How to Disrupt Cliques at Work for a Healthier Organization

Workplace cliques, reminiscent of those we may remember from our high school years, are common in various organizational environments. Like in high school, where like-minded individuals or those sharing common interests naturally group together, cliques at work are informal networks of friendships and alliances among employees. They are characterized by exclusivity and strong bonds between their members, often leaving other employees feeling alienated or marginalized.

The formation of cliques at work is often organic and can sometimes seem inevitable. They are born out of our innate human desire to build connections and belong to groups that make us feel secure and appreciated. These cliques may have been formed in high school based on shared sports, arts, or academic interests. Similarly, the workplace versions often emerge around shared roles, tasks, or even common interests outside of work.

While the concept might conjure nostalgic high school memories, the dynamics of cliques at work can be far more complex and impactful. These alliances can hold considerable sway over office politics, decision-making processes, and the overall work culture, shaping the workplace environment for better or worse.


This article will delve deeper into understanding cliques at work. The objective is not to destroy friendships or camaraderie but to ensure that no group within a company wields unhealthy influence or causes others to feel excluded or disadvantaged. A balanced, inclusive, and welcoming workplace benefits everyone, creating a positive atmosphere that boosts morale, productivity, and engagement.

What causes cliques to form at work?

Just as cliques form in high schools, they also form at work due to the human tendency to group together. These groups often consist of individuals with similar interests, roles, or tasks. They form bonds around shared experiences, common challenges, and mutual interests. These bonds are not necessarily unhealthy in themselves. After all, having friends at work can make the job more enjoyable and can even increase productivity and job satisfaction.

However, the issue arises when these bonds become exclusive, forming cliques that can wield significant power and influence at work. Members of the clique may begin to support each other’s ideas unquestioningly, shutting out outside perspectives and isolating other employees. This isolation can turn into favoritism, where members of the clique receive preferential treatment regarding work assignments, promotions, or other rewards, often at the expense of non-clique members.


This exclusivity can also lead to an ‘us versus them’ mentality, exacerbating divisions within the workforce. Cliques can become protective of their territory, resisting change and innovation that comes from outside their group. This environment discourages open communication, inhibits collaboration, and creates a hostile atmosphere that can be stressful and demotivating for those outside the clique.

Another unhealthy aspect of cliques at work is the propagation of gossip and rumors. Since cliques are often built on shared confidences and insider knowledge, they can become breeding grounds for spreading unverified information or negative talk about colleagues, further damaging workplace morale and trust.

In the worst cases, the formation of cliques can lead to a toxic work environment where certain employees are marginalized or bullied. This toxicity can result in decreased employee engagement, higher turnover rates, and lower overall productivity. Therefore, it’s crucial for managers and HR professionals to be vigilant about the development of cliques and to address any adverse impacts promptly and effectively.


How do cliques impact an organization?

Cliques at work can profoundly influence an organization’s culture and performance. They may have far-reaching effects on employee engagement, morale, and productivity.

Employee Engagement

Cliques at work can significantly impact employee engagement, which is a measure of an employee’s emotional commitment and willingness to contribute to their organization. When cliques dominate a workplace, it often leads to a feeling of ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups.’ Employees who feel left out of the ‘in-group’ may become disengaged as they perceive a lack of fairness and inclusivity in the workplace.

For instance, an exclusive clique that dominates decision-making may disregard input from others, leading those outside the clique to feel undervalued. Over time, this can breed disengagement and a lack of commitment toward organizational goals.


Employee Morale

The impact of cliques at work on morale can be severe. Favoritism, exclusion, and the spreading of gossip and rumors can all contribute to a toxic workplace atmosphere. As a result, cliques damage morale and reduce job satisfaction. Employees who feel ostracized or marginalized are more likely to experience stress and job dissatisfaction, negatively impacting their mental health and overall well-being.


Cliques at work can also adversely affect an organization’s productivity. Exclusionary behaviors can lead to unnecessary conflicts and disagreements that disrupt workflow and create inefficiencies. Moreover, when employees feel undervalued or left out, their motivation and enthusiasm can diminish, leading to decreased productivity.

Furthermore, when decisions are made based on clique affiliations rather than merit, it can lead to poor decision-making and hinder innovation. A study conducted by Harvard Business Review found that diverse teams often outperform homogeneous ones, as they bring various perspectives and ideas. Cliques, by promoting homogeneity, can stifle this diversity of thought, leading to less innovative and effective solutions.


What are the signs of workplace cliques?

Before we can address the issue of cliques at work, we must first be able to identify them. Here are some common signs and examples that can help you spot a clique in your workplace:


One of the most evident signs of a clique at work is exclusivity. These groups often consist of a select few employees who consistently interact with each other to the exclusion of others. They might go to lunch together regularly, hold private meetings, or converse primarily in person and online. For instance, if a particular group always eats lunch together and seldom invites others. Another example is a particular group that has a private chat where they discuss work matters without including others. These are signs of cliquish behavior.


