As an epigenetic and executive coach to some of the world’s largest technology companies, I have dedicated my career to understanding the biology of belonging and the toxic, pervasive effects of exclusion in the workplace.
In the past five years, there has been a significant push for inclusion in the workplace, encouraging leaders to absorb an abundance of programming on how to build inclusive cultures, teams, and brands. But to build anything “inclusively,” we must first saliently understand where we are excluding. We need to focus on the insidious ways in which we permit exclusion in our corporate culture and commit to behaving and thinking differently.
When humans experience exclusion, neglect, or rejection, a wound opens in the psyche that registers as physical pain and ultimately codes the brain through its pain receptors. After repeated exclusionary experiences—and repeated pain cycles—that wound transforms from a small fissure into a chasm. The painful effects of exclusion are then compounded, eventually carving a neural pathway that registers as trauma.
The BIPOC community is continually traumatized by rampant, overt, and covert racism—a treacherous form of exclusion—in their personal and professional lives. As a result, we are experiencing feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness, and, at times, rage. To ignite meaningful action against racism, leaders must truly understand exclusion, how exclusion manifests, and how it ultimately breeds toxicity in our work environments.
How exclusion and trauma manifest in the workplace
Employees experience exclusion when they feel dismissed, are interrupted, aren’t welcomed into a company’s culture, or experience a lack of respect or perceived value. In early exclusionary experiences, employees may react with minor frustration, annoyance, or irritation. Others might feel anxious, worried, or confused.
According to Bessel van der Kolk, a Boston-based psychiatrist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder, “Trauma produces a recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity, and also compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive.”
As exclusionary situations occur with more frequency, employees may experience managers or colleagues talking over them, shutting them down in meetings, dismissing their ideas, or even turning the employee’s concern into an issue about them. In these cases, as the occurrences increases, the brain begins to register any interaction with this person as dangerous and starts to code the experiences as physical injuries. Over time, repeated exclusion damages the employee’s nervous system, creating an unbearable, traumatic work environment. Employees in duress also lose their ability to think clearly and operate in a protective, overly defensive state. They simply shut down, which eventually inhibits their ability to create or innovate.
Back in 2016, I coached an executive team at a startup in Los Angeles. After completing 360-degree reviews, the general consensus about the head of the sales department from the rest of the team was that they were “a bully,” “unrelenting in meetings,” and “the person [I] fear the most.” During a later meeting with the CEO, I recommended firing this person. The CEO yelled at me to never, ever say that again. Six months later, the CEO chose to fire this person based on continued issues regarding employee relations. During our next debrief, the CEO shared that they regretted not firing the head of sales sooner, given the damage that now required critical attention within the company’s culture.
How leaders can create an inclusive and healing work environment
In order to transform into an “inclusive mindset,” leaders must acknowledge and acquire a deep understanding of the significant damage caused by exclusion—particularly in addressing the systemic exclusion of the BIPOC community. It requires a vulnerable, uncomfortable grasp of the severe toxicity that exists in theirworkplace—toxicity the leader likely had a hand in creating. Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Mending of Our Bodies and Hearts, says:
“In today’s America, we tend to think of healing as something binary: either we’re broken or we’re healed from that brokenness. But that’s not how healing operates, and it’s almost never how human growth works. More often, healing and growth take place on a continuum, with innumerable points between utter brokenness and total health.”
To adamantly choose an inclusive mindset, leaders should consider their hiring commitments, offer supportive resources to employees for overall mental health and social awareness, and reexamine meeting guidelines to establish an expectation of belonging.
Scott Bonneau, vice president of talent acquisition at Indeed, once told me he doesn’t “suffer genius assholes.” During the hiring process, it’s important to build in ways to measure a potential candidate’s ability to foster relationships. Determine if their leadership style is rooted in inclusion, or is instead one that defers blaming, lack of accountability, and avoiding giving difficult feedback. Build in surveys that look at relationship-building skills, determine a candidate’s resilience in both giving and receiving feedback, and measure their capacity to navigate difficult conversations with ease even when discomfort is inevitable.
Similarly, embrace the importance of firing quickly. During a coaching session this week with a CEO who recently hired an executive-level employee, my client recounted a crisis that occurred including the new employee and their astonishing lack of accountability, high levels of blame, and general negativity. We discussed the importance of immediately terminating the employee and how to address the shock of the sudden departure with the rest of the team. During our debrief, the CEO reiterated the team’s immense relief.
Beyond the hiring process, creating meeting guidelines for each team allows for the conspicuous opportunity to mindfully include voices, thoughts, and ideas. You may have your values up on a wall in every conference room, but if you are not embodying them or if your employees feel excluded from those values, then what is the point?
A short list of those guidelines includes:
- Absolutely no interrupting.
- No use of disrespectful tones—the meeting leader should act as the guardian here.
- Allow feelings to be expressed and create ways to share ideas, points of view, and thoughts outside of meetings for those who might be shy to speak up in front of others.
Late last year, I met with another CEO just before we began our full day of inclusive leadership training. As we began our conversation, the CEO asked, “What’s the point of me being nice to my employees?” After a brief moment of disbelief, I told them that every single time you are mean to an employee, interrupt them, or dismiss them in some way, you are shutting down the part of their brain that is making you money. Then they asked, “What do I do?”
The BIPOC community needs space, time, patience, and support to begin healing from trauma. Leaders and peers need to understand, listen, be empathic, and concerned for their BIPOC friends. Healing from trauma takes time and requires attention, diligence, and commitment.
The first step in healing requires those who have experienced trauma to feel their feelings, notice their bodily sensations when experiencing familiar or new emotions, witness and listen to their thoughts, and slowly learn to console themselves throughout the process. Experts like Van der Kolk also recommend yoga, role-play, dance, meditation, or keeping a journal.
But the onus of healing does not rest solely on the affected. Systemically excluded members of the BIPOC community deserve workplaces that hear them, stand with them, and are willing to fight for them. Leaders must be open to discussing their employees’ pain, grief, anger, and the incredible shame that compounds as a result of exclusion. And they must commit to dismantling the invisible toxicity and profound trauma it creates in our communities.
Rajkumari Neogy is an epigenetic coach and executive consultant focused on the intersection of neurobiology, culture, and empathy in today’s business world. She is also the author of “The WIT Factor: Shifting the Workplace Paradigm by Becoming Your Optimal Self.”