As a manager, if your workplace is becoming toxic as a result of friction between office cliques and other staff, here is a perspective I can share. Forget logic. Understanding the Inner Animal in your staff members and their hidden instincts can cast a new light on this and many other workplace problems.
Let’s say a few of the young women in your office socialize regularly outside of work. While friendships are fine, you are now hearing rumors that some of the other staff are being made to feel left out, looked down upon, uncool, or inferior by this group of “Mean Girls.” Feelings are hurt, defensive and angry, and the workplace is becoming more toxic by the day.
You wonder how to address this now and how to prevent this type of thing in the future. After all, what employees do in their free time is their business, not yours, right?
The fact that the human animal has an innate desire to group together with individuals that share common interests or characteristics means that trying to “ban” internal groups of friends would be as futile as trying to stop a speeding locomotive.
But there’s an element of power and hierarchy in any office “clique” scenario. Banding together can make people feel more powerful; it’s social power. Co-author of Mean Girls at Work, Katherine Crowley, says, “We find that office cliques tend to form in corporate environments with weak management. They are like office gangs that emerge to fill the void of leadership.” (Crowley, 2012)
Wow. Many will be surprised at that, but voids in leadership are always filled in the Animal World, as a group cannot survive long-term without the order and regularity that is provided by a hierarchy and a structure. If the leader in a group is weak or poorly suited for the job, life in the pack or herd will be unsettled and full of challenges until a more qualified leader is put in place. Such can be the case with office cliques wielding their power until management steps more effectively into their leadership role.
I find the analogy between office cliques and street gangs fascinating, in that both can emerge to fill a void in leadership; one within the office and the other possibly in the home. Frequently, managers at work are not aware of weak points in their leadership, but it’s actually a pretty common issue, with cliques routinely filling perceived power gaps at work with their own rogue hierarchy and the internal toxicity that results.
If you are struggling with cliques and toxic conflicts in your workplace or department, shore up your leadership. Be stronger, be clearer, be more consistent and unafraid to enforce rules. Be fair, honest and respected for your commitment to follow-through. Be brave enough to set goals, rules and boundaries – and enforce them.
Better leadership solves so much! Just ask any animal, four legs or two.