Anand van Zelderen

How do people deal with being excluded from ‘elite’ groups?

It is a given that nobody likes being excluded, especially from groups that are high in status and whose members reap various perks and bonuses. Yet the harsh reality is that not every individual might have ‘what it takes’ to be included in certain privileged groups. Imagine, for instance, that the FWO were to grant full funding to each and every applicant that applied for it. How likely is it that this approach would lead to the most efficient allocation of government money? It is indisputable that certain criteria need to be met when distributing limited resources—such as research funds—in order to safeguard quality and return on investment. The (negative) impact on those left out of such exclusive groups has not yet been properly researched however. With this aim in mind, myself and my supervisors Nicky Dries (KU Leuven) and Elise Marescaux (Iéseg) set out to examine the reactions of individuals excluded from ‘elite’ groups—in work settings specifically, as I am an industrial-organisational psychologist by training.

In my dissertation research we specifically focus on organisations implementing so-called ‘talent management’ programs that have as a goal to advance high-potential employees in their professional career. The data we have collected so far shows that employees not identified as high potentials react enviously to co-workers who were identified as such; experience a reduction in self-esteem; and that these emotions can lead to more detrimental behaviours such as diminished work effort and/or quitting. What is more, the size of the exclusive group plays a crucial role in determining these reactions. When a superior group is kept very, very exclusive (i.e. the top 1% of the organisational population) something called the ‘genius effect’ transpires. This effect entails that privileged individuals are attributed such exceptionally brilliance (i.e. genius) by their excluded colleagues that they are no longer seen as a realistic comparison group (for instance, would you compare yourself to a Nobel Prize winner to determine your worth as a researcher?), thereby greatly reducing negative reactions such as envy. Thus, the commonly held belief that differentiation practices should aspire to be as inclusive as possible might do more harm than good! Additionally, through our research we also learned that secrecy—where people are not informed about who is (not) included in the elite group—leads to the most positive reactions among those excluded. When people are not sure whether they are considered high potentials by their organisations or not, and even when they are explicitly told the organisation prefers to keep ‘talent status’ a secret, they do not react to such exclusionary practices in any negative way. This means that both the belief that inclusivity in organisational differentiation practices is better, and the belief that transparency is better, are fundamentally challenged by my dissertation project.

I myself have also had to deal with exclusion, although fortunately only temporarily. In December 2017 the FWO published its list of new SB-grantees, and I was disappointed to find out that I did not make the cut. To make matters worse, one of my co-workers—with whom I shared an office no less—was selected as an SB-grantee. The whole department saw the list, and some of our fellow PhDs put festive garlands in the office I shared with my successful applicant colleague. Not one to give up easily, I revised my project and was happy to obtain an FWO Aspirant grant one year later. The project started on the 1st of October, 2018.

My engagement with my dissertation topic is one of a highly personal nature—when I was a child, I was diagnosed as intellectually gifted, which had a big influence on my life. Speaking about it openly however—as I am doing right now—has rarely been met with a positive response. My supervisor, Nicky Dries, was one of the first exceptions, and encouraged me to apply my lifetime of personal experience to my research. I always thought it was rather remarkable that people react so negatively to the notion of giftedness, as most individuals would state that they believe that exceptional mental abilities should be developed and cherished. One issue might be that—as our research shows—80% of people believe they themselves deserve to be considered an above-average ‘talent’, which is of course statistically impossible. This is perhaps why people do not like being confronted with an elite group of people who clearly and obviously outperform them, as it challenges their beliefs about their own competence.

Within the project, I still have many more ideas in store that will bolster our knowledge on the intricacies of group dynamics within organisations, with the ultimate aim of helping organisations with their differentiation practices. Most notably I will leverage virtual reality (VR) technology in order to fabricate life-like organisations and situations in which I can place employees and observe their behaviour. This will help us collect data on a topic that is often too sensitive to study in the field (imagine going into a real-life organisation asking to do a survey about envy among employees excluded from their talent management program). Virtual reality also allows researchers to create situations that would otherwise be unethical and/or unfeasible in real-life circumstances (i.e. we cannot at random anoint actual employees with talent status).

Last year, I’ve had the good fortune to win a Canadian travel award to spend a few months abroad to collaborate with esteemed researchers at a virtual reality lab, at the University of Calgary. With the support of the FWO, and the knowledge acquired in Canada, I feel inspired to help contribute to new methods and theoretical insights for my field.