Are You Working in the Margins?
What does it mean to work in the margins? Perhaps you’ve heard about marginalized roles, workplace marginalization or employee marginalization. In this post, I will focus on employee marginalization rather than marginalized roles.
The terms “margin” and “marginalization” are just what you imagine when you look at a piece of notebook paper. There is the main body where the story is being written. Then there are the margins to the side where some notes that are tangential to the main story are captured. It’s not that the notes don’t provide insight or support. They are just at the periphery of the main story. Now, let’s imagine for a moment that you are in the main body at your company. How do you feel? Likely, you have role clarity. You have influence. You are sought out for your expertise. You are included in decisions affecting your work area or the company’s strategy. Not only do you know how your work contributes to the organization’s success, but others know as well. You are essential. You are in the main body of the story – at the center of the notebook paper.
Defining Marginalization in the Workplace
So what does it mean to work in the margins? It could mean that you are not clear about your role and its importance to your company. You may start to feel that your contributions are negligible. You know that you’re on the team, but you’re not included in the core decision-making processes. An important thing to know about marginalization is it is not just about your perceptions or psychology. Marginalization in the workplace is the result of systemic actions taken consciously or unconsciously by the “in-group” that alienate or disenfranchise another or others by sidelining them from the main activities and contributions of the group.
While research finds that women and minorities are more likely to experience workplace marginalization, this is something that can happen to anyone regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, etc. Millennials or older workers may feel they are being marginalized, as well as LGBTQ employees or those with disabilities. Dennis Foulger, a scholar in communication theory and adjunct professor at Brooklyn College, stated that one of the reasons we have affirmative action is to discourage systematic marginalization of people based on characteristics that are irrelevant to their ability to perform their job.
Researchers Wang, Liu, Liao & Liu (2012) define workplace marginalization as “as an individual’s being left out of meaningful participation in group processes and activities even though she/he is a formal member of the group.” In their article, Workplace Marginalization: In the Group but Out of the Loop, they give an example of what this looks like. They say (and I’m paraphrasing), suppose you ask your manager for several days off to go to a family reunion and he approves without any hesitation. In fact, he tells you to take as much time as you need. When you return, the office seems to be humming right along even though you know you left unfinished work. Company social events have taken place without you being informed. The authors say, “You come to realize that it makes no difference whether you are here or not, and feel being out of the loop although you are definitely a member of the group.”
That’s what it means to work in the margins. You’re on the sheet of paper, but your part does not add to the story in a meaningful way.
Researchers Wang, Liu, Liao & Liu (2012) define workplace marginalization as “as an individual’s being left out of meaningful participation in group processes and activities even though she/he is a formal member of the group.”
Is it You or Them?
You may be wondering is this something you’ve caused or has this been done to you. Marginalization in the workplace, whether it is the role that’s marginalized or a person(s), is based on power and organizational values and politics. While there may be employee behaviors that are antecedents to marginalization (i.e., things employees do that can increase or decrease their chances of being marginalized), marginalization is structural and systemic. In other words, you may collude in your being marginalized, but you alone do not create it or sustain it. Those in power through position, political capital and influence are instrumental in placing people in the margins. For example, the president of the company has a leadership team consisting of five direct reports. Her direct reports are all “on the team,” but she consistently consults with, takes advice from, involves in decisions, assigns key assignments, and even socializes with, three of the five direct reports. The other two direct reports perform their jobs well and are in some meetings, but their expertise, opinions or contributions are not considered as meaningful as the other three members on the team. The president, knowingly or not, has marginalized the two direct reports. They are, in essence, outsiders on the team. And, not only do the two direct reports sense it, the other three direct reports also know it and their behaviors with the two others further support and sustain the marginalization.
It’s important to note, marginalization is rarely about how well a person is liked inter-personally. In my example, the two direct reports who are outsiders on the team may actually be well liked by all members of the leadership team. It is more about inclusion as an essential member in the important activities and processes that drive the work or organization’s success.
What Can You Do?
There are three things you can do if you realize you are working in the margins:
- Focus on business acumen. This does not mean knowing what everyone else knows about your business. You must become a student of the business. As an employee, what data and information do you have about your company that others may not have? How does information about the company’s priorities, challenges, competitors and even ways of working provide insights you can use to gain a deeper understanding of how you can contribute to the business? Identifying opportunities and solutions in the context of what’s important to the business will demonstrate your value to others. Know the business.
- Focus on performance. One of the surest paths to marginalization is failing to perform your job at or above expectations consistently. However, a focus on performance does not mean simply putting your head down and doing your job well. A focus on your performance means continuously developing expertise and capabilities to contribute to the business in meaningful and recognizable ways. Driving positive results that draw a line of sight back to what is important to the business increases your value to the organization. Performance Matters.
- Focus on relationships. Organizations are political contexts where relationships are currency. This is not about being friendly and having everyone to like you. A focus on relationships means you understand how things get done in the organization and you build meaningful and strategic relationships where you are a resource to others and they are to you. Perhaps the first and most important relationship is with your manager. Understanding your manager’s vision and priorities for the team, what he/she needs from you and how he/she likes to work is important. This understanding can help you devise mutually beneficial ways to support your manager and the team. The more trusting and candid your relationship is with your manager, the more likely you are to confront any feelings of marginalization early on and ask for your manager’s support with inclusion. You might ask your manager for role clarity and his/her assessment of how critical the role is to the mission of the team or company. As you focus on relationships with others, you may seize opportunities to proactively extend help on a key business initiative. You may talk to a leader in the business or on a project and ask to be included in the meetings. Explain how your knowledge and skills can enhance the ideas and decisions of the group. Don’t always wait to be invited in. If you can contribute in a meaningful way, assert yourself and provide a win-win rationale for being there. Build Strategic Relationships.
The more trusting and candid your relationship is with your manager, the more likely you are to confront any feelings of marginalization early on and ask for your manager’s support with inclusion.
If none of these actions leads to you being included in the team’s group processes and activities, it may be time to move on. Before you do that, consider all options. Is your manager aware and have you given him/her an opportunity to make changes? If yes, then be good to yourself. Find a role, team, or organization where you will be included, engaged and valued.
What if You’re a Manager or Leader?
If you are a manager or leader of a group, you are in an important and powerful position to ensure every team member feels valued and included appropriately in the activities of the team. Increasing your self-awareness by asking your employees for feedback and participating in unconscious bias training are simple steps you can take to help you manage more inclusively. Take a look at your organization’s policies and talent processes. Do they have built-in biases? Are they inherently exclusionary? If so, discuss with your human resources leader and advocate for more inclusive practices. When it’s time to work on important business initiatives, take the time to think about how everyone on the team can contribute in meaningful ways. Who you bring to the center and who you leave in the margins is noticed and replicated by others on the team.
Involving your whole team will increase their engagement, retention and productivity and improve business results.