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Winner of several journalism awards, Pesmen is a graduate of the University of Illinois Media College at Urbana, and is listed in several Who’s Who editions. She also has been Corporate Features Editor of Crain Communications Inc., founding Features Editor of Crain’s Chicago Business and a reporter/features writer for The Chicago Daily News.

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Belonging to 'Office Tribe"

Too many people stay in too many jobs far too long, even after they feel exiled from the "inner circle." In other words, you are not part of the "tribe."

Unfortunately, people don't always recognize the signs that they aren't in the tribe, and never will be there. 

But there are several clues --and Corporate Consultant Christine Comaford, who was an advisor to both the Clinton and Bush administrations, explains them in her new book, "SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together.

          "Many companies have fostered cultures of exile," says Comaford, "No one is purposely making people feel they don't belong, but they're also not proactively making them feel they do-and that's a huge, huge mistake."

          Belonging, along with safety and mattering, is a basic human drive. After food-water-shelter needs have been met, we must feel that we're safe, that we matter, and that we belong. If not, we can't seek self-actualization, or as Comaford calls it "being in our Smart State"-meaning we can't perform, innovate, collaborate, or do any of the other things it takes to survive in our global economy.

          "This is Maslow 101," says Comaford. "Exile is a deep-rooted, very primal fear. The way our critter brain sees it is: 'If I'm not part of the tribe, then I must not matter and I'm surely not safe. A lion is going to eat me. My only goal right now is survival so I am going to do and say whatever will keep me safe.'"

          When employees feel this way, they hide out, procrastinate, or say what the boss wants to hear instead of what he or she needs to hear. Such behaviors are devastating for business. When they occur chronically, not only will your company be unable to move forward and grow, it may flounder and fail. 

          Here are several red flags that indicate you may be working in a culture of exile:

• Certain people get preferential treatment. Maybe there are different sets of rules for different employees: "exempt" people and "non-exempt" people. (Many companies harbor "Untouchables"-people who were hired and most likely over-promoted because they are related to (or friends with) someone in power.) Or maybe the CEO always plays golf with Drew and Tom, but not Greg and Alan.

"Preferential treatment is a leadership behavior and it's extremely damaging," says Comaford. "It's a major culprit in making people feel exiled. I counsel companies who have this problem to include it in their Leadership Code of Conduct and insist that all leaders adhere to it." 

• Cliques and inside jokes flourish. Sure, we all "click" with certain people more readily than we do with others. That's only natural. But if you notice some employees seem to be regularly excluding others-maybe members of a certain department socialize after work but one or two people are not invited-take it seriously, advises Comaford. Those who are left out know it...and it doesn't feel good.

"It's amazing how little difference there can be between high school dynamics and workplace dynamics," she says. "And while leaders can't (and shouldn't) interfere with friendships between employees, they can set an example of inclusion. They can have frank discussions on the hurtfulness of making someone feel exiled. They can hold fun workplace events and celebrations to strengthen bonds between all coworkers.

"The point is, it's worth making an effort to help everyone feel they belong," she adds. "Generally leaders do set the tone, so when you focus on belonging, everyone will."

• There are obvious and visible signs of hierarchy. At some companies there's a stark division-maybe even a chasm-between, say, the executive suite and the hourly workers. The white-collar guys are on a higher floor with nicer furniture, while the blue-collar guys are lucky if the bathroom is maintained. To many people this may seem like the natural order of things-but Comaford says this attitude is precisely the problem.

"Is it really a good idea for the physical workplace to say, 'We're in the gated community while you're in the trailer park'?" asks Comaford. "Leaders may not think of it that way but, believe me, those under them do. In my work I see a lot of tension between white-collar workers and union workers-there's this pervasive attitude that because the union guys don't have the same level of education they can't be part of the tribe."

 • Entrenched silos lead to information withholding and turf wars. Of course, departments are, by definition, different from each other. Still, they needn't be alienated from each other. Comaford says it's possible for departments to be "different" in a healthy way-IT is a band of cool pirates, while salespeople are wild and crazy cowboys and cowgirls out there on the range-while still marching forward together.

"It's okay for groups to have their own identity, yet they must still be able to link arms and help each other toward that end goal," she adds. "That's the beauty of helping get people out of their Critter State-when they have that reassuring sense that they belong to the company overall, they don't have to close ranks and play power games. They can share and collaborate because now it's safe to do so-we're all in this together."

• There is no path for personal development or advancement. True belonging is  knowing you're not just a cog in the machine. It's  knowing employers care about your future and want you to live up to your potential. It's  knowing "I might just be a stock clerk right now but I could be a division manager one day-and the company is willing to help me get there." That's why Comaford encourages her clients to implement Individual Development Plans for every employee at every level. 
"When people feel they truly belong, they will open up their minds and do everything in their power to make sure the tribe is successful," she says. "They'll come to work jazzed and engaged and 100 percent on.
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