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cliques ruin company culture

Don’t Clique Here: Prevent Negative Groups from Ruining Company Culture

People may assume they’ll leave cliques behind when they graduate from high school. But many workers find themselves in companies splintered into the same micro-cultures that shaped their alma mater’s environment. These groups often influence daily operations throughout the organization. At their worst, they can become destructive elements that sabotage individual and corporate success.

It’s only natural for people in the same department or those with similar expertise to band together. However, this affinity becomes counterproductive when employees perceive their circle’s importance, goals, and perspectives as superior to those of another group or the entire team.

It’s vital for leaders to look for signs of disruptive workforce cliques and prevent them from undermining the organizational culture that they’re trying to nurture.

How Workplace Cliques Form

It’s human nature to gravitate toward others who seem like us. And just like they did in high school, employees bond with colleagues who share traits and perspectives. They gravitate toward people who make them feel more secure in their identities. Common areas of similarity include:

  • Personality types
  • Tenure
  • Life stages
  • Hobbies
  • Affiliations (religious, political, cultural)
  • Shared backgrounds

Syncing with “birds of a feather” can enrich people’s work experience and make it more enjoyable. And having work friends is one of the key drivers of employee engagement.

But not all commonalities are positive. In a recent blog on the topic, the Indeed Editorial Team observes:

“If employees are uncertain about their future at the company, they may find comfort being with others who feel the same way. When others empathize and support your feelings, it can strengthen your bond. This may happen when one group of employees receives the majority of positive feedback, leaving other employees out. It can be comforting and validating to find other individuals who feel overlooked. Similarly, the top performers may seek each other out exclusively.”

In-groups and out-groups form when workers either feel more valued or disrespected in the organization. This polarization often leads to an us/them mentality, which creates a toxic workplace culture.

Warning Signs of Cliques in the Workplace

Since workplace cliques can form for various reasons, it may be challenging for leaders to determine when they are a negative force. The Indeed Editorial Team provides a list of warning signs to help them make the distinction. They encourage leaders to watch for the following:

  • Groups that exclude others from joining them
  • One or more groups gossiping about others
  • A group that discourages differing opinions
  • Employees hearing or spreading rumors
  • Unpleasant competitiveness
  • Bullying

Insperity Thought Leadership Director Pete Hinojosa adds that even hearing the word “clique” can signal that something negative is happening. He suggests leaders take notice when dialogue and actions shift.

“When people start talking about cliques at work, it usually takes on a dark meaning – somebody is being excluded and feels they can’t break into the secret society. You hear words such as cliquish, excluded, alienated, uncomfortable, secrets. You might see groups of people sequester themselves from others. They slink off into corners for discussions and suddenly everyone else thinks they’re talking about them.”

At first glance, these symptoms may not seem to be disrupting operations, but allowing them to fester is a mistake. While it may be the easiest thing to do, leaders and their management teams can’t afford to turn a blind eye toward cliquish behavior.

The Negative Impact of Workplace Cliques

Over time, resentments brewing in some micro-cultures can spill over and ultimately erode organizational goals. Author John Paulus lists reasons they can be disruptive in a LinkedIn blog. He notes that negative cliques can:

  1. Be a barrier to inclusivity
    Organizations flourish when everyone who works there feels included and valued. Since cliques are often exclusive, people who aren’t part of these groups can feel left out, underappreciated, or ostracized.

  2. Hamper collaboration
    Cliques can stem the flow of effective communication. Ideas, solutions, or feedback may become siloed in these groups, depriving others of beneficial information.

  3. Create an “us vs. them” mentality
    Cliques can be divisive and cause unhealthy competition or conflict, affecting teamwork and overall productivity.

  4. Limit professional growth
    People insulated in cliques deprive themselves of diverse perspectives. Like social media algorithms, these groups only reflect viewpoints reinforcing a specific outlook. Such “echo chambers” can suppress innovation and prevent people from growing professionally.

  5. Impact decision making
    Sometimes people in leadership positions are clique members. Their affiliation with a specific group may lead to favoritism and partisan decisions. Paulus notes that this behavior erodes trust in leadership and undermines meritocracy.

  6. Encourage gossip and drama
    Cliques are often the sources of office gossip, which can create a tense and unproductive workplace. Misinformation and misunderstandings are a natural byproduct of this behavior, which undermines professional relationships.

Workplace cliques’ adverse side effects are widespread. A CareerBuilder study found that almost half of employees work in organizations with detrimental micro-cultures. In an article for HR Morning, Work Shield CEO Jared Pope distills the repercussions.

“Clique culture can hurt [employees’] sense of belonging to an organization, making them feel like they aren’t part of it. This can demotivate employees, impacting their productivity and overall performance. Organizations that allow the cliques to occur or continue will certainly face higher turnover with decreased productivity. In other words, the toxicity of office cliques is real.”

What Leaders Can Do

The key to diffusing the impact of disruptive cliques is for leaders to activate positive behaviors in their company’s culture. Their first step should be clearly defining and explaining behaviors that create a safe atmosphere, inspire trust, and cultivate understanding and respect.

Leaders need to go beyond laying out a blueprint for these behaviors to ignite. They should go further by coaching their employees and setting up a systematic way for them to exercise team-building conduct. And to ensure buy-in, leaders must actively model the behaviors they want their staff to demonstrate.

In an article for Forbes, Leadership coach and president of CBV Consultants Carol Geffner stresses that leaders can’t sway their team from a distance. She suggests several ways they can influence micro-cultures.

Leaders should spend time “working closer to the ground” to gain insight into the inner workings of their organization. By personally experiencing how their team members operate, they can “build relationships with individuals and groups who hold the potential to influence the broader organization.”

Geffner writes that leaders must intentionally forge open, honest communication lines to prevent cliques from settling in. They should encourage employees to share ideas, concerns, and feedback.

Strategically divest or invest
Interacting with micro-cultures can help leaders discover pockets of influence and power. They can leverage this knowledge to make more informed decisions about hiring and resource allocation.

Geffner observes that leaders’ focus on these groups can have a domino effect throughout the organization. She writes:

“If your organization is overly influenced by a small but powerful group of longtime employees, influencing this group could be an opportunity to not only break up a potentially harmful dynamic but also encourage the group’s members to share their power with other employees (e.g., as mentors).”

Geffner also reminds leaders that healthy micro-cultures probably also exist in their organizations. She advises them to also consider how they can amplify the positive attitudes and behaviors, empowering them to be forces for good.