Cliques at work often exhibit favoritism, where certain individuals receive preferential treatment based on their affiliation with the group. This might manifest as unequal distribution of work, benefits, or opportunities. For example, if a manager consistently assigns the most desirable tasks or projects to members of their clique. Consequently, if promotions seem biased towards certain groups, this may indicate a clique.


Shared Language and Inside Jokes

Members of a workplace clique often share a unique language or inside jokes that exclude others. They might use specific terminology, acronyms, or references that only they understand. This shared language can create a barrier that separates clique members from the rest of the team.

Resistance to New Ideas

Cliques at work can become set in their ways and resistant to new ideas, particularly those from outside their group. They may dismiss or belittle contributions from non-members, creating an environment that stifles creativity and innovation.

Negative Impact on Non-members

Perhaps the most damaging sign of a clique at work is its negative impact on those outside the group. Non-members may feel isolated, undervalued, or overlooked, decreasing morale and engagement. If you notice a drop in morale or productivity among certain employees, or if employees express feelings of exclusion or dissatisfaction, a clique might be at the root of the problem.


Identifying these signs is the first step in addressing cliques at work. Once you are aware of cliques in your workplace, you can begin to disrupt and dissolve them, fostering a healthier, more inclusive work environment.

How do you disrupt and dissolve workplace cliques?

Once we have identified the presence of a workplace clique, the challenge then becomes how to disrupt and dissolve it. Here are some innovative approaches that managers, HR professionals, and team leaders can adopt:

Encourage Cross-Departmental and Cross-Hierarchical Communication

One effective way to disrupt cliques at work is by promoting communication and collaboration across different departments and levels of hierarchy. This could be achieved by setting up cross-departmental project teams, holding company-wide meetings or brainstorming sessions, and encouraging mentorship programs that connect employees from various departments and roles. This allows for a mix of perspectives, breaks down silos, and reduces the power of cliques.


Promote Team-Building Exercises that Foster Collaboration

Team-building exercises can play a crucial role in disrupting cliques at work. By designing activities requiring diverse employees to work together, you can break down the barriers that cliques create. These activities range from problem-solving tasks to outdoor adventures and charity projects. The key is to ensure that the teams are mixed and that everyone has an opportunity to contribute.

Implement Policies that Discourage Clique Formation

Workplace policies can be influential in preventing the formation of cliques. These include policies that encourage diversity and inclusion, promote equitable distribution of work and opportunities, and discourage gossip and favoritism. These policies must be communicated clearly to all employees and consistently enforced.

Encourage a Culture of Inclusion and Diversity

Building a culture of inclusion and diversity is one of the most powerful ways to disrupt cliques at work. Encourage employees to share their unique perspectives and ideas, celebrate different cultures and backgrounds, and value each person’s contribution. This can be reinforced through training programs, celebrations of diverse holidays and events, and recognition of individual achievements emphasizing diverse skills and backgrounds.


Address Workplace Clique Behavior as You Witness It

As a leader, addressing clique behavior as soon as you notice it is crucial. This might involve having direct conversations with individuals or groups exhibiting exclusive behavior. Use these conversations to communicate your observations, express your concerns, and explore solutions together. It’s crucial to maintain a non-confrontational approach during these discussions. Encourage employees to consider the impact of their behavior on others and the organization as a whole.

Workplace cliques, while reminiscent of high school social circles, are a serious matter that organizations must address to maintain a healthy, productive work environment. Just as in high school, the exclusivity and insularity of these groups can lead to divisions, favoritism, and feelings of alienation among those outside the clique. However, unlike high school, the stakes in the workplace are significantly higher. Workplace cliques can profoundly impact employee engagement, morale, productivity, and, ultimately, the organization’s success.

Cliques in a workplace can stifle diversity of thought, inhibit open communication, and impede innovation. When decisions are influenced more by clique affiliations than by merit, the quality of those decisions, and in turn, the quality of the organization’s work, is compromised.


To disrupt cliques, we need to leave the high school behavior in the past. Promoting cross-departmental communication, incorporating team-building exercises, implementing policies discouraging clique formation, and fostering a culture of inclusion and diversity are all steps in the right direction.

In conclusion, it is crucial for any organization seeking to cultivate a positive work culture to keep a watchful eye on the formation of workplace cliques. By proactively addressing these issues, we can ensure that our workplaces remain healthy, inclusive environments where all employees can thrive. So let’s leave the high school hallways behind and move toward a more collaborative and inclusive future for our workplaces.

Last updated on September 7th, 2023 at 08:52 am

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Jason Cortel is currently the Director of Global Workforce Management for a leading technology company. He has been in customer service, marketing, and sales services for over 20 years. In addition, he has extensive experience in offshore and nearshore outsourcing. Jason is an avid Star Trek fan and is on a mission to change the universe by helping people develop professionally. He is driven to help managers and leaders lead their teams better. Jason is also a veteran in creating talent and office cultures.

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