Workplace Cliques: Coping With the Toxic, Joining the Healthy

Reviewed Apr 25, 2017

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Summary

  • Toxic cliques take exclusivity to a harmful extreme.
  • Healthy cliques can be supportive and ignite ideas.
  • To join a healthy clique, show respect, identify common interests, and give something of value.

Feeling left out? If so, you’re likely to be dealing with a near-universal reality of workplaces: cliques.

Small, tightly-knit groups of friends can form anywhere. They’re a natural part of social interaction. They form in work environments as well, but there they can be problematic. They can forge bonds that are healthy and a positive force for productivity. Or they can turn toxic. When they do, the employees who are left out may be the ones hurt most directly, but the whole organization can eventually suffer as well.

Signs of a toxic clique

Experts advise being on the lookout for behavior that takes exclusivity to a harmful extreme, such as bullying, discrimination, or the withholding of information that people need to do their jobs.

Corporate trainer and speaker Marlene Chism says cliques can do damage by creating a “tribal mentality” or blind spots toward outsiders. Management consultant Jean Houston Shore says cliques can sometimes poison relationships when one member has undue influence on others. “Let’s say A, B, and C have a strong relationship, and A has a problem with D,” says Shore. “B and C didn’t have a problem with D, but out of loyalty to A they do now.”

Robert Van Arlen, a consultant and motivational speaker, identifies “dragging cliques” as the problem. These are groups occupied by gossip and complaining—“just there to drag energy out of anybody,” says Van Arlen.

Cliques can do good

But there are good cliques, too. Van Arlen says “supporting cliques” form among people who share interests and values and give each other encouragement. These tend to be more focused on social interaction than on the work itself. But, he says they are a positive influence if they aren’t overly exclusive and if they don’t get in the way of work—by excessive partying, for instance.

Another type in his clique classification is the “igniter clique,” which is work-focused and attracts the “go-getters.” These are people who want to “take each other to the next level” of skill and knowledge important to the organization and to their careers. These tend to be constructive too, he says, as long as their goals are aligned with those of the larger team and its leadership.

Coping with a toxic clique

How you as an employee cope with cliques will depend on your own needs and the nature of the cliques. Not all people require the same degree of social interaction and bonding at work. Some meet their relationship needs mainly outside the workplace; others hope to make plenty of friends on the job. You should look at your own personality to see which type you are.

In any event, don’t bother trying to join “dragging cliques” or other toxic groups. And if people in these groups do things that genuinely make your job difficult, such as withholding information that you are expected to have, you should share your concern with them first. Going to your boss should be a last resort, and even then the complaint must be over something specific and clearly harmful to your productivity. It’s not management’s job, says Chism, to make sure you get asked to join the group for lunch.

Joining a healthy clique

As for the healthier social groups, they should be easier to join if you’re patient and make an effort to reach out to people in them. After all, the good cliques are good in part because they’re capable of accepting new members.

But newcomers should not expect to be instantly accepted. As Shore points out, they are trying to change established social relationships, and such change takes time.

She also advises against getting too obsessed with the presence of cliques and the fact that you’re not in them. “If you allow yourself to exaggerate the extent of your isolation or to magnify the desirability of being in the clique, you’ll only make yourself feel worse,” she says. And don’t take it personally if you’re not instantly included in a group.

Part of every newcomer’s social job is to watch and learn for a while to get a sense of the existing social network. This is a time to get to know people and their interests, because you may find much in common. Van Arlen notes that you may find ways to make yourself appealing and valuable to others. People in a “supporting clique” may turn out to share the same interest in music that you do, and you might have some concert tickets to share. You may have some business or technical knowledge that piques the interest of an “igniter clique.”

These are just a few of the ways to ingratiate yourself with a group by giving it something of value—putting “the principle of reciprocity to work,” in Shore’s words. Shore has other advice along these lines:

  • Show respect to the group (and don’t complain about being left out).
  • Identify common work-related goals as well as personal interests.
  • “Give to give.” That  is, don’t just do things to get something in return, she says, but “do as many good things that you can for the workplace.” In that way, says Shore, “you will have built your reputation as a good and generous person.”

Painful as it may be, a little self-analysis also may be in order. If you’re ostracized, it may not entirely be the fault of others. “People hang around with people with whom they feel comfortable and trust,” says Shore. “If you complain, people don’t like being with you, if you gossip, people don’t trust you.” In other words, don’t expect to be part of a social network if you can’t be sociable. 

By Tom Gray
Source: Marlene Chism (ICARE Presentations, Springfield, Mo.), Robert Van Arlen (Robert Van Arlen LLC, Phoenix, Ariz.), Jean Houston Shore (Business Resource Group, Roswell, Ga.)

