Cliques in the workplace: The good, the bad & the reality

Being in an office clique can have a negative effect on your relationship with management.

Story highlights

  • Cliques can have a positive effects, but be wary of the impression a clique gives to others
  • Don't become "guilty by association" by running with the wrong people
  • Good managers will create environments that foster community and inclusiveness
Cliques are ever-present in our lives. As much as many would like to believe they don't extend beyond high school, we all know better. I'm sure if you sat back and thought about all the people you work with, you could identify several cliques in your workplace. If not -- consider yourself lucky, because you're probably in a highly-collaborative environment where everyone has equal input.
But for most, work can closely resemble the movie "Mean Girls." While mostly a drain on the workplace, cliques can have a positive effect on new employees or team members, but everyone should be wary of the impression a clique gives to others, especially upper management. While it's human nature to want to fit in, keep in mind there are both positives and negatives to aligning yourself with an office clique.
The Good
Cliques are appealing to join because at work, people want to associate with those that are successful and recognized for being so. Running with a top-performing clique can give you value by association from management. It shows that you are a team player and want to become a top performer as well.
Also, people take notice of the friends you keep at work and how well you fit in. By actively joining groups and socializing, you become a highly-connected person that can build cross-functional relationships, providing value to you and your boss.
Within the clique itself, the "top dogs" can also be mentors to you. They probably know the ropes, can give you the inside scoop or introduce you to people that can help you succeed in your role.
I doubt many people don't want some kind of camaraderie at work. No one wants to be an island unto themselves, and joining an existing group can be helpful in learning the ins and outs of a company. But let's not forget that cliques can also form based on factors having nothing to do with work. Which leads us to the bad...
The Bad
Remember the thing about association. Well, remember the phrase "guilty by association." Just as easily as you can be seen running with people who are exceptional A+ performers, sometimes upper management can consider you to be running with the D+ crowd and you may not even know it. So be wary of how others are viewed in your workplace before you establish a relationship.
Cliques can breed an atmosphere of exclusivity where the leaders can be toxic. Be wary of groups where the dominant person is always negative or is spreading gossip based on their personal past with the company. Remember that cliques can also have standoffs with other business units or groups and make it difficult to get work done.
And for every good piece of information that you could learn from a clique, you also run the risk of being misinformed. Not to mention the gossip, bullying or other activities that would alienate others. And that's truly the biggest problem of cliques at work -- alienation. Even worse, if you miss out on other people's perspectives and input, it can hurt the overall team and organization.
The Reality
Sometimes cliques are inherent in the workplace, such as doctors and nurses or tenured teachers and non-tenured staff. Even in manufacturing, there's often a split between management and labor. But your best bet is to just tread lightly when it comes to making alliances.
Good managers won't really tolerate cliques and will create environments that foster community and inclusiveness. While healthy competition helps spur innovation in the workplace, cliques are truly more detrimental to your career than a boon to it. Sure, being the new person or a new member on the team means you have to ingratiate yourself with everyone and feel everybody out. Feel out their strengths and weaknesses so you can determine where your own expertise can compliment the team's.
Also, management shouldn't openly sanction fraternization, so as to not endorse one group of people over another for proactively socializing. And while cliques can have the illusion of safety in numbers, just remember this: Companies hire and fire individuals. So align yourself with people who are going to push you to be the best you can be and focus on how your efforts can help others. There's a difference between smart socializing and just desperately trying to make friends to get gossip or get ahead.