It’s possible (and dangerous) to be over-inclusive

Not EVERYONE should be at the meeting.
Not EVERYONE should be at the meeting.
Image: REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
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Organizations have rightly started making diversity and inclusion top priorities. And accordingly, managers have become more sensitive about who they hire, promote, and assign to projects. They’ve also become more sensitive to sharing information equitably among their staff, and worked harder to give people the right amount of exposure within the department or organization.

This progress is massive, but it has left some collateral damage—namely, wasted time, money, and energy due to a hidden drain on productivity: over-inclusion.

By looping in too many people to various emails, meetings, and projects, organizations risk job satisfaction, retention, and both the quality and timeliness of employees’ work. In order to avoid these pitfalls, leaders must master the art of expectation matching in order to more thoughtfully exclude.

Over-inclusion, defined

We can think of inclusion as following an inverted U-shaped curve. That is to say, too little inclusion is a problem, such that we can reasonably call it “under-inclusion.” This is what we’re most familiar with: the feeling of being left out, minimized, or excluded.  

Then there is the ideal amount of inclusion. It’s when the right people know the right information at the right time. Over-inclusion is being a touch too attentive. It’s the meeting where two or more people’s contributions are redundant. It’s getting copied on an email thread with a million other people and having no real idea who is meant to do what.

Multiplied over many meetings, emails, and projects, hitting deadlines and moving processes along becomes a struggle. It’s bureaucracy gone digital.

The costs of over-inclusion

Over-inclusion is a textbook case of good intentions paired with bad instincts.

Humans are social beings and want to feel a sense of belonging. Research has even shown the profound impacts social inclusion and exclusion have on  how our brains function, suggesting a feeling of belonging is actually vital for survival. Such a legacy has made us acutely aware of other people’s social needs, such as relatedness, status, and fairness. These domains affect how people feel rewarded or threatened by in social situations. They also, by extension, affect our unconscious responses and performance.

When we include people in emails, meetings, and projects, we’re partly appealing to this set of empathetic impulses. (We’re also just trying to get things done.) But it’s those same impulses that lead us to over-include. As a result, people may burn out because of overwhelming cognitive load and decision fatigue. And they may develop unhealthy, “always-on” mentalities toward their work.

Something has to give.

How to thoughtfully exclude

The antidote to over-inclusion is thoughtfully excluding: removing people from threads, meetings, and projects in ways that don’t undermine all of the hard work you are doing to mitigate bias and  increase diversity.

The way to do this is deceptively simple: Match expectations by communicating effectively.

Managing and reconciling expectations matter for the brain. Specifically, one region of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) in part detects conflicting information, both from our environment and in social interactions. It’s the ACC that causes us to pause when our favorite coffee shop is suddenly closed, or when an apparent ally turns on us.

When the brain is tasked with resolving these kinds of conflicts, it deploys huge cognitive resources to tackle the task. Since the brain only has a finite amount of energy, it’s important to minimize how often expectations are violated, so it can conserve juice for bigger decisions.

In practice, this could mean launching a project by specifying who is involved to what degree and for what role, along with who isn’t involved and why not. Have that conversation with all parties to ensure your expectations for each person’s role align with their expectations for their role. That investment up front can pay huge dividends in ensuring the right people are involved, the right people are not involved, and everyone accepts where they fit into the scenario.

The result of deliberate, optimized inclusion is faster and more accurate decision-making and fewer hurt feelings. What’s more, those who were once unnecessarily included are now freed up to redirect and reinvest their cognitive energy.

Khalil Smith, Heidi Grant, and Kamila Sip work at the NeuroLeadership Institute.