How to be a better leader and eliminate workplace cliques.

Cliques Banner Fresh.jpg

Last year, my 9-year-old daughter, who is a pretty tough cookie, was reduced to tears by a clique that turned against her.

In less than 24 hours, this group of kids, whom she considered friends, had her wanting to quit her hockey team and never play again.

They did this by using only words and silence (a.k.a - the cold shoulder).

I’d never seen anything like it. Or so I thought - more on that later.  Yes, yes… apparently being a man does not help me here.

There’s more to the story that I can get into now, but we managed to get to the bottom of it and got some “I’m sorry’s” flowing.  We got her to the rink just before the puck drop for a “big” playoff game but it was too late.

Too late, because even the kids who weren’t involved knew something was just not right that day.

The team played horribly and lost badly. It was their worst game of the season. It cost them the chance to move on.

This prompted a lot of discussion among the parents. Some of us (maybe it was just me) realized we were oblivious to the cliques on the team and how they were inhibiting its success. 

To be fair, I think some people were aware, but I don’t think any of us (parents or team leaders) were doing anything to mitigate these naturally forming sub groups on the team. And that wasn’t good.

Here’s the thing about sub-groups.  They happen everywhere people get together. They’re part of kids’ hockey teams and they’re part of where you work.

Cliques are not relegated to kids’ sports teams or the playgrounds of our youth.  They can materialize anyplace you have groups of people who see each other frequently.

If you’re a workplace leader (manager, boss, etc), it’s your job to set things up so that everyone on the team can do the best work they can.

I’m not saying it’s easy but you’ve got to do it, or else…


Cliques are going to happen  

It makes perfect sense to people in any organized grouping to break up into smaller groups. We all gravitate to people we like, people who share our common interests. We like people who are like ourselves. This is called “homophily”.

We all need to have friends at work.  As a matter of fact, there is a whole list of benefits to having a best friend at work, according to this survey by Gallup.

Even if we don’t have a best friend at work, we want people to hang out with, share stories with, joke around with and have fun with.

Actually it’s important too! Those seemingly meaningless comments, that social banter, are part of what makes up employee engagement. When we feel we belong, when we feel that we have found our place, when we feel we’ve found the “right” place, we put more of ourselves into our work.

So much so that companies like Google, Zappos, LinkedIn, Facebook and many others even go so far as to let their employees “goof off” together because they believe it adds to their strategic advantage. Read more about that in this article from Fortune magazine.

So it’s not surprising that cliques are alive and well in the workplace. In a survey done by Career builder, 43% say there are cliques in their workplace. Surprisingly, in half of those workplaces with cliques, the manager was part of it.

But cliques are very different from just having a few friends at work.  Groups of friends aren’t necessarily cliques. Friends are supportive and accepting of others. They allow people to be their unique selves.

Cliques usually have a dark side. They can be alienating, discriminatory and sabotaging. They can be very distracting; they don’t allow people to do their best work. One of the more common traits is that they make fun of others and spread gossip.


I’m guilty too!


I have a confession to make. I have been part of a workplace clique.  I certainly don’t look back on this with any pride. I was in my 20’s (no excuse) but I was part of it just the same.

In hindsight, I realize it was quite typical.  There was a ringleader who had a dislike for this particular band mate. That leader vented to the rest of us while pointing out the faults and idiosyncrasies of the poor victim. I wanted to be part of this group as I was the new guy in town.

There was lots of gossip and talking behind the victim’s back.  He was even avoided or left out of group (clique) activities.

It must have been horrible.

Turned out there was even a clique inside the clique, which I wasn’t part of yet. One of the managers was.

The couple of people who were in the manager clique got hired again. I was out with some hard lessons learned.  Maybe it was karma!


Leaders have to keep an eye...


In order to prevent a clique culture from developing, leaders need to keep an eye on the social side. But cliques can be hard to see. After all, we see groups of people hanging out all the time and think nothing of it, right?



It’s not enough to simply keep an eye on someone’s work.

Leaders need to observe who hangs out with whom. Where are someone’s influences coming from? Is everyone’s voice being heard?   Are groups being inclusive or exclusive?  Are projects taking longer than they should? Why?

Just because you may not have a clique doesn’t mean they can’t develop.  But there are things you can do to cut down on the chance that they’ll have a negative effect on your workplace.

It’s probably not what you were thinking you’d have to do when you became a manager or someone higher up the chain.  But managing most things means you need to manage people.


How to build a non-clique culture.


1) Set the tone - As the leader, you must share your vision about workplace expectations when it comes to how people will be treated – share what your company values are.  This doesn’t have to be a big speech, but whenever you get the chance, you can throw out a line or two praising inclusiveness or how you were impressed by a collective effort.  You can let your people know that the strength of your organization comes from the collective talents in the room.  Everyone’s voice is important.

2) Educate your people – Not you by yourself, of course, but bring in experts and hold workshops.

In today’s increasing multi-cultural workplace, there can be those who are not sure how to interact with someone from a different culture. So their uncertainty can make them keep a distance or associate primarily with other people that are like them, thus making people who are not like them feel alienated. A workshop on workplace diversity could help and here are 5 ways for them to connect.

It sounds almost impossible but there may be folks who don’t know that what they’re doing is discriminatory, or even a type of harassment. Find a non-threatening way to educate them about these issues.  It also would be helpful to give them some conflict resolutions strategies. Here are 3 ways here.

3) Mix up your people when you can –

In the office -  I don’t mean confuse them, I mean create projects or various tasks that give your people an opportunity to work with people they might not usually work with. This gives people a chance to get to know each other as they work together.  (Kind of like when your teacher moved the desks around in class- hmmm…those crafty teachers). 

Do it at off sites  -  If you do the occasional town hall or off-site event, mixing people up can help. However, this has to seem organic or random, or it can be problematic. 

Once I saw a CEO tell people exactly where to sit as they came into one of my sessions. The perturbed looks on their faces said it all.  Similar things can happen if you assign seating.  You need to be clever.  This website  gives you a few ways to mix folks up.

4) Keep your door open - I don’t mean necessarily literally, but let the people know they can talk to you about any workplace issue.  If you think people are too shy to do that, then maybe a comment box will help bring things to your attention.

5) Look for the informal leaders - In every group of people, there are those who are the informal leaders. I have seen this time and time again.  Some may be good and some may be, well…evil.  It’s your job to see who’s who. This is not about job title – it’s about personality.

No matter their bent…If you can get these folks helping you to bring people together and making your organization more inclusive, that can be a very powerful tool in building better collaboration.  You need to talk to them and ask for their help in creating a more inclusive organization, not in a forceful way but in more of a “ Hey I could use your help” sort of way. 


Do’s and Don’t’s


Know that you’re always going to have to keep on eye on this.

If this is something you’re not used to doing, get used to it.  As I said before, managing is about managing people as much as workplace outcomes.  You may think it’s only for HR but it’s not.


Don’t be afraid to get to know people.  

Keeping cliques at bay in your organization requires you to be in touch.  This means that you have to get know the people in your charge. Don’t be afraid to sit with them or find other ways to interact.



If you’re looking for a low pressure proven way to mix people up a bit, many companies have found my interactive talks on collaboration or leveraging diversity work really well. They give people great lessons on being more collaborative and as well as giving everyone a common experience to talk about. One of them might just be the clique-buster you need. 

Staying on top of cliques at work requires sensitivity and diplomacy. You need to lead by example by being fair to everyone on your team and by making everyone’s contribution feel valued. If you can do that then you’ve set the tone and a standard.

Got a story about a workplace clique?  Solutions that worked or situations that never got resolved?  I would love to hear about them in the comments.