How Far Will YOU Go To Belong?


It’s only human to want to belong–to be included, part of the gang at work. But, to what lengths are workers willing to go, to ensure a place on the team?

Pretty far–according to a study out of the University of Maryland and London Business School.

Including lying or stealing to secure their spot.

What kinds of situations cause workers to behave unethically on the job?

We often think that personal gain is why a worker will lie or steal. They skim funds from a bank account for luxury items or lie to cover a costly mistake.

But, it’s not always about benefitting themselves.

Workers will sometimes lie or cheat to help the team. It’s called pro-social unethical behaviour.

Workers contribute to the wellbeing of the team by doing unethical things that benefit the whole team. It stems from wanting to make sure they belong and are included by the team. Teams that threaten members with exclusion can spur unethical behaviour.

What will workers do to ensure they belong?

They’ll lie about sales figures to boost the team’s overall earnings. Workers will withhold information from other teams to undermine their performance so their team can get ahead. Staff will exaggerate the truth about the company’s products and services to beat the other team for customers.

In an example given by the university researchers, an employee engaged in price-fixing so that his fellow employees wouldn’t lose their jobs.

Example: In the case of the infamous Enron scandal,

The energy company’s CEO did not want to know what the CFO was doing. He was removing poorly performing assets from the balance sheet. It made the company look much more profitable than it was.

What are the ramifications of this type of behaviour?

The cost comes out of the company’s bottom line.

Stealing, lying, cheating, deceiving customers, misrepresenting performance, cost a lot of money.

And, workers who get caught damage their careers and livelihoods. Loss of reputation and trust hurts organizations as well. If they survive, it’s hard to attract talented workers. Morale suffers when teams get ahead of other teams by cheating and when teams protect their own, in cases of misconduct.

Example: A worker who was harassed asked a witness to come forward. The witness refused because she risked being shunned by her work group.

Why are some workers willing to be unethical despite the consequences?

Many times they belong to a team that either explicitly or implicitly threatens to exclude them. If the team doesn’t think the worker is pulling their weight, they use exclusion to punish them. Workers who have a high need for inclusion are more susceptible to being tempted to do something unethical to belong.

Usually they get wind their work group isn’t happy with them. To keep a spot on the team, they do something that benefits the other team members. Often they choose something unethical because it seems to make a bigger contribution that way.

For example: I worked with a team lead that wanted her team to like her. So she misrepresented how well an initiative was doing to senior management.

Her team was excited to get the accolades and she was back in their good books.

Until things went sideways with the project and senior management saw what was going on.


How does a worker know he or she may be susceptible to being unethical?

It depends on how much you want to belong.

Workers who have low inclusion needs don’t care whether they belong or not. They’re less swayed to buy favour by being unethical.

In comparison, if being friends with everyone is really important to you, being popular will give you feelings of achievement. You might be at risk of doing something wrong at work.

It’s especially risky if you are afraid the team and worried they don’t like you.

What should workers do if they have a high need for inclusion?

Watch out if your team tends to exclude people they don’t think are contributing.

  1. Try to get onto another team, if you can—shunning and isolating others is psychologically damaging.
  2. Ask yourself if it’s really the worst thing if you aren’t friends with teammates?
  3. Find friends outside work, so their importance lessens.
  4. Watch out for ‘All or None’ thinking. That’s when you say something like: “If I don’t get invited to lunch every time, I’m being completely rejected”.
  5. If you have fantasies about making a big impression on your team involving wrong doing—talk to someone you trust first. Your judgement could be clouded by the need to belong.

For more on belonging at work please check out these other articles



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