Cliques at work: is your culture damaging employees’ mental health?

Written by Nigel Girling CMgr CCMI Tuesday 13 April 2021
One Chartered Manager and CMI Companion who’s suffered workplace bullying and harassment on the danger of cliques and subcultures
Woman with blurred-out colleagues in background

The culture of an organisation is a strange and wonderful thing. Hard to pin down – hard sometimes even to discern – and carrying enormous implications for the organisation, its leaders and its staff.

Many writers have explored the subject over decades; Kevan Johnson and Gerry Scholes, Edgar Schein and John Kotter are among many of the key voices in the field. Their theories have some common threads and all agree that it is ultimately something to do with ‘the way things work around here’.

Johnson and Scholes explore the idea of a ‘web of influencing factors’, Schein talks about a ‘shared pattern of assumptions’, while Kotter and others raise the idea that an organisation has an overarching culture and ‘several subcultures’ in different parts of the operation. Clearly there is more to their work than simply those few headlines, but it paints a broad picture of the issues we are discussing here.

In this article, I want to take a slightly different tack. (That should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read my work.) I’m not trying to be controversial or to go against the grain; I agree broadly with all of these thinkers. I merely want to shift the conversation sideways to explore how an organisation’s culture – and subculture – affects the mental health and wellbeing of its people.

Let’s start with organisational structure

Many organisations are saddled with a structure that was designed for a time that no longer exists – especially as we move into a post-pandemic world. They are often hierarchical and organised in silos and cliques. Information and authority moves vertically, while the work mostly needs to happen horizontally from team to team.

This type of design automatically creates division, disconnection, internal competition and pecking orders. It often prevents any hope of genuine inclusion or diversity, instead creating homogeneity and self-reinforcing sub-cultures with their own community of practice, language and set of assumptions. Those then by definition are often viewed as ‘alien’, ‘nothing like us’ and usually just ‘wrong’ or at the very least inferior.

From a mental health perspective, some of that can actually be beneficial – giving members of the different groups a sense of belonging and a support network.

However, it also has some significant downsides:

  • The support network may be very small and potentially volatile. If you’re not the ‘most popular kid in school’ it is very easy to become an ‘outsider’ excluded from a clique.
  • If you’re new, it can be hard to break into the inner circle – and if you don’t agree with the prevailing culture or assumptions on which that circle is based, you can feel very isolated and even be subjected to damaging behaviours or bullying.
  • If it sounds to you as though I’m speaking from personal experience, then you’re right: and I am. I have experienced, in my younger days and even more recently, the cold chill of being ostracised due to my background, role or personality. I’ve been bullied, yelled at and subjected to harassment. I’ve also worked in caring and supportive cultures where those same features that caused others to want to exclude me have been valued, welcomed and included.

The difference? The leaders in those environments. Their attitudes, language and behaviours shaped the culture and set the tone – just as yours do now.

It is human nature to want to belong – and for many, feeling inside a group is heightened by having people they can view, and treat, as outsiders. This can be a root cause of racism, homophobia, bullying behaviour or simply shutting the door against others in order to exert personal power.

All of this obviously has implications for the mental health and wellbeing of those who have felt excluded by the culture – but it affects those inside the circle too. Bullies’ behaviours are often prompted by their own experiences of exclusion. (For what it’s worth, the ‘sins’ that got in my way were being ginger, coming from a council slum, having a very high IQ and making sarcastic comments to prove it – oh and being called ‘Nigel’ in a dodgy school and area where other kids were called Wayne or Danny or Bonehead.)

The key point to reflect on here is to recognise that the culture and subcultures of an organisation are not predetermined. They are not an automatic consequence of sector, size or the senior leaders. They are not set in stone. Culture is created by the behaviour of leaders at every level and through the values that everyone in the organisation lives by. The behaviour we tolerate is the standard we set. We create, shape and sustain culture not just by what we do, but also by what we say, what we don’t and what we allow.

The killer question then: What culture do you want and need in your organisation now – and what are you doing to create and shape it?

For more articles exploring mental health and wellbeing, visit CMI’s hub.

Nigel Girling CMgr FCMI FInstLM FIIRSM FRSA is renowned as an influential thinker and is a regular contributor to expert panels, think-tanks, conferences and professional journals. As a Chartered Companion of CMI, he is one of a select group of thought leaders seeking to transform leadership for the new world. After 35 years as a CEO, influencer and mentor, his articles are often entertaining, challenging and definitely a sideways look at the key issues of leadership.

Nigel is head of centre at Inspirational Development Group. (@InspirationalDG)

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