The twisted psychology of office cliques

The in crowd.
The in crowd.
Image: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
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Michael Scott and the Beast have a lot in common. Both The Office protagonist and the Disney cartoon character have copious chest hair—and both are achingly alone.

But whereas the Beast broods in isolation, Michael Scott is desperate for company. His plight is sympathetic: Anyone who’s survived high school, or even started a new job at an office, knows how important it is to feel accepted by our peers. But science shows that there are a lot of things that can go wrong when people try to fit in.

It’s no exaggeration to see social rejection as suffering. It generates feelings of humiliation, shame and crushes self-esteem. Neuroscientific research shows it actually activates brain areas associated with physical pain. And while it’s true that different genders respond to rejection differently, with women working harder to be accepted and men saving face by disengaging, it stings either way. The trouble is, some strategies for dealing with that sting can just make matters worse.

One strategy is to desperately double-down on ingratiation by going to lengths that are borderline—or outright—unethical. Michael Scott constantly engages in unwelcome workplace antics just to be liked. Jim Carrey’s Cable Guy physically assaults the love rival of the reluctant guy he wants to be his new BFF. Research with real professionals shows that people who fear exclusion by their work colleagues are more likely to connive to hurt competitor teams in order to make their group look good, holding back necessary information or spreading rumors about their fellow employees.

There’s also the problem of revenge. The plot of the animated movie The Incredibles revolves around the schemes of a supervillain once rejected by the eponymous superhero team. Extreme as the supervillain’s reaction is, aggressive responses to rejection are common. Sometimes this takes the form of focused revenge, subjecting the party that wronged you to punishment that’s often wildly disproportionate to the original offence. But the aggression isn’t always even that focused. Rejection riles us up and we may look for any way to vent those feelings and take back control. Mood management through lashing out can cause considerable collateral damage.

A final danger is that, if someone has been forced into an outsider position for long enough, they may be corrupted once they get the influence they crave. A great pop-culture example is Shannon Doherty’s character in Heathers, whose progress from beta-Heather to number one is accompanied by escalating cruelty. Research shows that individuals conditioned to see themselves as “chronically low-power” can be more tempted to act unethically when they do have control.

None of this is to suggest that the blame lies with people on the outside looking in. Rather, the problem lies with the insider-outsider dynamic.

Tight-knit groups are themselves a risk to organizations, as they can encourage employees to conspire to do the unconscionable. And when these teams police their borders and maintain an in-crowd, they can also cause problems on their periphery. Rejected employees can cause problems for the rejectors, for their rivals, or for random bystanders—all of which is bound to be terrible for any company.

Keep people powerless and on the margins for too long, and their eventual entry into the in-group is bound to be rocky. The solution is for organizations to create incentives for inclusion and cohesion among all their employees, carefully on-board new staff, and recognize when cliques and informal hierarchies threaten to create outsiders. Every powerful “us” threatens to create a “them.” So it’s up to good leaders to stop such developments in their tracks.