or when your body language actually excludes some individuals, those behaviours can result in “hurt” feelings that are, actually, painful.

If all else fails – remember to pass around the Tylenol.

Troy Media columnist Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.

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By Carol Kinsey Goman

Dr. Carol Kinsey Goman is an international keynote speaker for corporations, conferences, universities, and government agencies. She is an authority on the impact of body language in the workplace. Her list of clients span more than 300 organizations in 26 countries.