SmartTalent - Are You Part of the In Crowd at Work that isSo who were you in high school? Class clown? Star athlete? Teacher’s pet? Honor student? Or, did you choose to not align yourself with any particular group?Regardless of your place in high school, you were either part of a clique or observed them in action. And depending upon whether you were “in” or “out,” cliques were either your social safety net or the bane of your existence.

When you left high school, you probably thought that you also left the whole social dynamic behind. After all, cliques are for adolescents, not adults–right? Wrong. The “in crowd” is everywhere–on college campuses, on factory floors, and in office suites all over the country.

Recent surveys confirm that the workplace is really not that much different from high school. According to a CareerBuilder/Harris Interactive poll, 43% of workers reported that their workplace is populated by cliques. In addition, 20% of workers have reported doing something that they did not want to do just to “fit in.” This includes watching certain TV shows, going to office happy hours, hiding their political affiliation or personal hobbies, or even making fun of someone else.

The workplace is really not that different from high school after all.

Financial Impact

Cliques can wreak financial havoc on the workplace as well. Productivity plummets as workers are more concerned with navigating a hostile work environment than with doing their jobs. Innovation nosedives as those left on the outside of the clique do not experience the benefits of a diverse group of opinions and perspectives. If the clique becomes toxic, then it can spread poison through the entire organization. When this happens, morale tumbles and ostracized employees begin to look for (and find) other jobs–taking their talents and skills with them.

The Fine Line between Good and Bad

By their very definition, cliques are exclusive, leaving others on the outside. Webster’s defines a clique as a small group of people, with shared interests or other features in common, who spend time together and do not readily allow others to join.

However, if the office clique is one that welcomes membership, it can set a good precedent for overall employee camaraderie and teamwork. These “good” cliques may be formed for a variety of reasons–departmental memberships, favorite sports teams or after-work activities. This, by itself, is not a bad thing. Common interests can promote common goals. However, these good cliques can morph into bad cliques when:

  • the structure turns rigid;
  • no one new is accepted; or
  • the clique members become judgmental and divisive.

Bad cliques exclude anyone from joining, and they really have nothing to do with friendship. Once formed around negativity, members frequently engage in petty and disruptive gossip. At their best, members’ uncooperativeness and narrow-mindedness cause great amounts of grief for others around them; at their worst, members may even bully co-workers who do not belong.

Manage the Bad and Promote the Good

Look in the mirror

It’s human nature to want to belong to a group of people who have similar interests and passions as you do. But as a leader, you should never be part of an office clique. If you’re perceived as belonging to a clique, your employees probably perceive you as unapproachable–and part of the problem.

To best manage the negative effects of office cliques, start by taking a long hard look in the mirror. Improve your own work relationships before expecting others to change their ways.

Lead by example

Behave the way you’d like your employees to behave. To diffuse the coercive power of cliques:

  • embrace individual differences;
  • invite, don’t exclude;
  • respect what everyone brings to the table; and
  • treat everyone fairly–in both actions and words.

In the end, it is not important whether or not anyone is Republican, or likes to play beach volleyball or is an avid hunter. What is important is the focus on the business, the commitment to success and an ability to work together to achieve a common goal.

Don’t place blame

Be careful how you approach the subject with your employees. Do not single out a clique member or use his actions as an example of what not to do–you’ll promote hurt feelings more than anything else. On the other hand, do not mention any employees who may have felt alienated. These actions can cause cliques to flourish and accusers to feel even more estranged. Keep all conversations general and talk about the overall danger of forming office cliques when addressing employees.

Create sound office policies

Implement policies that prevent cliques from forming in the workplace. Many of the same office policies that can serve you well in the areas of harassment or discriminatory behavior can help discourage the formation of cliques. For example, encourage employees to leave heated political and religious discussions out of the workplace. Make sure all employees are aware of the policies and the consequences of violating them.

Build your teams

Work to create a team environment throughout your entire organization. Assemble people from different groups to collaborate on projects, to break down barriers and discourage divisive behavior.

Plan team-building activities to develop trust, increase communication and create a safe environment where employees can get to know one another better. When people come together in an entirely new way, cliques are broken down.

Final Thoughts

When dealing with cliques, you are walking a fine line. Employees value their workplace friendships, but when those friendships become coercive, they can put your entire operation at risk.

Promoting an environment of mutual respect and open-mindedness, and then leading by example, can force you out of your own comfort zone. However, the increase in innovation, productivity and morale–and the decrease in employee turnover–will be well worth your effort.