Learn to Practice the Art and Science of ‘Thoughtful Exclusion’


For nearly 50 years, astronomers have discussed a concept known as the “Goldilocks Zone.” It refers to a hypothetical location in outer space where the temperatures are ideal for sustaining life. Just like Goldilocks’ porridge in the popular children’s story, these temperatures are neither too hot, nor too cold.

They’re just right.

We can think of organizational life having a Goldilocks Zones of its own when it comes to inclusion. Because try as we might, assigning the right number of people from the right teams, and at the right time, is incredibly challenging. Often, we may leave important people off meeting rosters, leading them to feel left out. Or we might over-rotate and include too many people on an email chain, where no one knows who’s doing what.

The NeuroLeadership Institute’s review of the research suggests “optimal inclusion” is the working world’s Goldilocks Zone. It’s what happens when just the right people, at just the right time, contribute in just the right ways to emails, meetings, and projects. And though it may seem as feasible as locating a second Earth in the cosmos, one strategy goes a long way.

Practice ‘thoughtful exclusion’

The human brain is an expectation-making machine. It’s constantly making judgments about what it senses in the environment, whether it’s a rustle in the grass or the notification that we are no longer invited to a meeting. What this means is that the expectations we set for others play a big role in whether they end up feeling excluded, or see our reasoning and appreciate the heads up.

That’s why NLI professes the benefits of practicing “thoughtful exclusion.” It’s the act of considering someone’s expectations for being included in a given project before communicating a new reality. Doing so recognizes the brain’s limited supply of cognitive resources and spares people of having to resolve a set of violated expectations on the fly, with little information. Instead, teammates can be direct while also being empathetic.

What thoughtful exclusion looks like

In practice, thoughtful exclusion works best when project leaders do some homework before launching into action. If you find yourself in such a position, consider which roles are required and who should fill those roles. Also try to consider when new people will need to join the project, and when initial teams can change or disband. Communicate these ideas early so people know they may only contribute for a short time and can manage their expectations accordingly.

Sometimes, though, we need to exclude people after a project has already kicked off. In these cases, it helps to admit when you may have over-included a bit at the outset, and ask the person if they are okay skipping the coming meeting or exiting the project altogether. They may express disappointment, but they may also welcome the windfall of time to work on more pressing tasks.

And, of course, when a project wraps, asking for feedback ensures people who felt under- or over-included can share their perspectives.

Together, these strategies won’t necessarily guarantee everyone feels optimally included at every stage. But if leaders can communicate they’re at least trying to keep everyone in mind, even that added transparency can make a world of difference.


Author: Chris Weller

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