Otherness is a disease crippling many businesses from realising their full potential

Of all the negative influences that can hamper a business from realising its full potential from its employees, ‘otherness’ is perhaps the most subtle – and, in many ways, the most insidious – of all.

It’s so difficult for organisations to grapple with, because it is so difficult to pin down in the first instance. Otherness – the feeling of being “different” from the peer group – has nothing to do with overt racism, religious discrimination, or bigotry. The Asian woman or the openly gay man may not be in any way consciously singled out by their co-workers, but it’s the subtle, often friendly and well-intentioned, office banter that can remind them that they’re “different” from their co-workers.

Men who are nurses are often referred to as “male nurses” within the workplace, for example. Women who run companies are “female CEOs.” Not, simply, “nurses” or “CEOs” as their counterparts of the opposite gender are treated. In these cases there is typically no pejorative intent behind the alternative labelling, but it nevertheless impacts heavily on a person’s perception on their place in an organisation, and “others” them into feeling like they belong to a group marginalised from the main body of the organisation.

Studies show that this feeling of ‘otherness’ can have significant impact on an employee’s behaviour, productivity and results at work. People feeling othered will typically be far more conservative in their approach to interactions with peers, believing that their behaviour will be scrutinised with an additional lens; they will often feel like they represent not just themselves in the workplace, but also their entire community.

This internal stress manifests itself in a series of statistics that paint a narrative of an employee unable to maximise their contribution to the organisation as much as their talent might otherwise allow. And, additionally, provides for an environment that can make an employee very unhappy indeed, dampening the overall atmosphere and productivity of the business.

Again, this difference between the workplace experience of workers is not a consequence of overt or deliberate prejudice towards the othered individual. Rather, it’s a feeling of marginalisation by belonging to a different culture (be that culture of ethnicity, religion, or sexuality) when compared to everyone else. And this will curb a person’s ability to think creatively or take the kind of risks that develops a career and makes them a point of competitive advantage for the business.

Addressing otherness in the organisation

Because otherness doesn’t necessarily come from a hostile, or even negative place, it can be difficult for an organisation to address. Solutions are based in creating an appropriate organisational culture rather than through simple discrete actions or activities.

However, there are a couple of key strategies that managers can take towards reducing the impact of this feeling of otherness in the organisation and to bolster their organisational culture to reduce this phenomenon:

  • It’s important to understand the types of workplace environments that can lead to employees feeling othered. Some of the most accepting and upbeat workplace cultures can nevertheless leave employees who are ‘different’ from the majority of their peers feeling ‘out of place’. It doesn’t take a hostile atmosphere for a lone woman in a workplace of men to feel like she is on the periphery of the organisation’s culture.  And, when they do start to feel this way, they may also struggle to find managers they identify as mentors.
  • Ensure that there is accountability within the organisation. Managers should be able to validate why the key opportunities are going to specific staff, to ensure that those who feel othered are not missing out because of a mistaken perception that they are introverted.
  • Recruit with an eye for diversity! The broader the community within each working unit, the less likely it is that any individual will feel othered from a dominant cultural, ethnic or social perspective.

About the author:

This article was written by Fiona Hitchiner, Director of SeventeenHundred, a HR-specialist company

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