Movies like Mean Girls give cliques a bad name and suggest they only exist in such ‘hot house’, unrealistic environments. Cliques are usually portrayed as an exclusive group of people bound by shared values, behaviours or attitudes that often set them apart from others. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of research on this most influential group dynamic that can have positive and negative effects on its members and those around them.
Far from being the hyper-competitive and exclusive groups of ‘special’ people, cliques are just as likely to be comprised of everyday people, playing some of the many roles they have in their lives. Most of us belong to cliques at different ages and stages in our lives.
New Zealanders’ strong sense of cultural identity means that we frequently form cliques with ex-pat Kiwis when we find ourselves sharing the same offshore locations. The tie that binds us is usually (but not exclusively) our shared ability to view the new place through a uniquely Kiwi sense of humour and cynicism.
Understanding what binds a clique together can be the key to overcoming barriers to entry or to unlock a mutually beneficial opportunity. Acceptance from one or two members of a clique can mean that we are able to communicate with its other members in a meaningful way.
Just as we need to understand the cultural norms of any group, cliques may have their own requirements. Exclusivity is often presumed to be a hallmark of clique culture but perhaps this is as much perception as it is a reality. A modern clique would allow for open dialogue so views can evolve and change thanks to new information or insight. They would foster camaraderie, synergy and even positivity. Unfortunately, the opposite can occur in some cliques, where dissenting views can activate a ‘herd’ mentality, leading to a stampede of opposition, particularly if certain members within a clique take the lead. Understanding the drivers of a clique can highlight areas of common ground and sometimes, just as importantly, where gaps exist.
Parents will often form strong and sometimes life-long cliques through the shared needs and experiences of their respective children. People with a common passion can form tight cliques that enables them to share knowledge and at times even fight for an important cause relevant to the needs of their clique. If you are a cyclist in Auckland right now, there are a host of cliques dedicated to cycling safety.
Even in the workplace, a healthy culture is likely to include cliques of people who’ve come together through shared goals and experiences. According to Edward Mady, the general manager of the Beverly Hills Hotel and West Coast regional director for the Dorchester Collection of hotels, cliques attract like-minded people, no matter where they are in the organisation. They are self-organised, share workplace values and are ideal for disseminating cultural messages that are core to an organisation’s goals.
The Clique, a public relations and communication agency is so named because cliques are relevant to most communication challenges and opportunity. Cliques can among other things, embed beliefs and attitudes, and ultimately influence behaviours.
So, yes, at the heart of any clique is the relationship between its members and the commonalities that bind them together. A healthy respect and understanding of what those might be can uncover the underlying social intelligence we need to achieve positive outcomes for everyone.