Reject the lesser candidate. Confront the lazy employee. Give critical feedback on that project right away. Your office will be happier for it.
That’s advice from a recent study published in the journal “Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin” which found that feeling ignored or unacknowledged is worse for a person’s mental health than receiving bad news.
“Ostracism is more powerful than we think,” says study co-author Andrew H. Hales, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Virginia. “Ignoring someone is a non-behavior because you’re not directly insulting them — you’re not behaving at all. And it’s hard to appreciate how painful that feels.”
In a series of four studies, Hales and his team rounded up 600 men and women and had them undergo experiments specifically designed to make some feel left out. In the first, subjects played an online ball-tossing game in which some were consistently thrown a ball, others received no throws until the very end of the game, and a third group was ignored altogether.
In a second experiment, people were asked to create personal profiles and “apply” for an apartment online. The landlord denied all the applications via notes which read, “So-and-so has rejected your request,” but in some cases, attached a personal note with either a friendly, cold, or neutral message explaining the thinking behind the decision. For example, “You seem to be a nice person,” “I really don’t care where you live but not here,” and “I feel mixed about this.”
Here’s what happened: People rejected in both experiments felt embarrassed, uncomfortable, and awkward, those who were ultimately acknowledged with either a few ball tosses toward the end of the game or with a note explaining why they didn’t land the apartment, felt better about themselves. “People are always worse off when they get rejected,” Hales clarifies, “but being acknowledged makes it not as bad.”
Like most social constructs, fear of exclusion can be traced back to evolution. In order to survive, people stayed together to gain resources and such groups secured more sexual opportunities, emotional support, and physical protection from predators. Obviously, we’ve evolved, but that basic need to be included and accounted for remains.
“Ostracism on the job is no different,” says Hales, adding that work is rife with opportunities to select and reject, i.e., hiring, promotions, forming teams, and office parties. There’s also an economic cost to exclusion: Missed opportunities to bond or work with coworkers can affect performance and even job security.
“You may understand logically that you should just get over rejection but that’s easier said than done,” says Hales. One reason is, rejection physically hurts — research shows the human brain responds to both physical and emotional pain by releasing natural painkillers called opioids to make people feel better. “When you hear someone say it hurts to be left out, they’re not being dramatic,” says Hales.
Feeling unacknowledged also has the capacity to send people into an obsessive vortex of self-blame. According to Daniel Amen, a psychologist, neuroscientist, and author of 10 New York Times bestsellers, stress releases a hormone called cortisol which damages cells in the brain’s hippocampus, the portion linked to memory and mood. “Some people deal with stress by turning outward and blaming others, but others turn inward and blame themselves,” says Amen.
For the latter group, here’s what that looks like: “I’m getting fired,” “I suck at interviewing,” or “Is everyone in the conference room without me?”
If you know in your gut that you’re not going to promote someone, let them know ASAP.
Fortunately, managers are in a position to help maintain their staff’s sanity — and become better bosses for it. Here are some ideas:
If you know in your gut that you’re not going to promote or hire someone, it’s decent to let them know ASAP. “We didn’t test whether a quick response reduced feelings of ostracism, but our study implies it,” says Hales. You’ll clear your plate and the other person will rebound quicker and respect your transparency.
Likewise, if an employee is underperforming, annoying the team, or just isn’t aware of how you like things done, it’s your job to be candid. It’s not pleasant to give or receive a negative review, but that uncomfortable conversation can save everyone time and angst. As Hales wrote in his study, “This is especially important given that individuals can possibly also learn better from well-phrased criticism than from dead silence.”
Also, write that difficult email, whether you’re making a big ask to the corporate gods or defending a team member. Not only does efficiency feel awesome, your initiative will underscore your status as a leader and help you avoid succumbing to your own anxiety stemming from procrastination.
The bottom line: A little discomfort in the short term will establish a healthy, collaborative, and focused office culture — which is what helps us be at our best (and do our best work) in the first place.