A new study from the University of Exeter describes why fairness is not enough to make people feel valued in the workplace. The researchers found that individuals need “distinctive treatment,” or recognition of their unique talents and qualities, to gain a sense that they are appreciated.
While the importance of fairness is widely accepted, distinctive treatment is often overlooked, explained the researchers.
“Organizations and other groups often recognize the importance of members treating each other fairly – with dignity and without bias,” said study lead author Dr. Christopher Begeny.
“In six studies of workplaces and other groups, we find that this is indeed key to fostering individuals’ sense of belonging. However, individuals also need to be shown that they have some distinct value to the group.”
“When colleagues or fellow group members show interest and appreciation for an individual’s more distinguishing qualities, that individual benefits.”
Dr. Begeny said that this kind of distinctive treatment has real benefits for mental health too, including less anxiety and depression.
“To be clear, fair treatment is a must – but our studies show it’s also woefully insufficient on its own.”
“Individuals need to feel more than inclusion. As well as ‘fitting in,’ they need to ‘stand out’ – to feel that they have some distinct value and worth that they bring to the group.”
The results of the study suggest that not only is there is no conflict between “fitting in” and “standing out” in groups, but that the two actually complement each other.
In order for organizations to incorporate distinctive treatment in the workplace, Dr Begeny said it helps to have supervisors with the time and energy to recognize and tap into the special skills and knowledge of the individuals on their team.
“Another method is to create well-developed systems of mentorship, allowing people to share their experience and expertise.”
“This can also foster a workplace culture that is not just inclusive, but value-affirming – where people regularly seek each other out for advice, which is beneficial to both parties.”
“Expressing distinctive treatment does not simply mean sending out a mass email saying ‘if anyone has any ideas about this project, please let me know’.
“It’s about going to an individual, or small group of individuals, and saying, ‘hey, I really think your insights and perspectives could be an asset to this project. Would you be willing to offer your thoughts?’
Dr. Begeny explained that distinctive treatment is not a passive process of hearing people when they have ideas to share, but involves taking the initiative to learn what an individual has to offer and showing recognition and appreciation for it.
The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.