Inclusion: Managing in-groups & out-groups in dispersed teams

We human beings have a profound psychological need to feel included, in our personal relationships, in society, and the workplace. If you want your team to feel happy at work then making them feel part of the group, ensuring they feel they’re included and valued, will get you a very long way.

In this article, we’re going to look at inclusion from a couple of different angles, particularly in light of the new world of virtual and blended teams. As some people continue to work from home and others move back into the office, this creates a new challenge for leaders who want to promote inclusion in the workplace. We’ll also offer some suggestions for how to promote inclusion in your teams.

The Importance of Inclusion

In Abraham Maslow’s famous “Hierarchy of Needs”, inclusion or belonging appears as one of the key human needs, after physiological needs like food and shelter and safety needs such as personal security and health. The need to feel included is so important that many of us can clearly remember specific moments in our childhood when we felt excluded.

The brilliant psychologist William Schutz developed an insightful psychometric test called FIRO-B that measures the difference between how much we want to be included and how much we feel we are included. A mismatch here can often lead to deep dissatisfaction, yet people will often not be able to pinpoint why they feel unhappy.

A 2014 report [1] by the Catalyst Research Center for Advancing Leader Effectiveness, a not-for-profit organisation, looked into inclusion in six different countries: Australia, China, Germany, India, Mexico and the US. They came up with a ‘formula’ for inclusion, which was primarily a mix of what the authors call ‘belongingness’ and ‘uniqueness’. In essence, people need to feel they belong within the team but also feel that their differences are accepted and valued.

The researchers found that the ‘formula’ for feeling included was surprisingly consistent across the different countries, with the exception of India. They also found little or no difference between men and women; what led men to feel included was also what led women to feel included.

Why Inclusion Matters in the Workplace

A study by Deloitte Australia [2] found that teams with inclusive leaders reported 17% higher performance, 20% increase in decision making quality and were 29% more likely to report behaving collaboratively.

If leaders are not able to create an inclusive environment, people start to feel as if they don’t belong. In a truly dysfunctional team, nearly everyone feels like an outsider. In this case, the leader probably lacks emotional intelligence and is out of their depth.

More commonly, even with a leader who has some emotional intelligence, a team may split into insiders and outsiders. The insiders are consulted and updated more often, they hear things first, they seem to be more trusted. Even if the leader says otherwise, the team members quickly work out who are the insiders. The outsiders may become disengaged and de-motivated. This can result in lower morale, higher absenteeism and increased staff turnover.

The situation can be even more pronounced in a virtual team. When people are not coming into the office, there are no informal ‘water cooler’ interactions to help team members connect and stay informed. Outsiders can drift even further away from the heart of the team.

In-groups and Out-groups in Blended and Dispersed Teams

In 2020, it seems likely that many colleagues will continue to work remotely while a minority return to the office. Leaders need to think about how to create inclusion within this kind of dispersed or blended team.

Pre-pandemic research [3] shows that when a team consists of a mix of office and home based workers, the office based group tends to become the in-group while the disconnected remote workers will either be disconnected from the team or may connect and form an out-group, brought together by the sense of being left out.

However, emerging anecdotal evidence suggests that Covid-19 may create new types of in-group. For instance, younger workers with less comfortable home-working set ups may choose to go back to the office while more senior colleagues continue to work remotely. In this case, the risk is that the senior remote workers become the in-group while the office workers start to feel they are being excluded from key discussions.

One CEO we worked with recently noticed something along these lines. He realised that the senior team, all working from home, were becoming detached from the front line workers who spent their days out with clients and had no office to come back to in order to reconnect with colleagues. Without making a special effort, the two groups were in danger of drifting apart.

Practical Tips for Promoting Inclusion

We’ve seen how in-groups and out-groups might form, and have suggested that it is up to the manager or team leader to guard against this by creating an inclusive culture in the team.

Here are some of the actions that managers and leaders of virtual and blended teams can take to promote inclusion:

  • Think carefully about communication. Communicate a lot, and aim for equality in communication. Make sure that anything important is shared with everyone. For instance, make sure that the in-group don’t start having mini team meetings and leaving the rest of the team out. Anything at all important – like setting goals, imparting new news, discussing progress – needs to be communicated with everyone at once. As long as the team is dispersed, this is likely to require leaders to run most meetings on Zoom, Microsoft Teams or another video conference app, even if some people are dialing in from nearby desks in the office.
  • Get people working together. Creating friendships between individual insiders and outsiders in the group will improve people’s sense of inclusion. When people are remote working this can’t be done informally, so one of the best ways to do this is to pair people up to work together on specific projects that will require genuine collaboration, with people exchanging ideas and co-operating to achieve a goal. The leader needs to show interest and provide support during these projects, to help ensure that they are a positive experience for the participants.
  • Help people to open up. Leaders can create opportunities for team members to open up about their interests and backgrounds. Evidence suggests that the more out-group members show their individuality, the more likely it is that they will be properly seen and accepted by the wider group. One team we spoke to recently was very happy about the 5 minute ‘This is your life’ section that they had introduced at the start of weekly team Zoom meeting. One formerly distant colleague had shared his passion for scuba diving, which was now the talk of the team. They had all seen the uniqueness of their colleague, who had previously been more or less unknown to them.
  • Seek feedback. The Deloitte Australia study showed that few people had an accurate picture of how inclusive they were as leaders. Seeking feedback from others is a good way to assess how much work you need to do to become more inclusive. However, you need to make sure you set up the feedback process so that people can be honest about you. Asking, “I’m inclusive, aren’t I?” in a team meeting is not likely to elicit valid responses.
  • Build emotional intelligence. In general, the more emotionally intelligent the leader is, the fewer problems the team will have with inclusion. In the language of the Catalyst study, this is because the leader will be able to see and understand the uniqueness of each team member whilst also taking action to ensure that people feel they belong. So, one of the best ways to promote inclusiveness in a team is to help the manager or team leader to build their emotional intelligence. Our Aptimore learning platform is a good way to do that.


[1] Inclusive Leadership: the View from Six Countries, Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth R. Salib, 2014.
[2] The diversity and inclusion revolution: Eight powerful truths, Juliet Bourke, Bernadette Dillon, 2018.
[3] In-group/Out-group Effects in Distributed Teams: An Experimental Simulation, Nathan Bos et al, 2004.


Download the Guide Below

To read more about how to manage teams effectively, we have created a ‘2020 LEADERSHIP: A to Z Guide for Managers and Team Leaders’. In this article, we’ve looked at ‘B’ for ‘Blended’, and ‘I’ for ‘Inclusion’!

The guide is for managers and team leaders who are looking at 2020 and wondering what all this change means for them. It covers critical topics and challenges that will likely arise for leaders over the coming months.

What’s in the Guide:

  • An A to Z exploration of leadership insights, skills, knowledge and expertise.
  • Topics ranging from adaptability, blended teams, collaboration, delegation… through to the familiar Zoom meetings!
  • The key issues leaders need to think about to navigate the new future of work successfully.




We hope you find it interesting!