Winning At Office Politics: The Risk Of The Clique

How to get ahead when you’re not part of the “in” crowd

office-politicsOffice politics are a turn-off for many in the corporate world. No matter what the industry, you’ll find professionals who express distaste for having to navigate murky political waters at work.

But like it or not, office politics are a part of the corporate playing field. Knowing effective strategies to navigate political situations in the workplace can mean the difference between success and failure in your job.

“There really is no such thing as winning at office politics, but you can develop a sort of protective ring around yourself, so that the potentially detrimental effects that office politics can have on your career can be minimized,” says Mario Almonte, managing partner at a New York-based PR agency.

To help you approach your own political battles, career-intelligence.com presents a two-part series on Winning at Office Politics. In the first part of our series, we explore what to do when you find yourself “on the outs” with the inner circle at the office. Whether you don’t fit in with an office clique or aren’t part of the family if you work for a family business, our expert panel offers answers on how to make it work, and how to know when it’s time to leave.

Cliques vs. Teams

If you hoped you’d seen the last of cliques in high school, buckle up for the workplace: cliques can run rampant here as well. It’s important to be able to recognize office cliques and know the difference between their exclusionary chumminess and true teamwork.

In a post on 85 Broads, Marion Chamberlain, Chamberlain Leadership, describes cliques as “a small group of people with shared interests who spend time together and exclude others” and a team as “a group of people linked in a common purpose.” Though the difference may seem subtle, it’s not insignificant. While aligning with teams can help make individuals and organizations stronger and assist in achieving objectives, casting your lot with a clique can do the opposite, impacting your career success as well as corporate performance.

How Can Cliques Hurt Your Job?

While it may seem prudent to join in with what appears to be the “dominant” group socially in your office, be aware that running with a clique may not be the best career move. CNN reports that if you align yourself with the group that management perceives as the “D+ crowd,” you may be seen as guilty by association.

Another risk of the clique is partnering with negativity and gossip. A trademark characteristic of many cliques is an “atmosphere of exclusivity,” which can be toxic to those both within and outside of the group. Be on the lookout for subtle signs of bullying, gossip, or activities that alienate rather than include others. Missing out on diverse perspectives because you’re a slave to your clique can hurt your team and company, as well as your career progress.

When it comes to being an outsider in a family business, it can create even bigger problems, according to Kaitlin King, communication manager and certified WorkTraits trainer at Collaboration Business Consulting. “Everything becomes personal,” says King. “If one member of the family feels he or she is being left out, there could be damaging retaliation. If he or she already doesn’t feel like a part of the family, there isn’t a connection to the business or the individuals. The dishonest behavior is magnified because the insult is greater.”

Strategies for Dealing with Cliques

Management consulting firm Sociometric Solutions has conducted research on the effects of cliques in the workplace. Ben Waber, the firm’s president and CEO, offers the following observations on how managers and employees can break the grip of cliques and encourage a more collaborative atmosphere:

  • Do lunch. Waber says one simple way to make any group more welcoming to outsiders is to use one of the most powerful organizing processes in the universe: food. “We implemented a policy that gave money to managers for them to take new employees and veterans out to lunch together,” says Waber. “While this was fairly informal, by eating lunch with other people, you get to know them at a deeper level and you’re able to open up these closed groups.” If you’re not a manager, Waber recommends piggybacking on the same principle by inviting a few people out to lunch or coffee who you don’t usually associate with in the office.
  • Get closer. Reducing physical distance between employee workstations can have a clique-busting effect. “When you see some of these tightly knit groups that don’t talk much to each other, they typically form around groups of desks that are far apart,” says Waber. “If you’re able to move some of these desks around or even move your desk to sit near these groups, it’s much more likely that you’ll start to have conversations.” If you can’t move your desk, Waber notes that spending time at a communal coffee area or the proverbial “water cooler” can also work well.
  • Take a break. Sociometric Solutions has helped to improve performance at Bank of America’s call center operation by over 20 percent by tweaking BofA’s break structure to help break down cliques. By aligning the coffee breaks of people on the same team, they helped people break into cliques and increase the cohesiveness of their network, yielding large performance gains through enhanced information sharing and decreased stress levels.

Know When to Go

You’ve invested a lot of time and energy into your current position. As such, it may seem unthinkable to give up hard-won ground because of a nasty clique or not fitting in with a family business. Nevertheless, there are times when a situation becomes untenable, and struggling on won’t turn things around. “Sometimes it’s worth it to wait it out, and sometimes it’s not,” says Roxana Hewertson, president and CEO of the Highland Consulting Group. “Each of us must decide if our satisfaction from the job can come without being in favored status.”

Hewertson suggests keeping an eye out for the following red flags to help you determine whether enough is enough:

  • When leaving feels less traumatic and less of a sacrifice than staying
  • When you don’t feel like you “fit” anymore
  • When all you do is complain about your job
  • When it’s one drama after another with coworkers and supervisors
  • When your job makes you sick—emotionally and/or physically
  • When you start losing sleep or having anxiety attacks
  • When it simply isn’t fun, rewarding, interesting, or joyful for you

Bottom line: When the idea of dealing with office cliques makes you wish you could tell Mom you don’t feel well and want to stay home, it’s time to look for the next opportunity.

About Robin Madell

Robin Madell has spent over two decades as a corporate writer, journalist, and communications consultant on business, leadership, career, health, finance, technology, and public-interest issues. She is a contributing writer to U.S. News & World Report and serves as a copywriter, speechwriter, and ghostwriter for executives and entrepreneurs across diverse industries. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association in New York and San Francisco. Robin is the author of Surviving Your Thirties: Americans Talk About Life After 30 and co-author of The Strong Principles: Career Success.

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