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Cliques and Conflict – Keeping Team Relations Harmonious

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We’ve all heard the adage “birds of a feather flock together.” In any social situation, including work environments, people who share common interests tend to come together. This group bonding can be positive, reinforcing each individual and even spurring healthy competition. The down side is when exclusive cliques form and conflicts arise.

Cliques are common and come in many different forms. Popular TV shows like The Real World and Survivor show alliances forming and people being exiled from groups. It’s a jungle out there in the working world, and as a manager you have to be tuned in to the dynamics between your team members and be able to recognize and defuse potentially destructive cliques.

“When cliques become entrenched in a work environment, morale can really suffer,” says HR consultant Deb Marino. “People tend to bond together when they feel threatened or are uncertain, so it’s critical to let everyone know they are respected and valued.” Cliques can have a major effect on a company’s productivity and an effective manager must know what behaviors to keep an eye out for. Signs of destructive clique behaviors include:

  • Critical information or resources are being hoarded and not shared with those outside of the group
  • Team members are not giving input because they feel they are not part of the group
  • An unspoken belief or an expressed complaint that you can't get ahead unless you're part of the group
  • Favoritism toward group members (they receive incentives, bonuses, and other perks) not evenly shared with the rest of the company

Good managers take basic steps to create a harmonious environment at work where everyone feels included. This begins with making it easy for team members to develop personal ties beyond their professional ones. Always orient new workers by introducing them to everyone and sharing knowledge of common interests they might have. For instance, if you learned that a new hire is into hiking and you have an outdoor enthusiast on staff, be sure to let both of them know.

Here are other proactive steps to take to deal with destructive cliques among team members:

  • Define roles and clarify what team members need from one another
  • Go out of your way to mix different varieties of people
  • Use recognition to ensure everyone that they are appreciated
  • Take disciplinary action when cliquish behavior persists

Learn to recognize the different types of cliques and their origins. There are cliques based on tenure where people who have been with the company perceive that they are being displaced because of automation or newer hires. Professional cliques form when there are discrepancies between individuals with different knowledge and skill sets or differences in how invested they are in their careers. Social cliques are often based on backgrounds and economic factors.

Now more than ever, businesses depend on teams. Managers use them more frequently, for more purposes, and with much higher expectations than in the past. This means that cliques have a higher potential for being a detriment to your company. Recognizing them and changing the situation takes persistence, but creating a harmonious work environment is worth the effort.

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