Sunday, January 21, 2007
The Accidental Clique
I’ve had some interesting conversations lately – both with some new people starting on my team at the day job as well as talking to various authors I'm acquainted with, both published and unpublished. One of the subjects that continues to come up is that of “cliques”.

People naturally want to be around others that have similar goals or interests. That’s human nature. Larger groups will often sub-divide into smaller groups, sometimes of even more specific interests. This is sometimes for mutual support, sometimes for other reasons. People want to feel like they are part of a group.

The definition of a clique indicates an exclusive group of people. This definition shows that, by it’s nature, a clique has members and outsiders.

But what causes these groups to become labeled with the non-complimentary term of “clique” and be negatively viewed by others? In my own opinion, it’s actually when some of the ways that a group tends to reinforce their bond go overboard.

In my own experiences, it can be extremely difficult to walk into any established group as the “new person” and feel that everyone else in the group is so entrenched in one or more sub-groups that you feel very much the outsider or sometimes even downright unwelcome. Haven’t we all felt that when we started a new job or went to a new school? That feeling can be made much worse by cliquish behavior.

One of the most interesting things about cliques is that sometimes the very behavior that hurts others is not done maliciously or out of meanness or even out of a desire to be hurtful – it’s usually a behavior that is supportive of the clique or a member of it, but it is done to excess or in an inappropriate venue.

I actually had a new person at my day job ask during the interview whether our team was cliquish and whether there were little groups of people who always hung out together and went to lunch together, etc. He was obviously worried about the negative implications of cliques on things like information, decisions, etc. A very valid concern to me as well since I’ve worked on teams where if you were not a member of the clique the managers were in (a.k.a. the “Inner Circle”) you were often not given the better assignments, information wouldn’t reach you and you were constantly having to play detective just to get your job done. A very ugly situation.

Many groups show solidarity by congregating together, sharing “in jokes”, naming their group and referring to that name, referring to themselves as “a ”, cheering each other’s accomplishments on, etc.

All of this sounds good, right? But in any situation where the group is a sub-group of a larger group, it’s very easy for the group to be perceived as being cliquish as well as stuck up, unapproachable, and perhaps even downright unfriendly if some things are done to excess:

1) Group members only sit with other group members and go out of their way to do so.

2) A fuss is made when another group member arrives but no such fuss when a non-member arrives.

3) Members of the group use the group itself as a frequent part of their self-identification to others.

4) There are frequent references to group activities or meetings in the midst of the larger group.

5) Members of the group flaunt some group sign (clothing, signs, etc.) to the larger group.

I have heard a lot of people state that they did not pursue membership in a group because of cliquish behavior. For myself, I don’t think that’s good if the larger group wishes to grow and welcome new people. Eventually the clique will be all that is left.

I actually had to put some real thought into whether to remain a member of a group I belong to because of what I consider to be strongly cliquish and alienating behavior by some of the group. I’m sure it’s not deliberate but it doesn’t make gatherings easier and I’m pretty stubborn.

In light of this thinking, I’m going to make it a personal goal to look at my own behavior and make an extra effort to reach out to new people and question my own behavior.


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