What to Do When You Find Yourself in the Out-Group

by Daniel B. Griffith, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

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I previously discussed The Leader’s Challenge to Ensure Employee Inclusion by addressing arbitrary in-group/out-group distinctions. While many leaders endeavor to create inclusive cultures, others remain unaware, uncaring or, in the worst case, committed (consciously or subconsciously) to fostering such distinctions.

What do you do if you believe you’ve been relegated to out-group status in your job and organization? The impacts on job and career growth can be significant as in-group members generally receive more and greater job, work, and career development opportunities leading to a greater likelihood of advancement, while out-group members find themselves getting further and further behind.

Your boss won’t tell you that you are part of an out-group or acknowledge he or she is doing anything to foster such distinctions. Your treatment will be more subtle and, therefore, more difficult to point out and correct. Is there truly an out-group or is there some other explanation for your feelings of exclusion? In this article, I provide insights for assessing and managing your job, work, and career when you feel stuck in an out-group cycle.

Assess the reality of the situation to confirm or reject the idea that you are in an out-group. I would suggest at least two possibilities that weigh against the existence of a true out-group. Consider these before consuming more time and energy believing you are being unfairly excluded.

First, systemic barriers within your organization may create a sense among multiple employees at multiple levels that opportunities for job growth and advancement are difficult to come by. For instance, in higher education, priority is generally given to providing resources and reward structures to support the growth and advancement of faculty to ensure the institution remains competitive in the quality of its education and research. Reward structures for staff may be different and seemingly less generous or frequent compared to what they may experience in corporate and other work sectors. Managers and administrators feel the pressure of these barriers as quality staff leave because they are not able to do more to support their career growth. But this is not an in-group/out-group situation.

Second, some employees have difficulty accepting that they are not currently at a level of performance to warrant greater consideration for growth and development opportunities. Fair reward structures are based on fair assessment of employee performance. This includes not just the ability to perform the duties of the job, but also considerations of employee conduct (or misconduct) and general attitude and motivation to perform the job and work within a team environment. Employees lacking the self-awareness and efficacy to understand their performance deficits may also rail against decisions that in their mind continue to exclude them and reward others. Employees who cannot accept fair feedback about their performance and who refuse to take steps to improve should not be surprised to find themselves, in effect, in an out-group of their own making.

Continue to assess your situation if you believe you may, in fact, be relegated to the out-group. Beyond feelings and perceptions, how do you know that you are in the out-group in the mind of your boss? What makes you feel that opportunities that should be yours to enjoy constantly evade you while similar opportunities routinely go to in-group members?

Take stock of the situation and objectively work through the facts and circumstances to ensure as best possible that you are being unfairly excluded compared to in-group counterparts. One tell-tale sign is the level of energy, support, time, attention, and resources your boss affords others, while ignoring such efforts for you and perhaps others. This may further be the reality if you’ve made attempts to get feedback, are genuinely open to it, and yet your boss does not respond or provide even basic acknowledgment of your efforts.

If you feel you’re in the out-group, decide whether to address your concerns directly with your boss. Can you find a way to address the situation with your boss and share what you are observing without creating more difficulties for yourself? Do you still need to give your boss the benefit of the doubt and allow him or her the opportunity to respond to your concerns? Are there circumstances you don’t understand that your boss can clarify, or do his or her actions appear clearly beyond reason and calculated to draw unfair distinctions and unfairly distribute support and rewards between in- and out-group members?

These are not easy questions, nor am I minimizing the difficulties you may face in trying to correct the mindsets and behaviors of your boss who has unfairly pegged you. But you must thoroughly explore all possibilities for working with your boss to receive the support to which you feel entitled before discounting them and resorting to other measures.

Raise your concern, if possible. If you decide to address your concern with your boss, do so in an objective, factual manner. Share how you would like to be considered for additional growth opportunities, such as stretch assignments, training opportunities, or participation in professional conferences. Be prepared to lay out your accomplishments and how you’ve reached a level of proficiency and performance to warrant consideration for additional opportunities, or how such opportunities are needed to help you reach the next level. The best case under these circumstances will be that your boss will be receptive and begin to work with you to provide such opportunities, or will discuss additional efforts you might undertake to receive such opportunities. Perhaps this is a conversation long overdue and you are to be applauded for finally creating awareness with your boss.

If, on the other hand, your boss is not receptive, disagrees with your assessment, or is simply not open to helping to identify new opportunities, you’ll need to decide whether to escalate the conversation by sharing your observations about how you feel discounted. compared to other teammates who are afforded the opportunities you seek. You should again be objective, factual, and respectful, but realize that addressing your concern as a comparative experience with other employees could cause your boss to become defensive. It is one thing to share your concerns about lack of opportunity, it is another to suggest such actions may be discriminatory. If you take this route, remain objective, factual, and professional and, by all means, don’t make or imply threats. You can consider other options you may take later after you have given your boss full opportunity to respond.

Consider next steps if there is no realistic path forward in your current situation. The sad reality of a truly ingrained, systemic organizational in-/out-group culture is that in-group members continue to thrive, develop, and advance and out-group members continue a downward spiral where they handle only routine assignments and tasks, lack opportunity for meaningful assignments and training, and experience few of the benefits for growth and professional development provided by their in-group counterparts. If that feels like your situation, and taking measures to correct the situation seems fruitless, you will need to decide how you will return to an employment situation that supports the career trajectory you desire and deserve.

While you may logically conclude that finding a job with another organization is the only option, it is not always the best or most readily available option. You may have reasons, personal and professional, for staying where you are, at least for a while. While you plan your search for that next position, consider whether there are any opportunities to sharpen your skills or gain new experiences. While this may not be within your current work setting or with your boss, do you work in an organization that affords the opportunity to collaborate with other units and departments? If so, consider whether there are projects you may support that will provide additional experiences. You might also consider volunteer opportunities on your own time that will provide fulfillment and that may also add job-relevant experiences. Anything that can add to your resume that shows your continuous effort to learn and grow will benefit you for consideration for that next job.

You must also determine how tolerable your situation is and whether you are experiencing emotional, psychological, and physical health impacts from the exclusion that no longer justify remaining in your current situation, even if a new job opportunity isn’t readily available. Even if you stay until a new opportunity arises, find ways to cope: minimize the impacts on your well-being, utilize connections and the support of professional contacts, friends, and family, and engage in other measures to maintain balance and a healthy perspective . You aren’t to blame for the arbitrary out-group to which you’ve been delegated and are capable of forging a new path that will lead to greater job satisfaction and well-being.

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