Leaders may assume that inclusion matters simply because it creates stronger teams, but increased collaboration doesn’t quite tell the whole story.
A wealth of research also shows the benefits of inclusion affect humans on an individual level, both psychologically and physically, which the NeuroLeadership Institute captured in its 2016 journal paper “The Science of Inclusion: How We Can Leverage the Brain to Build Smarter Teams.”
We identified six key benefits of inclusion, and they matter because they help support all the teamwide benefits of building inclusive habits, such as increased creativity and greater engagement. When employees experience these six effects, they can more fully commit to their work and their team.
1. Intelligent thought and reasoning
Inclusion actually makes us smarter. A handful of studies have shown that people lose some of their ability to think clearly and perform given tasks when they’ve been made to feel excluded. Importantly, these results don’t hold when people were made to feel merely misfortunate; it was the experience of being left out that produced cognitive declines.
Research has also found that inclusion can override the negative effects of stereotype on performance. A body of research has found group differences in logical thinking stem from self-perception, rather than ability. Building inclusion can help counteract those negative effects.
2. Self-care and self-improvement
Interestingly, people who feel included are more likely to practice healthier behaviors and make it a priority to improve themselves. By contrast, people who feel excluded tend to prize short-term gain and take more risks.
In one study, participants who felt included were more likely to choose a granola bar over a candy bar and prepare for an upcoming test by doing practice problems rather than procrastinating with an entertainment magazine.
The takeaway: Build inclusion and employees will feel more committed not just to their teams, but to themselves.
3. Pro-social behavior
Of course, inclusion does also help people feel more committed to their teams — and to everyone. In one 2007 study, when people were told that everyone in their group wanted to work with them, researchers saw people donating more to charitable causes, being willing to volunteer for other tasks, helping others after a mishap, and acting cooperatively.
Additional neuroscience research suggests this may be due to a key brain region, the superior temporal sulcus, recognizing other people’s needs when we feel apart of their same group.
A sense of inclusion helps us manage our own thoughts and feelings, rather than letting them consume us. For instance, research has found that people made to feel included more often tolerate unpleasant experiences, resist unhealthy temptations, and persist longer on a frustrating task.
Further research has found exclusion saps people of their desire to fight through those hard times. For leaders, that means helping people build a greater sense of motivation, grittiness, and discipline by making them feel included.
5. A sense of purpose
Along the same lines, inclusion bolsters people’s larger sense that life is meaningful and things are worth doing. People who felt excluded in one study were more likely to agree with the statement “Life is meaningless,” choose fewer emotional words, turn away from a mirror, and overestimate time intervals.
Generally speaking, these effects disappear when people feel tightly knit within their community or organization. There’s a sense of reason and fulfillment that runs through the work people do.
Increased social exclusion correlates with social anxiety, jealousy, loneliness, decreased self-esteem, and depression. When we feel left out, we may conjure elaborate stories of how others plot against us, how we don’t have value, and so on.
But when leaders actively try to include others, they create the conditions for people to feel socially connected, which greatly improves people’s moods and overall health.
As leaders work to instill these six benefits of inclusion, it’s important to remember that inclusion helps all employees. Initiatives shouldn’t focus solely on underrepresented groups. Inclusion efforts only truly work when everyone starts feeling more connected and more valued.