The All-Too-Real Dangers of Over-Inclusion

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Authored by

NLI Staff

Everyone knows the pain of feeling left out, but fewer discuss the dread of needlessly being left in. This is what we at the NeuroLeadership Institute call over-inclusion, and the downsides are massive.

In the rightful pursuit of lifting up diverse voices and opinions in recent years, leaders have started over-correcting. In order to reach a happy middle ground, they must pay attention not just to moments of exclusion, but over-inclusion — cc’ing more people than necessary in emails, jam-packing meeting rooms, and creating multi-armed project teams. According to our research, the way to create that efficiency is through a careful process of expectation matching.

Swinging into the danger zone

At the NeuroLeadership Institute, we think of inclusion as a pendulum. It can swing from under-inclusion, where people fail to loop in the right team members in meetings, projects, and emails; to optimal inclusion, where the right people know the right info at the right time; to over-inclusion, where people sit in meetings wondering “What am I doing here?”

We recently discussed this phenomenon in a Quartz article entitled “It’s possible (and dangerous) to be over-inclusive.”

Most people know from personal experience that over-inclusion is possible. But the science of why it’s dangerous is perhaps less well-known. Research has shown that humans naturally want to empathize with others, which is why we do our best to be fair and include everyone. The downside is we may unknowingly burden their cognitive load and create decision fatigue, leading them to develop an unhealthy, “always-on” attitude toward work.

Getting everyone on the same page

We find the solution to over-inclusion is thoughtfully excluding. It’s about leaving people out of meetings and emails because you recognize their time and energy are better spent on other things. Based on the leading brain science, we contend the way to do that is through expectation matching.

When we run into something that violates our expectations, it causes our brain to do some heavy lifting. With a finite amount of cognitive resources at our disposal, the more those expectations are violated, the less focus and thought we can give to other matters.

Leaders who want to thoughtfully exclude can follow the wisdom of science by laying out expectations ahead of time. They can explain who needs to be involved and for what purposes. If everyone is on the same page around those priorities, those who are left out will better understand why.

The certainty and fairness will feel rewarding, and they may even thank you for excluding them, as they can now use their cognitive surplus for more productive ends.

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