Watch out for cliques

Culture  Relationships
16 November, 2015

Lack of diversity, us vs. them, and turf wars – the toxic effects of office cliques

Often, I see the same group of people having lunch together every day. Many of them tend to be part of the same team.  As I have written before, building close friendships can greatly improve how we work together, not to mention making the hours we spend at work much more enjoyable.

But what happens when this camaraderie and bonding threatens diversity and inclusion? It probably sounds a little counter-intuitive, but taken too far, what started out as just a close team, can become a clique. And it can make other team members uncomfortable and feel excluded. It can interfere with the very collaboration that coming together as team was supposed to encourage.

Drawing from this, my message today focuses on cliques and how to make sure that you are not encouraging them.

What are cliques? Why do you need to be concerned about them?

Cliques are closely knit groups of people who tend to mingle together, both at work and outside of it. Like with any circle of friends, this would typically start out as like-minded people with similar backgrounds and interests who end up spending time together. The more they do this, the closer they get.

Cliques are very much a part of the social fabric of any company. That isn’t really a surprise, because the way people act and interact at work is just an extension of the way they would outside of it. And outside of work, cliques are not new to you. You have seen them growing up in your neighbourhood playground and then through school and college. There are always groups that form. People who are similar, who start hanging out together.  And you have been a part of them in one way or another.

Why do people become a part of a clique? Because there is comfort in familiarity. They offer you a sense of identity; one that is easy for you to accept probably because it is largely along the lines of the kind of person you are. Cliques can make their members feel very good about themselves. They are great for morale and together, there is power in numbers. At the workplace, this can translate into great work if you are able to leverage these friendships right.

This should be good news, right? On the surface, it seems to check all the boxes for the bonds that we want to encourage in our teams. The closeness that we want to feel in our teams. But ironically, that is the very problem. You see, there is a fine line between being a great team and working together collaboratively and becoming so close that you become exclusive. That is the single biggest problem with cliques – they are exclusive. And by being so, they become insular.

Given that cliques are formed by people who are very similar, encouraging them also, by extension, discourages diversity. So, while members may feel a strong sense of identity, from an organisational perspective, this is a problem. It hampers the diverse work culture that we want to foster. You’re so busy being a part of your group, that you don’t end up spending enough time appreciating and learning from the other people around you. And being able to appreciate and foster diversity, both in your team and among your customers and other stakeholders, is a pre requisite for leaders.

Cliques become even more worrying when negativity creeps in. It amplifies the ‘us versus them’ that is largely inherent to its formation. That’s when people start walling up, rumours do the rounds, turf wars start and because of this unity in numbers, this conflict gets the backing that it shouldn’t. This impacts the overall morale and productivity in the company.

As leaders, we need to be concerned about cliques. We are responsible for shaping and role modelling the culture at Godrej. Allowing cliques to thrive or, even worse, participating in them, will result in us fostering a culture where pockets of exclusivity grow and trust gets hampered.

Here are five tips on how you can better manage cliques:

1. Be able to identify them

There are probably close groups all around you at work. You can tell when you see them. But, given that it is only natural that similar people will hang out together, can you tell when a friendship is becoming a clique? You must become aware of the telling signs.

Think about your immediate team to start with. Do they welcome new ideas and team members? Are they under some kind of pressure to act in a certain, similar way, which results in conformity? Are they open to agreeing to disagree? And what about with the more regular, every day things? Do they always lunch together? Are they shutting out new people even for the simpler, more informal things? Do they always get their information from the same people? Are they making decisions based on the people they hang out with? Is any of this tending to get negative? Now ask yourself how much of this are you fostering? Studies show that half the people who join cliques say that they think that their managers are part of one. So, practice what you preach here.

2. Tread gently

Cliques are no different from the groups that you have encountered before in school or college. Just that they are older now and if anything, more stubborn and less likely to do as told. So, for starters, don’t make this accusatory. You should absolutely address a concern if you see one. That said however, you are much better off being able to leverage their strengths – and there are several – than risking antagonising them and having it result in passive aggression.

3. Reason with the leaders

Like with any groups, you will find that cliques too have ‘leaders’. These will be the people who are looked up to in them; the ones who will set the trends and be at the heart of all decisions that they make. This is where you need to start making the change. If you find a clique really becoming a threat, then you need to find a way to influence the people who can make the most difference. Sometimes, all this really needs is an open conversation, where you try to co-opt the leader into building more inclusion into this group.

4. Find ways to encourage people to mix

It may not always be the case that people don’t want to mix. It could just be that they are being lethargic about it. So, mix things up a bit. If you see these smaller cliques starting to form, then try and find ways to get these people to broaden the set that they mix with. You could do this through more formal measures like projects and short assignments. You could even encourage more informal meetings like lunches and coffees with larger groups.

5. Walk the talk on diversity

If diversity is truly important to us, then we need to be much more upfront about it. So, don’t just say that inclusion is appreciated. Show it. Call it out when people make an effort to reach out of their comfort zones. This could be in the projects they are working on, the insights that they come up with, the manner in which they approach relationships with people in their teams and across teams. You can tell when someone is making an effort.

One of the big reasons why people want to be part of a clique, is the acceptance that it comes with. The more we can really walk the talk on inclusion, the less people will feel the need to search for acceptance. We need to get our team members to align with our larger company, not just with smaller groups that could end up being counter-productive. Stronger platforms that encourage open communication and constructive conflict resolution can be very helpful as well.

I look forward to your thoughts and suggestions on what we can do to foster a more inclusive mindset in our teams.

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