Summary

  • Toxic cliques take exclusivity to a harmful extreme.
  • Healthy cliques can be supportive and ignite ideas.
  • To join a healthy clique, show respect, identify common interests, and give something of value.

Feeling left out? If so, you’re likely to be dealing with a near-universal reality of workplaces: cliques.

Small, tightly-knit groups of friends can form anywhere. They’re a natural part of social interaction. They form in work environments as well, but there they can be problematic. They can forge bonds that are healthy and a positive force for productivity. Or they can turn toxic. When they do, the employees who are left out may be the ones hurt most directly, but the whole organization can eventually suffer as well.

Signs of a toxic clique

Experts advise being on the lookout for behavior that takes exclusivity to a harmful extreme, such as bullying, discrimination, or the withholding of information that people need to do their jobs.

Corporate trainer and speaker Marlene Chism says cliques can do damage by creating a “tribal mentality” or blind spots toward outsiders. Management consultant Jean Houston Shore says cliques can sometimes poison relationships when one member has undue influence on others. “Let’s say A, B, and C have a strong relationship, and A has a problem with D,” says Shore. “B and C didn’t have a problem with D, but out of loyalty to A they do now.”

Robert Van Arlen, a consultant and motivational speaker, identifies “dragging cliques” as the problem. These are groups occupied by gossip and complaining—“just there to drag energy out of anybody,” says Van Arlen.

Cliques can do good

But there are good cliques, too. Van Arlen says “supporting cliques” form among people who share interests and values and give each other encouragement. These tend to be more focused on social interaction than on the work itself. But, he says they are a positive influence if they aren’t overly exclusive and if they don’t get in the way of work—by excessive partying, for instance.

Another type in his clique classification is the “igniter clique,” which is work-focused and attracts the “go-getters.” These are people who want to “take each other to the next level” of skill and knowledge important to the organization and to their careers. These tend to be constructive too, he says, as long as their goals are aligned with those of the larger team and its leadership.

Coping with a toxic clique

How you as an employee cope with cliques will depend on your own needs and the nature of the cliques. Not all people require the same degree of social interaction and bonding at work. Some meet their relationship needs mainly outside the workplace; others hope to make plenty of friends on the job. You should look at your own personality to see which type you are.

In any event, don’t bother trying to join “dragging cliques” or other toxic groups. And if people in these groups do things that genuinely make your job difficult, such as withholding information that you are expected to have, you should share your concern with them first. Going to your boss should be a last resort, and even then the complaint must be over something specific and clearly harmful to your productivity. It’s not management’s job, says Chism, to make sure you get asked to join the group for lunch.

Joining a healthy clique

As for the healthier social groups, they should be easier to join if you’re patient and make an effort to reach out to people in them. After all, the good cliques are good in part because they’re capable of accepting new members.

But newcomers should not expect to be instantly accepted. As Shore points out, they are trying to change established social relationships, and such change takes time.

She also advises against getting too obsessed with the presence of cliques and the fact that you’re not in them. “If you allow yourself to exaggerate the extent of your isolation or to magnify the desirability of being in the clique, you’ll only make yourself feel worse,” she says. And don’t take it personally if you’re not instantly included in a group.

Part of every newcomer’s social job is to watch and learn for a while to get a sense of the existing social network. This is a time to get to know people and their interests, because you may find much in common. Van Arlen notes that you may find ways to make yourself appealing and valuable to others. People in a “supporting clique” may turn out to share the same interest in music that you do, and you might have some concert tickets to share. You may have some business or technical knowledge that piques the interest of an “igniter clique.”

These are just a few of the ways to ingratiate yourself with a group by giving it something of value—putting “the principle of reciprocity to work,” in Shore’s words. Shore has other advice along these lines:

  • Show respect to the group (and don’t complain about being left out).
  • Identify common work-related goals as well as personal interests.
  • “Give to give.” That  is, don’t just do things to get something in return, she says, but “do as many good things that you can for the workplace.” In that way, says Shore, “you will have built your reputation as a good and generous person.”

Painful as it may be, a little self-analysis also may be in order. If you’re ostracized, it may not entirely be the fault of others. “People hang around with people with whom they feel comfortable and trust,” says Shore. “If you complain, people don’t like being with you, if you gossip, people don’t trust you.” In other words, don’t expect to be part of a social network if you can’t be sociable. 

By Tom Gray
Source: Marlene Chism (ICARE Presentations, Springfield, Mo.), Robert Van Arlen (Robert Van Arlen LLC, Phoenix, Ariz.), Jean Houston Shore (Business Resource Group, Roswell, Ga.)

