It’s natural that you like some co-workers more than others. You may have more in common, spend more time together due to the nature of your work, or simply enjoy their company. As a result, you probably interact more, and differently, with these co-workers, forming closer bonds. So far, so good. However, the relationships serve as a clique when others outside the pair or small group perceive that they are not welcome to join.

Notice that the important piece is the perception of others. You and your co-workers may not intend to exclude others, or give off the impression that others are not welcome to join in the interactions, but it can be easy for others to make assumptions based on subtle behaviors. When you interact with your pals, you likely smile more and use a higher tone of voice, sending the message that these positive signs are reserved for members of the presumed clique. Plus, the more shared history among members of the social circle, the more likely there are inside jokes and references that outsiders don’t understand. This makes it feel intimidating to join in for those on the outside (especially if they are relatively new to your work setting).

Friendly, close relationships at work are valuable, and many of the benefits are obvious. Such relationships make being at work more enjoyable and offer camaraderie and social support. What about the costs? For those inside the social circle, the costs may not be evident. However, humans are story-makers in the sense that we all automatically try to make sense of our experiences. This is where potential problems arise.

If someone feels as though they are not welcome into the circle, it is easy for them to consider the social group a clique that intentionally excludes others. Then they create stories (explanations) as to why. Is it because you and your pals are mean or “stuck-up”? Is it because you think less of other co-workers? These stories become filters for how individual interactions are interpreted, and over time the stories seem more accurate as “evidence” accumulates. For example, if a co-worker walks into the room and you and your friends are laughing, your co-worker may assume you were laughing about them. In these ways, you and your friends may develop reputations among those outside your social circle and not even realize it.

Of course, there are costs of perceived cliques for those who are on the outside. Your co-workers may feel alienated and unwelcome, or not respected or valued as individuals. Even in instances of needing to interact to carry out job functions, there may be some reluctance or mistrust based on the stories created about the nature of the social cliques to which they don’t belong.

What might be done to minimize the costs of perceived social cliques in the workplace? First, consider being explicit in acknowledging the phenomenon. Virtually everyone has experience with social cliques, so start with open conversations about past experiences, good and bad. It’s likely that some people will have had the experience of being labeled as a member of a clique yet feeling as though the label and resulting stories were unfair. Some people may acknowledge membership in a clique during youth, and not realize at the time the detrimental effects on everyone involved. And perhaps the most common experiences shared will revolve around being on the outside of particular social circles, and what it felt like to be excluded.

Within the context of explicit conversations about cliques, discuss the possibility that some people may perceive cliques in the shared workplace. Those who perceive themselves as outsiders would understandably feel reluctant pointing out cliques they see, so it may fall to those who are members of established social circles to raise the issue. For example, “Janet, Darren, and I have worked together a long time and have a shared history, tend to joke around, and sometimes go to lunch together. I can see where our relationships might be seen as a clique. I wonder (worry?) that we may come across that way.” Looking expectantly toward the others, or asking explicitly for feedback, would hopefully bring to the surface any such perceptions.

If you are feeling like an outsider to one or more cliques, it can be trickier to bring up the issue. Try having conversations with individuals rather than the social circle together. You might open with your observation that this person and others (refer to them by name) seem close. This may prompt your co-worker to explain how or why that is the case. Then you might offer that without that shared history it’s easy to feel like an outsider and perhaps a bit uncomfortable when the social circle is present and interacting in ways that rely on the shared history. Hopefully, such conversations with members of the presumed cliques will sensitize them to your (and others’) experience, prompting a bit more conscious awareness that translates into being more inclusive.

Regardless of who broaches the topic, there is then the opportunity for discussion of what everyone would like to see happen moving forward. It’s not necessarily that “outsiders” will want to be included. Simply knowing that the members of the presumed clique are aware and do not intend to be a clique frequently resolves the problematic issues. Of course, members of established social circles may choose to be more intentional to be more inclusive to other co-workers. However, the primary goal of having these discussions is to revise the stories each person creates about each other and the social dynamics in the work setting. Such conversations are not like one-and-done affairs, so occasionally revisiting the issue is important, especially as new co-workers join the team.

QOSHE - Are You Part of a Clique at Work? - Michael W Wiederman Ph.d
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Are You Part of a Clique at Work?

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13.05.2024

It’s natural that you like some co-workers more than others. You may have more in common, spend more time together due to the nature of your work, or simply enjoy their company. As a result, you probably interact more, and differently, with these co-workers, forming closer bonds. So far, so good. However, the relationships serve as a clique when others outside the pair or small group perceive that they are not welcome to join.

Notice that the important piece is the perception of others. You and your co-workers may not intend to exclude others, or give off the impression that others are not welcome to join in the interactions, but it can be easy for others to make assumptions based on subtle behaviors. When you interact with your pals, you likely smile more and use a higher tone of voice, sending the message that these positive signs are reserved for members of the presumed clique. Plus, the more shared history among members of the social circle, the more likely there are inside jokes and references that outsiders don’t understand. This makes it feel intimidating to join in for those on the outside (especially if they are relatively new to your work setting).

Friendly, close relationships at work are valuable, and many of the benefits are obvious. Such relationships make being at work more enjoyable and offer camaraderie and social support. What about the costs? For those inside the social circle, the costs may not be........

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