Are 'cliques' killing your company culture?

When you leave culture up to chance, something as simple as office cliques can leave a bad mark

Are 'cliques' killing your company culture?

Office cliques can hurt or help your company culture — and it all boils down to leadership.

While building a strong company culture has become a top priority for many organisations, it remains something difficult to define.

Some leaders have put culture in terms that can be written on paper: be it the company’s shared values or ‘the way we do things around here’. But one industry expert said it has more to do with people’s behaviour. This means in practice, things can go wrong real quick.

He told HRD that culture is about the “attitudes and behaviours people unconsciously adopt to fit in with the expectations of the people around them”.

Therefore, something as harmless as office friendships and cliques can influence positive as well as toxic behaviour.

At a recent roundtable, HR leaders agreed that as much as leaders believe they can use the ‘trickle down’ technique to guide workplace culture, things may not turn out as well in practice.

The set culture can be prone to misinterpretation, distortion or simply be out of touch with the reality of the workers at ground level.

READ MORE: How to use culture to get the best out of your team

Office cliques: Good or bad for business?
And in reality, things may already be difficult at the ground level with ‘clique culture’ influencing positive or negative behaviour.

“On paper, a clique is not necessarily a bad thing,” said Alan Price, CEO and HR expert at BrightHR. “Having a group of employees who work well together can be good news for a company, potentially encouraging higher levels of productivity.

“However, there is a danger that if an office clique is left unmanaged, it may cause more issues down the line.”

Dr Helena Cooper-Thomas, senior lecturer at Auckland University’s School of Psychology, had similar sentiments, adding that its impact on culture is dependent on how each individual interprets the 'clique' concept.

“If a clique just means a group of friends who share information and make work enjoyable for each other, then I think that’s fine,” she said.

However, if you think of a clique as a group that is based on exclusive membership (in versus out), with excluded members teased or denigrated, this isn't a good thing.

"Exclusivity can be seen as negative when they turn into things like 'the old boy’s network'," she said.

Price added that cliques can get risky as employees may become too familiar with each other, potentially reacting negatively if asked to work with others outside of it.

Additionally, if several cliques are formed, it could lead to an 'us vs them' mentality that could prove detrimental to overall workplace morale.

“Some people may get too comfortable hiding in the clique instead of thinking independently and coming up with their ideas,” he said. “If not encouraged to be more self-reliant in their role, this could lead to employees missing out on future opportunities for progression.”

READ MORE: Should HR encourage office friendships?

How to manage negative cliques
Despite all that, Dr Cooper-Thomas said all is not lost. When cliques or networks become overly exclusive or fall into bad behaviour like bullying, it is up to leaders to stop them.

“[Senior executives] need to lead by example by being inclusive, and also immediately put an end to any negative behaviours, however small,” she said.

“Establishing good standards for behaviour, and not accepting misdemeanors, is critical to having a constructive workplace culture.”

One HR leader shared how leaders can manage the situation:

  • Identify any negative impact the clique might have on the working environment
  • Review work practices: Is there anything that needs modifying to reduce impact of clique?
  • Encourage team-based collaboration to allow employees to build with relationships across the organisation
  • Celebrate diversity
  • Longer term: Review recruitment policy to ensure diversity and better culture fit

“What happens is most companies leave culture to chance,” an industry expert told HRD. “They don’t make it a priority and they don’t have a process where they nurture and build their culture. Left to chance, [toxic culture] happens.

“New employees come in, cliques form and the culture happens by chance.

“Every organisation has a culture – it’s whether it’s weak or strong. If you don’t manage the processes and don’t have a culture code in the company, there is a danger that it can take a life of its own.”

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