Teamwork: Warning Signs of a Clique

Teamwork brings to mind images of people interacting to achieve some goal.  Generally they develop a closeness, a tight bond, if for only a brief period as they exchange ideas, use their collective experience, and take action.  If the team is to stay together as a unit, the tight bond grows tighter. Sounds good right? Yet today’s fast changing business landscape needs agile teams that embrace diversity.

The key question is when does that tight bond become a clique that shuts out new team members, new ideas, and change?  Leaders, do you know the warning signs?

Clique or Tight Teamwork Bond? Image:TimAbbott

If you want to prevent a clique growing in the shadows of your organization, look for the following signs of team health and the potential for a clique and its destructive limiting force.

  1. Do team members openly disagree to reach the common goal? This is a healthy sign of a team whose bond can withstand pressure without cracking. Or do you sense that team members are pressured to conform to be accepted? 
  2. Does the team avidly and positively welcome new team members when they first arrive?  If yes, what do they say and do with the new team members? Healthy signs: “Jump in, ask questions, contribute your strengths, we like diversity …”.
  3. Does the team reach out to all (especially new team members) for lunches, breaks, etc…  The action to include is a healthy sign of a tight bond that can stretch without breaking.
  4. Do the team members take steps to get the new team members up to speed quickly to make every teamwork moment the most it can be? Or do they expect new team members to prove themselves. If you witness the latter, it is a sign of ill-health.

Leaders, what do you do to promote team health and prevent cliques? What steps have you taken to build agile teams that accept diversity?
Would love to hear your insights and questions below!

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach, consults to leaders, teams, and organizations for the healthiest teamwork and agile teams that embrace diversity to meet the quickly changing business landscape. Her workshops, blog articles, and DVDs make a unique contribution to teamwork, customer service, and leadership success.

15 Responses to “Teamwork: Warning Signs of a Clique”

  1. Forrest DeClue says:

    Kate you ask a very engaging question. Tight bond or clique? I believe cliques are more pervasive in workplace settings than most believe. The question I pose is: Do leaders truly not see it or do they see it and choose to overlook it?

  2. Jen Kuhn says:

    Hi Kate,
    You skillfully describe a common dilemma for many organizations. In response to the first comment: I’m not convinced managers intentionally overlook the formation of cliques; rather, I think they are uncertain how to approach the issue and their attempts usually fall short. At that point, they may choose to overlook the culture that has developed or ask for outside assistance. In my experience, it’s critical that leadership set clear expectations about the culture of a department or organization. When this is done, it’s more likely a tight bond will be the expected, and coached to, norm for the culture.
    Great post Kate!

  3. Having a team that fits well together and ‘clicks’ is a team that shines. When it becomes a clique it begins to lose its luster. One of the tools I have used in forming and augmenting teams is the Kolbe A Assessment ( It measures how team members intuitively get things done – their conative skill sets. By looking at the composition of the team, you can avoid the sameness and group think that often is the hallmark of a clique.

    It’s not just about making new members feel welcome – it’s about actively seeking out new members whose skills and talents make the team stronger.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Thanks for your addition of the Kolbe instrument. You are quite right — teams shine when there is the right mix of diverse talent. If they are willing to work through the “gelling” time, the diversity pays off in the end. Homogeneous teams gel more quickly yet they are more prone to groupthink and being blindsided.


  4. Anne Egros says:

    Hi Kate,
    Interesting debate: “to Click or not to Clique”. Well, it depends of the team objective . Most multicultural team leaders know the “us versus them” attitude in local affiliates of global organizations.

    Sometimes it is good to “clique” when you want people from different countries to collaborate and have a common goal such as beating other teams in the company.

    When I was the manager in Japan responsible for the Asia-Pacific operations of a big global company based in Germany, more than 12 countries were operating in the AP region with cultural tensions. By becoming an Asia-Pacific “Clique” locals were not fighting at each other but had the common goal to beat other regions in particular the USA in term of sales and profit growth which actually happened in less than two years.

    So I guess you can apply same recipe to any kind of diverse teams by finding a common goal which is challenging and rewarding at the individual and group level.

    P.S: I agree with Joan to use individual assessments such as the Extended Disc method for self-awareness about the natural communication and learning styles, strengths and weaknesses. Put people with complementary styles in a team to accomplish one specific goal. Change team members often to avoid “GroupThink” and let people work alone first as 10 people are more creative than one group of 10 people.

