The Challenge of Cliques

Steve Browne, Contributor
Monday, November 27, 2023
The Challenge of Cliques

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I grew up in a small village in Northwest Ohio called Ada. We had one school which housed every grade — K through 12. Seriously. There wasn't another school for you to consider. Everyone went through their entire schooling career in one building. When I moved to Ada in the 7th grade, I began attending this self-contained ecosystem.

Being a teenager is awkward enough, but starting a new school at the same time is even more challenging.

I knew no one and wasn't sure how to get connected. We all know that schools are known for their cliques. You had the jocks, the nerds, the rebels, the band geeks, etc. They are vicious little packs that are impossible to break into. However, if you don't try to latch onto one, you'll be left out in the cold and isolated, which is even worse. We'll come back to how I combatted this reality later in the story.

The awful thing about cliques in schools is that those kids grow up to become employees.

Human beings repeat the behaviors they learn when they are young so it's not surprising those same people create cliques in the workplace when they grow up. Cliques in the workplace can be even more destructive than the ones that permeate schools when we are young. In the workplace, these bands of humans can gang up on others to ostracize people and even get them to leave the company. What's even more challenging is that cliques at work can be encouraged and even lauded. We mistake these little clans as a form of camaraderie. There may be some bonds of friendship, but the groups tend to keep others at arm's length.

Now back to my experience in junior high...

I should mention that when I first moved to Ada in the 7th grade, the vast majority of my classmates had been together since kindergarten. I was at an even bigger disadvantage because they had years of shared experience.

Since I didn't belong to any of the established cliques (even in such a small school), I decided to "join" all of them.

I didn't know any better. I played basketball and ran track to get connected to the jocks. I became the band manager and joined the choir to get close to the music kids. I was fortunate to be a good student so I could hang with the nerds. The rebels were a bit tougher to get to know but I did my best to acknowledge them instead of poking fun or avoiding them altogether.

I discovered that meeting people for who they are and how they identify is far more successful than trying to join one selective group or another.

I learned the key was being willing to foster relationships across the spectrum of the groups. I had something in common with each one and could move easily between them all. I know this approach isn't typical or what was expected; I should have joined one and been grateful I had a small band to run around with.

It never seemed to make sense to limit myself to one group. Being able to move freely between everyone was far more comfortable and interesting. You see, cliques exist because people want to belong. It's an innate part of our human condition.

Cliques exist because people want to belong. People don't want to be left out.

In the workplace, you can take the same approach I used in school and move amongst the different groups of employees. If a clique is not constructive, then you should address it. There's never a good reason for poor behavior. However, don't go around with the intent of breaking everyone up — it's ineffective. Instead, make the effort to build relationships across the entire organization. This may seem daunting, but it isn't in practice.

Take a stance to be the "bridger" who wants to know and connect with each person regardless of their role or level in the company. Have a goal that every employee will have a place where they can feel anchored and valued.

I recently went to my 40th high school anniversary and the "kids" from all the cliques came back together once again. The relationships I had built were still strong, and I discovered that all of the cliques they held onto so tightly as kids were gone. Gratefully, friendships survived.

Cliques can't survive when you reach people and connect with them directly.

Take the steps to do that and you'll realize the people who were choosing to join cliques just wanted to know they belong. Be the connector that makes that happen !!

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Steve Browne

Steve Browne


Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP is the Chief People Officer for LaRosa's, Inc., a regional Pizzeria restaurant chain in the Midwest United States. He has 35+ years working as an HR professional. He is the author of three books: HR on Purpose !!, HR Rising !! and HR Unleashed !! He is a sought after speaker at HR Conferences and Businesses throughout the country. Steve also runs a global HR network called the HR Net which reaches 15,900+ HR and business professionals globally each week.

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