You walk into a meeting late and people are already in huddles. Colleagues glance over ever so briefly then turn back to their conversations. You sit down in a corner and use your smartphone to check email. Once the group discussion starts, you want to offer an opinion but can't seem to get a word in. Eventually, you give up, take a few notes, check more email and wait for the meeting to end. You stay at your desk the rest of the day but don't get much done.
Rejection, or the fear of it, is a powerful social trigger — and, at work, it can be a debilitating one. When people feel left out of or excluded from important circles of influence at the office, they can't be productive, innovative, or collaborative because their brains' neurochemistry has changed. They feel threatened. Cortisol flows in. Their executive centers shut down. Behavior shifts from trust to distrust. And the effects can last for hours. I like to say that rejection alters reality: we Reveal less, Expect more, Assume the worst, Look at the situation with caution, Interpret the context through fear, Think others are taking advantage of us and Yearn to be included.
But managers who understand this vicious pattern can break it — in themselves and their employees. Here are some conversational rituals designed to help the people on your team regroup, and become part of the group — to alter their inner, mental spaces by changing the outer, social environment.
- Prime the room for trust. While long, rectangular conference tables promote hierarchy and give those at the head an advantage, round tables do the opposite, fostering inclusion. Meeting leaders can also explicitly point out that all colleagues at the table are equal. This should spur the production of oxytocin in everyone's brains, ease fear of rejection and put people into a more collaborative state of mind.
- Start with a shared reality. Whenever possible, send agenda items out before a meeting and ask people for their input. This signals "I care about what you think", rather than "I control this". Another way to encourage a common mindset is to give team members an article to read and ask them to find something inspiring in it; have them share these thoughts at a meeting and encourage the group to listen for common themes. This will trigger everyone's prefrontal cortex mirror neurons, which enable us to connect with others' emotions and opinions, enhancing empathy and our understanding of different perspectives.
- Encourage candor and caring. Use open, non-judgmental language and listen with respect and appreciation in all conversations. Imagine that the words people use are like suitcases; you need "unpack" them to understand what colleagues are really thinking. Thank people for sharing, and make sure that there are no negative repercussions for doing so. Tell everyone you're committed to a welcoming, collaborative environment, and that you don't want anyone to feel rejected.
Remember, we all thrive on being connected to others. Don't let your office become a place where people feel threatened by rejection. Instead, bring your conversational intelligence to work.