How to Explore Isolation and Marginalization in People Networks

Experiencing Exclusion and Isolation

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced work away from the office into the home environment. The return to work now underway in certain countries, and soon to follow elsewhere, presents both challenges and opportunities. Re-integration into the physical working employment is a matter of both debate and concern. How should an organization approach this topic?

A lack of inclusion already results in less social interaction, more isolation, more loneliness, a lack of mental or physical stimulation and, at worst, a feeling of being ostracized or ignored. Personality characteristics can influence this such that extroverts miss the interaction and introverts ‘revert to type’ and become ever-more alone. The trends in these human experiences during the global pandemic are associated with other concerning evidence around poorer mental and physical health. 

A workplace can be an arena that is supportive, engaging, challenging, or even dangerous.
However, when people are deprived of social interaction, purpose, meaning, and structure – benefits of employment – there may be significant side effects. The author’s first role as a work psychologist at the start of the 1990s was supporting people with mental and physical disabilities in parts of the United Kingdom where economic and social deprivation prevailed.

These people who were often marginalized by society and the trends of employment absence (unemployment), poor health, and the onset of sometimes multiple disabilities were evident. An initial injury and the isolation of unemployment frequently led to the onset of multiple disabilities and mental and social problems.

The seminal work of Professor Marie Jahoda developed a Latent Deprivation Model which highlighted that it is the social aspects of work, or as she called them ‘unintended by-products’, which are a result of unemployment. Professor Jahoda recognized that people primarily engage in paid work to earn a living (the manifest function of employment), and that they also benefit from five latent functions or “unintended by-products”.

These latent functions are time structure, social contact, collective purpose, social identity/status, and activity. In another study, Jahoda argued that people “have deep seated needs for structuring their time use and perspective, for enlarging their social horizon, for participating in collective enterprises where they can feel useful, for knowing they have a recognized place in society, and for being active.”

How can we identify people at risk of exclusion and take wise steps to increase their experience of inclusion to try to reduce the risks and potential harm? How do we measure this in a work team, departmental function, or broader context? What are the pitfalls in this approach?

How to Explore Your Network Dynamics

An answer to these questions can be found through SONAR®, a means of anonymously mapping individuals and their relationships without intruding into their emails or social media. Using this solution, information is gathered to form a better picture of how a network operates. Individuals give feedback on their rate of communication along with how much access they have to others. We also consider how central individuals are to the network and measure their level of connectivity to the group. It’s a direct alternative to the traditional ‘engagement’ surveys, yet one that can yield far more meaningful results. 

The output is a clear visualization of how teams work in practice. In Figure 1, you see the visualization of a network where the nodes are individuals and the ties are the relationships between these individuals. It’s easy to spot that the women in the group (shown as red dots) sit on the periphery. This means that they have less communication with the network or that they are perceived to be less influential. While there are no directional arrows to show how the group communicates, you can see that some only interact with the team through other women.

Figure 1: Visualization of a people network

It all points to the minority – women – being excluded or marginalized. The risk is that those on the periphery could break off from the network and become lost. It’s this separation that can prevent people from properly contributing to a team. Worse still, it’s how businesses lose talent altogether. 

What Business Leaders Can Do to Overcome Isolation

A network graph such as that in Figure 1 above can’t tell us what processes, subtle or unsubtle, result in this situation. When presented with data that shows a minority struggling to maintain a connection with the group, there is a tendency to pass blame onto them. This is where ‘groupthink’ can affect the team as data often supports seeing a cognitive bias.

It might feel natural to look at network graphs positively, but it is often more useful to view them critically. Teams don’t always work as well as they could, and it’s vital to explore the risks and opportunities that organizational change can bring. This cautious approach is infinitely better than the alternative of blaming the minority for their own isolation. The initial reaction may be to further marginalize those on the periphery of a network, but to do so cuts against the principles of diversity and inclusion. 

Instead, it’s necessary to take a deeper look at the problem in question by talking to the people concerned. What has caused an individual or a group to become detached from their network? And how serious is the issue? By following the chain of causation, leaders can find and address the issues that stifle collaboration.

It might be, for instance, that the onboarding process needs improvement helping newcomers to establish strong connections with their team. Equally, it may simply be a case of coaching team members to communicate better and encouraging them to understand each other’s roles. 

Only by identifying the synergies and frictions of a network is it possible to improve it. It is, therefore, so important to undertake an appreciative inquiry, and to understand that not all connections have to be the same. Different individuals possess different skillsets in organizations and society at large. By truly understanding these roles, you maximize the value they bring – combatting isolation and benefiting the entire network.  

Final Thoughts

As the world accelerates towards a new way of working, it’s vital for businesses to acknowledge and address the issue of isolation. It’s difficult enough during a global pandemic, but the issue may become even more complex as lockdown restrictions are lifted. Teams that are currently grappling with remote communication risk becoming even more segmented as some people return to the office while others continue to work from home.  

Network Centrality® is an innovative solution that explores the patterns of communication, collaboration, and trust between individuals and teams – no matter where they are. It looks holistically at an organization instead of focusing on individual employees. By exploring the formal and informal relationships in your organization, it helps you identify which parts of your network are prone to isolation. Leaders can use this information to address the issues that stifle
collaboration and work towards a more inclusive network.


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