  5. Jim Morgan says:

    I agree with your steps, Kate. Without debating the value of the other methods suggested, I would like to present an alternative. I consistently coach teams to be “noncliques” and high-level performers without paying any attention to personality or communication style preferences. Key parts of the method relevant to this discussion:

    -Insist the team A) create a process for decision-making; B) include as a step that they will interact with anyone who *could* be affected by a decision prior to making that decision; and C) coach them to follow it.
    -Do not allow the same pairs of individuals or subteams to work together on tasks repeatedly (thus reducing internal cliques).
    -Invite representatives of stakeholders (in or outside of the company) to attend your team meetings, at least occasionally, and ask if you can send reps to their meetings.
    -When new members come on board, ask them what they would like to see changed in the Team Charter, team rules, etc. (If you don’t have a Team Charter, you have more fundamental work to do!)
    -Even better: Have the team create and follow a “New Member Orientation” process that includes the previous step, cross-training, assignment of a team mentor, etc.
    -Don’t let the team get away with unwritten rules: Have it create a rules list and self-enforcement method, and ask for rules that would prevent clique formation by or within the team.

  6. Kate Nasser says:

    Hi Anne,
    Thanks for adding the intercultural aspects to this discussion. Some might call what you describe as inter-team competition rather than “cliques”. Nonetheless it still underscores the value of good bonds **within a team.

  7. Kate Nasser says:

    Processes are valuable — most especially the discussions that occur to get there. Moving team members around is also very helpful in preventing cliques AND cross training/professional growth.

    You and I disagree a bit on the impact of personality type and communication styles. I know from my work that even great processes don’t nullify the impact of these things as team members work together. Awareness of personality type and communication style and the ability to adapt is critical to the success of most teams.

    I appreciate very much your contribution to this post and hope that you (and all who have contributed) will share insights on all my people-skills posts.


  8. Anne Egros says:

    Hi Kate,
    In Wikipedia the definition of a clique is: “an exclusive group of people who share interests, views, purposes, patterns of behavior, or ethnicity. A clique as a reference group can be either normative or comparative”

    My point is that cliques are unavoidable in diverse environments because people look at common things they can share with others especially ethnicity, culture or languages. Cliques are not necessary a bad thing as long as people work together toward common goals and share the company vision and mission. The example I took is beyond inter-team-competition, it is called inter-cultural leadership.

    Too often I have seen American companies trying to implement a diversity program in Asia or Europe with no clue why the programs fail. Most of the time it is due to lack of understanding of cultural differences and denial of the fact that cliques are endemic in local affiliates.

  9. Liam says:


    Great point as always!

    I’ve worked in a few places where I was told that people were a team.

    In most cases, the management fondly imagined that they were a team because they all worked in the same room for the same company, that they were a team.

    The team building events turned into drunken fiascos where inter clique hostility bordered on the violent!

    Sometimes, the cliques that form are the real team who actually work WITH each other and need each other’s efforts to do their own work. Sometimes, the cliques are simply groups of like minded people. I remember one place where there was a men’s left wing clique and a women’s ‘aren’t men dreadful’ clique!

    As a man who had a military background (albeit brief) and was studying for an MBA, I didn’t fit in to either clique! I have to admit that this fact didn’t give me much reason to loose sleep.

    The existence of cliques, just like any other form of organization or behaviour that is not part of the corporate orthodoxy – IE 90% of real interactions in the working environment – are something that managers need to keep an eye on. They are the reflection of reality in the mirror, the corporate mission statement and culture is what the bosses would like things to be like.

    Ignore reality at your peril!

  10. Kate
    What a smart post. You may be interested to know that two books have covered one part of your topic as it relates to how groups morph from tight-knit to extreme: The Big Sort and Going to Extremes. Fascinating considering some current events. I wrote about both books at MovingFromMetoWe

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Thanks for your comment and for expanding the topic form tight-knit to extreme with the book references you noted. This topic sometimes floats along as a “sleeper” until the worst emerges. So valuable to know the warning signs and how to prevent — as some of the other comments have outlined.

      I hope you will visit again and contribute to any of my people-skills posts of interest.

  11. Kim says:

    There is a huge difference between teams and cliques, so much so that whether you “need” a clique or not is NEVER the question. Cliques, as Kate mentioned, practice group-think, members are pressured to be “like” the rest of the members, and outsiders are considered “them” and never “potential group members.” Productivity might come to a clique on the short term, but over time the lack of open communication, diversity and flexibility take a toll.

    I have seen this so often in work, school and especially in social situations. It’s sad when teachers, employers and organizers (and even employees, students and volunteers) don’t sense when they are contributing to clique behavior and formation. Great article for spreading awareness!

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Honored Kim for your insight on this topic. Cliques are often unseen or overlooked by leaders — and to great harm.

      I appreciate your feedback on this article and hope you will share it with many you know.
      Warmest regards,

KateNasser on Facebook KateNasser Blog KateNasser on Twitter KateNasser on LinkedIn KateNasser on Pinterest