Why cliques at work can be bad for your business

43% of workers say there are cliques in their workplace. Why are cliques so problematic, what makes them so common, and how can you stop them from forming? Alan Price, CEO at BrightHR, tells all.

In 1997, Kip Williams, PhD, and his colleagues at Purdue University, USA, engaged in an experiment. 

Each day, the researchers placed three participants into a room. They handed them a ball, asked them to toss it between each other, and then closed the door.

But here’s the catch. 

Unbeknownst to the third group member, the other two participants were actually working for Williams. And after a few minutes of sharing the ball, the insiders began to ignore their counterpart and throw solely between themselves. 

How cliques can hurt us

The researchers wanted to see the effects of social exclusion on the third participant. Williams writes that the subjects showed “very high levels of distress, anger and sadness.” 

Next, the researchers repeated the experiment digitally. 

Subjects played a video game version of the ball toss while lying in an MRI scanner, and the scientists saw that the same brain regions that register physical pain lit up in people excluded from the game. 

(What’s more fascinating is that the researchers found that giving the subjects paracetamol would make the pain go away, suggesting that social pain is as real as physical pain.)

So what does all this mean for an employer like you? Let me explain.

The pain of exclusion

Williams’s simple experiments show how sensitive humans are to social rejection. 

It’s clear, when you think about it, why exclusion causes us so much pain. Our species evolved in tribes and, for the first chunk of our lives, our survival depends on being included and cared for by others. 

So it’s no surprise that this primal behaviour stays with us, seeps into workplaces, and causes your staff to form cliques. 

“You can’t sit with us”

The word clique has negative connotations. The Cambridge Dictionary defines clique as “a small group of people who spend their time together and do not welcome other people into that group.”

But cliques do have benefits. Groups can easily form when staff members who work closely together enjoy each other’s company, and their camaraderie can lead to higher productivity for your business.

The problems begin, however, when the cliques start to affect excluded colleagues. 

Social rejection at work

Like the people in the experiment excluded from a simple ball game, staff members left out at work are likely to feel unfairly treated, which could affect performance and lead to them looking for a new job. 

There’s also the serious issue of bullying.

You should swiftly deal with any form of bullying, like gossiping or rumour spreading, in line with your company policy.

 But if a clique excludes an outsider for a characteristic protected by the Equality Act 2010, the worker could claim discrimination, and you could face an unlimited tribunal payout.

The nine protected characteristics:

  1. Age
  2. Disability
  3. Gender reassignment
  4. Marriage and civil partnership
  5. Pregnancy and maternity
  6. Race
  7. Religion or belief
  8. Sex
  9. Sexual orientation

If you spot unfavourable treatment based on a protected characteristic, you need to stop it—ideally with the help of an HR expert

Remember, cliques aren’t exclusive to staff. It’s easy for people in senior positions to cut themselves off from the rest of the company, breeding a clique culture that filters down to the rest of the team.

Next, let’s look at the problems that happen inside a clique.

Cliques kill creativity

“Groupthink” is a term coined in 1972 by US psychologist Irving Janis.

It describes a common phenomenon where people within a group strive for agreement. Often, the members set aside their own strong beliefs to adopt the group’s general opinion and maintain peace and unity. 

Groupthink can cause clique members to stop coming up with ideas. It cuts their chances of job progression, and leads to a lack of creativity within your business. 

If there are any ‘rival’ cliques at work, groupthink can also create an ‘us and them’ mentality, damaging your workplace’s morale. 

It’s clear, then—workplace cliques aren’t going to benefit your business. So what can you do to build a collaborative, clique-free company?

Support your staff

First, think about why cliques might have formed in the first place. 

Could it be because your staff feel unsafe or insecure on their own? Do they fear the company downsizing, or change? What more can you do to help them?

A good way to start is by introducing an employee assistance programme (EAP).

EAPs feature services like 24/7 wellbeing advice, face-to-face counselling, and a library of online resources that help keep your people happy and healthy. 

An EAP isn’t just for staff members who feel excluded. It can benefit your whole team, helping them overcome life’s challenges so they can do their best work. 

Break up your cliques

As I’ve mentioned, groupthink can stifle creativity in your workforce. 

To push staff beyond their comfort zones, think about mixing up your workplace seating plan (if you have one). Or, at least encourage cross-company collaboration so different people can meet, share thoughts and forge new working relations. 

This way, your workforce is more likely to come up with exciting new ideas for your business. 

Create a friendly, happy workplace

Finally, you could encourage company social events to give your workforce the chance to relax, bond and boost team spirit. 

Ideas you could try include a paintballing trip, drinks in the local pub or entering a team into a football tournament. 

Just make sure that everyone gets passed the ball.

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