Three Ways to Deal with Cliques at Work

[Excerpt from The Culture Question]

Although we want to encourage relationships, we also want to actively discourage the formation of cliques in our workplaces. When cliques do form, leaders need to deal with them promptly and effectively.

Cliques are exclusive groups of people who share common interests. They are surrounded by thick relational walls that are difficult to penetrate. Cliques usually develop identities based on shared interests or functions, such as The Friday Beer Group, The Potluck Club, The Management Team, The Smokers’ Group, or The Sales Team.

Most people enjoy being part of a group, but when groups turn into cliques, there can be some serious downsides. When coworkers socialize in and outside of work, those who are not part of the group often feel excluded. Usually the exclusion is not deliberate, but sometimes it is. Regardless of their intent, cliques are just as damaging and demoralizing in the workplace as they are in schools and other social settings.

In healthy workplace cultures, people still form groups, but they pay conscious attention to keeping boundaries porous.

In addition to social exclusion, cliques within organizations also unfortunately encourage like-mindedness and groupthink. Irving Janis, who coined the term groupthink, says that it tends to weaken mental efficiency while reducing the group members’ capacity to make both rational decisions and objective moral judgments of each other.

When people within cliques make decisions, they are highly motivated to fit in and maintain their status in the group. This means that they do not challenge potentially unhealthy decisions for fear of upsetting others. This can be especially problematic when the leaders of an organization form a clique, as their decisions have a greater impact on the organization as a whole.

Rather than gaining the benefit of each person’s insights, cliques are typically dominated by those with the strongest voices. People in cliques often bow to the influence of the leaders of the group, deferring to their opinions and ideas. When workplaces are dominated by cliques, they lose the benefit of having many voices contribute to conversations and decisions.

As we have often seen in our conflict management work, cliques also tend to perpetuate conflict. This is due to the fact that clique members protect each other. When one group member is threatened, the others come to their aid. Given the dynamics of groupthink, if one person in a clique dislikes someone outside the group, their fellow clique members will often take sides, and soon the whole group is united against another person.

This can be incredibly destructive for the wider workplace and team environment. When conflicts arise, cliques act as blocs of power. They fight for their side rather than for the good of the whole group.

In healthy workplace cultures, people still form groups, but they pay conscious attention to keeping boundaries porous. Here are some strategies for preventing the formation of cliques in your workplace:

1. Promote awareness. When communicating with your team, highlight the value of cross-connection throughout the workplace. Be clear that your organization promotes friendships and

2. Create opportunities to work together. Pay attention to groupings in your workplace. A leader’s role includes ensuring that staff have working relationships across different teams and departments. At ACHIEVE, we regularly ask staff to work on projects connected to the work of different departments or teams.

3. Provide coaching. When you see the potential for groups to become cliques, meet with individuals and discuss this openly. Highlight the difference between social groups and cliques. Remind staff of the organization’s expectations for inclusivity and cross-connection.


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Randy Grieser, Author, Speaker

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