Workplace Culture

What To Do About Cliques

We all enjoy having friends at work and being part of a group. After all, we are social creatures and typically derive much of our identity from the groups we belong to. But when groups become cliques, we soon begin to experience some serious downsides.

Cliques are essentially groups with thick walls – it’s hard to get into them. They form in our workplaces on both personal and structural levels. Cliques tend to develop an identity based on shared interests or functions, such as The Friday Beers Group, The Potluck Club, The Management Team, The Smokers, The Sales Team, etc.

2 Reasons to Be Concerned about Cliques

I suspect that, like me, you have seen the suffering caused by cliques in the schools we attended or the places we have lived. I believe cliques are just as damaging for the workplace for two reasons.

Reason 1: The first, and perhaps biggest problem, is that cliques promote like-mindedness and groupthink. Dr. Irving Janis, who coined the term, says that groupthink tends to weaken the “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment” of the people in the group.

When we make decisions as part of a clique, we do so in an environment where we are highly motivated to fit in and not rock the boat. This means that we may not challenge decisions that we have concerns about, for fear of upsetting the other members of the group.

Related to this phenomenon is that stronger voices dominate cliques. Rather than gaining the benefit of each person’s insights, the group will likely bow to the influence of a leader’s strongly stated opinion.

When workplaces are dominated by cliques, they lose the benefit of having many voices contribute to the decisions that will ultimately determine their success or failure.

Reason 2:
The second major problem with cliques, as I have often seen in my conflict management work, is their propensity to perpetuate conflict. Cliques naturally bond and protect each other – think of them as a mini-tribe.

When one member of the tribe is threatened, the others come to their aid. In a workplace setting, cliques will share the same rumours, hold the same opinions and fight as a group. This can be incredibly destructive for the wider workplace and team environment.

What to Do About Cliques

So what can we do about cliques in the workplace? Here are three recommendations:

  1. Leadership must pay attention to groupings in the workplace. Their role includes making sure that staff are cross-connected between teams or departments. In my place of work, we routinely ask staff to work on projects connected with the work of a different department or team.
  1. Leadership should model broad connections. While leadership may need to meet together as a small group from time to time, they should include voices from various levels within their organization in decision-making processes.
  1. From a personal perspective, when we find ourselves having the same conversation with the same group of people over and over again, we need to take that as a warning sign that we are engaged in groupthink. Then we can simply notice out loud the lack of other voices in the mix, and ask questions about how to draw in other perspectives.

Let us celebrate our groups, but be wary of cliques!


Eric Stutzman

Chief Executive Officer

Eric is co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. This book is available on our website.

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