Summary

  • Toxic cliques take exclusivity to a harmful extreme.
  • Healthy cliques can be supportive and ignite ideas.
  • To join a healthy clique, show respect, identify common interests, and give something of value.

Feeling left out? If so, you’re likely to be dealing with a near-universal reality of workplaces: cliques.

Small, tightly-knit groups of friends can form anywhere. They’re a natural part of social interaction. They form in work environments as well, but there they can be problematic. They can forge bonds that are healthy and a positive force for productivity. Or they can turn toxic. When they do, the employees who are left out may be the ones hurt most directly, but the whole organization can eventually suffer as well.

Signs of a toxic clique

Experts advise being on the lookout for behavior that takes exclusivity to a harmful extreme, such as bullying, discrimination, or the withholding of information that people need to do their jobs.

Corporate trainer and speaker Marlene Chism says cliques can do damage by creating a “tribal mentality” or blind spots toward outsiders. Management consultant Jean Houston Shore says cliques can sometimes poison relationships when one member has undue influence on others. “Let’s say A, B, and C have a strong relationship, and A has a problem with D,” says Shore. “B and C didn’t have a problem with D, but out of loyalty to A they do now.”

Robert Van Arlen, a consultant and motivational speaker, identifies “dragging cliques” as the problem. These are groups occupied by gossip and complaining—“just there to drag energy out of anybody,” says Van Arlen.

Cliques can do good

But there are good cliques, too. Van Arlen says “supporting cliques” form among people who share interests and values and give each other encouragement. These tend to be more focused on social interaction than on the work itself. But, he says they are a positive influence if they aren’t overly exclusive and if they don’t get in the way of work—by excessive partying, for instance.

Another type in his clique classification is the “igniter clique,” which is work-focused and attracts the “go-getters.” These are people who want to “take each other to the next level” of skill and knowledge important to the organization and to their careers. These tend to be constructive too, he says, as long as their goals are aligned with those of the larger team and its leadership.

Coping with a toxic clique

How you as an employee cope with cliques will depend on your own needs and the nature of the cliques. Not all people require the same degree of social interaction and bonding at work. Some meet their relationship needs mainly outside the workplace; others hope to make plenty of friends on the job. You should look at your own personality to see which type you are.

In any event, don’t bother trying to join “dragging cliques” or other toxic groups. And if people in these groups do things that genuinely make your job difficult, such as withholding information that you are expected to have, you should share your concern with them first. Going to your boss should be a last resort, and even then the complaint must be over something specific and clearly harmful to your productivity. It’s not management’s job, says Chism, to make sure you get asked to join the group for lunch.

Joining a healthy clique

As for the healthier social groups, they should be easier to join if you’re patient and make an effort to reach out to people in them. After all, the good cliques are good in part because they’re capable of accepting new members.

But newcomers should not expect to be instantly accepted. As Shore points out, they are trying to change established social relationships, and such change takes time.

She also advises against getting too obsessed with the presence of cliques and the fact that you’re not in them. “If you allow yourself to exaggerate the extent of your isolation or to magnify the desirability of being in the clique, you’ll only make yourself feel worse,” she says. And don’t take it personally if you’re not instantly included in a group.

Part of every newcomer’s social job is to watch and learn for a while to get a sense of the existing social network. This is a time to get to know people and their interests, because you may find much in common. Van Arlen notes that you may find ways to make yourself appealing and valuable to others. People in a “supporting clique” may turn out to share the same interest in music that you do, and you might have some concert tickets to share. You may have some business or technical knowledge that piques the interest of an “igniter clique.”

These are just a few of the ways to ingratiate yourself with a group by giving it something of value—putting “the principle of reciprocity to work,” in Shore’s words. Shore has other advice along these lines:

  • Show respect to the group (and don’t complain about being left out).
  • Identify common work-related goals as well as personal interests.
  • “Give to give.” That  is, don’t just do things to get something in return, she says, but “do as many good things that you can for the workplace.” In that way, says Shore, “you will have built your reputation as a good and generous person.”

Painful as it may be, a little self-analysis also may be in order. If you’re ostracized, it may not entirely be the fault of others. “People hang around with people with whom they feel comfortable and trust,” says Shore. “If you complain, people don’t like being with you, if you gossip, people don’t trust you.” In other words, don’t expect to be part of a social network if you can’t be sociable. 

By Tom Gray
Source: Marlene Chism (ICARE Presentations, Springfield, Mo.), Robert Van Arlen (Robert Van Arlen LLC, Phoenix, Ariz.), Jean Houston Shore (Business Resource Group, Roswell, Ga.)

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