Skip to content

Cliques at work: Reasons and how to deal with this behavior


When you see your employees breaking off in clumps, it’s likely they’re drawn to each other based on a common interest, work style, work location or personality. But what happens when those clumps turn into cliques at work?

Let’s be clear: People tend to gravitate to others who understand them and where they feel safe. This isn’t a bad thing. Lifetime friendships can be born out of workplace relationships.

Not everyone wants to be included in a big group, go out to lunch or join the company bowling team. But they do want to connect. And sometimes a smaller group is where they’re comfortable.

So, what’s the difference between a comfortable group and something less desirable?

Ask yourself this: Do these groups make others feel alienated or excluded?

Why cliques at work form

At the core, cliques at work take shape when people don’t feel safe.

Sometimes it’s a common mistrust of management. Do they fear downsizing, or do they not understand changes taking place? Is their work being questioned?

Cliques at work can be a means of self-preservation.

Employees have a group of people that supports them and validates their perceptions. They provide the safety that people need when they’re feeling vulnerable.

Take, for example, a group of people that continuously gets overlooked for their work. Although they contribute to the product, a supervisor neglects to include them when handing out praise.

Or, it’s a cringe-worthy afterthought: “Oh, yeah, and that group, too. Thanks.”

In this case, like-minded people who feel their work is being dismissed will quickly form a group, typically creating a stronghold based on their feelings of being mistreated or neglected.

They get together to talk about the situation and all of them relate to one another.

How they affect office morale and productivity

When one part of a team is praised, but not the other, it can create a perception of value: One team is encouraged, the other devalued.

What does that look like in terms of employee productivity?

You’re probably going to continue getting great work from the team that gets praised, while the others band together into a disgruntled mass. They may begin to show disinterest and indifference in their work and the company.

On the other hand, those who are getting praised may also form their own clique.

It’s one of success and respect. They’re the “popular kids” from high school. They want to be defined by greatness and success, and not associated with those grumpy underachievers.

People start to align themselves with various groups – whether it’s a matter of comfort or to align themselves with the cool kids.

Sometimes an employee can be guilty by association if they’re part of a group – based on personality, work location or common interest – that is perceived as cliquish.

It becomes an issue for them: Do they stay in the group and risk being ostracized? Do they find another group? And will that group be a good fit? Or do they go it alone?

To newcomers, cliques can be a company culture killer.

Think about new employees who come into your company; they’re just looking for a place to fit in. When they see groups of people breaking off for lunch, work collaboration or seemingly secret meetings, they wonder how they become a part of it all.

And which crowd is the right crowd?

Warning signs of cliques

When people start talking about cliques at work, it usually takes on a dark meaning – somebody is being excluded and feels they can’t break into the secret society.

You hear words such as cliquish, excluded, alienated, uncomfortable, secrets.

You might see groups of people sequester themselves from others. They slink off into corners for discussions and suddenly everyone else thinks they’re talking about them.

And you’re left wondering if your good employees have gone bad.

It’s time to take action. But the action you take may not start with the clique members.

Consider the possibility that the group formed because of something you’re doing – or not doing.

What you can do about cliques in the workplace

Leaders need to walk the talk when it comes to breaking down barriers in the workplace.

For instance, you may not realize that cliques aren’t exclusive to the staff.

Middle managers or even upper management can create force fields around themselves, cutting them off from the rest of the company, leading to feelings of uncertainty.

To build an atmosphere of safety and bring down the walls of distrust, focus on understanding, value and respect. And it’s up to managers and leaders to set the tone.

1. Set expectations

To get this right, the respect has to start at the top. Model the behaviors and the atmosphere that you expect from your staff.

  • If you want an open dialogue with your team, you have to be willing to listen.
  • If you want inclusion, you have to be inclusive.
  • If you want trust, you need to provide transparency.

2. Be willing to listen

If you say you want your employees’ input – you have to accept it.

Don’t meet their inquiries with defensiveness.

Respect their opinion, whether you agree or not. If you’re open to employees making a case for something, show them how it’s done. If you set the tone, your team should follow your lead.

And if they don’t, that’s where coaching employees comes in.

3. Practice your core values

Your company should have a list of values that dictates how you treat each other and your customers.

They should be available for all to see. If needed, post them. Then, put them into practice. You could take one a month and focus on it across the company.

For example, if community involvement is important, plan a group workday at a nonprofit organization. Coming together for a common cause breaks down all kinds of barriers.

4. Recognize your team members’ value

Have respect for the individual and show appreciation for what they offer. Equip your team to share a common vision. Then everyone uniquely adds their own value to the mission.

For instance, do you have a steady Eddie on the team who doesn’t make waves and performs day in and day out? He may not get kudos for a dynamite innovation, but Eddie plays a significant role and should be rewarded for it.

Oftentimes, we spend most of our time praising the superstars and guiding the troublemakers. Make sure those who carry the water on a regular basis know how much you appreciate them.

5. Create opportunities, but don’t force it

Being inclusive can start with you. One thing to be careful of is insisting on participation in activities.

A team lunch or after-hours event?

Great, except if someone is on a special diet, watching their budget or isn’t a social butterfly. Extend the invitation, but don’t make it feel mandatory. It’s supposed to be easy and inclusive.

And even if they always say no, don’t stop asking.

It’s not too late for a change

The key to a lasting relationship, according to Dale Carnegie, is to “become genuinely interested in other people.”

If your company culture has gotten away from you and your workforce has gone deep into cliques, it’s not too late to hit the reset button.

Warning: It may take some humility on your part. Let your team know you made a mistake by not providing enough information on the type of team, company and culture you want.

Don’t be surprised if you’re met with dubious looks among the staff that, if they were to speak up would likely say, “Oh, we’re doing this again, huh?”

When you make this mea culpa, you had better follow through. It’s incumbent upon you to get the feedback loop going – because your staff doesn’t yet trust that it’s really happening.

If you don’t practice your company values, they’re just words without action. Take action and find out how great an inclusive, trusting, safe workplace can be.

Taking time to build a positive environment can help increase employee engagement and productivity. For more on getting the best from your team, download our free e-book, How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.