No matter what company you work for – whether it’s a big-time conglomerate or a small-town business – you and your fellow employees will often have to work together in some capacity. Perhaps that teamwork might involve a weekly meeting between you and your boss, a biweekly meetup with other team members, or a monthly departmental meeting in a conference room.
All these situations as well as the day-to-day interactions with fellow employees means that you will get to know the people around you, especially the ones you relate to and the ones you don’t. However, working for the same company often means teamwork and collaborating with others who may not share the same views, opinions, and experiences as you.
But that’s okay. This type of teamwork can even be beneficial to the company if those differences are nurtured and not ostracized.
However, there can be a problem when employees only gravitate toward those people who they see as similar. In high school, these groups are called “cliques,” but they have a business equivalent as well.
‘Subgroup Entrenchments’: The Business Version of High School Cliques
According to Sherry M.B. Thatcher and Alyson Meister, authors of the Harvard Business Review article “Is Your Organization Digging Trenches or Building Bridges?”, these “cliques” are called “subgroup entrenchments” in the business world, Working alongside like-minded people doesn’t have to be a bad thing and can be very motivational.
However, Thatcher and Meister also note that “The more entrenched subgroups feel, the harder it is to see across the divide and consider the perspective of the ‘other.’ Unsurprisingly, this leads to higher potential for increased polarization and worse outcomes for the overall team.” Employees who are constantly pitting themselves against others they see as different leads to misunderstandings, a lack of true collaboration and even possibly a hostile work environment.
Recognizing Subgroup Entrenchments and How They Discourage Teamwork
Ideally, CEOs, presidents, managers and team leaders must recognize segregated groups. Thatcher and Meister explain four different ways these entrenchment groups can manifest their presence.
The first is through “spatial presence.” If you’re working remotely while the rest of the team members are able to meet face-to-face, this lack of visibility creates a divide between team members. The remote employee will feel ostracized because he/she is unable to personally interact with his/her teammates.
The second is through “surface-level characteristics,” which are based on gender, race, appearance and age. This entrenchment is about superficial values. When you walk into an unfamiliar room, your eyes immediately drift toward those people you believe are similar to you. This attraction to similarity fosters the formation of groups that are in danger of lacking diversity.
The third is “knowledge bases.” This group seeks out individuals who have the sharpest, most intellectual minds within their fields. This type of group formation disregards, however, those people who could add a unique viewpoint to the group.
Finally, the fourth is “deep-level identities,” which encompass “values, beliefs, religion, and ideas about morality.” This group’s mindset can be the harshest because personal characteristics often stem from what we are most passionate about. Conversations between employees of different belief systems can be enlightening and educational, but they can also turn hateful and divisive.
Related link: Why Organizations Benefit from a Chief Diversity Officer
How Leaders Can Achieve Teamwork with Subgroup Entrenchments
So what can leaders do when employees divide themselves into these four entrenchment groups? Though those leaders may not be able to completely disassemble these types of groups, there are ways to place employees of different mindsets and manners together, at least for a while.
For instance, employees can be moved from one group to another. When this movement occurs, it’s important for the manager to maintain positivity at the forefront of the employee transition.
Instead of making employees feel isolated and punished, those employees should be told by a manager that they are creating important assets and contributing toward the team’s goals. This mindset leads to where organizational employees’ shared focus should be: achieving goals or defeating “a common adversary (such as a competing company’s counterpart team),” according to Thatcher and Meister.
Another way to encourage teamwork is the old-fashioned way: getting to know each other. This goal can best be accomplished by having employees meet face to face through some informal meetups.
If extra meetings are too time-consuming for employees, throw in some informal questions before you get down to business. That way, everyone can connect with other employees and managers on a more personal level.
If this doesn’t work, have an employee who fits the label of several of these entrenchment groups serve as a “bridge builder.” The employee won’t feel isolated by being moved to a new group because he or she will be able to fit in, and the group won’t feel as if it’s being infiltrated.
As with any circumstance we don’t understand, a great question to ask is “What if I were in their shoes?” Reminding your employees to put themselves in someone else’s position reminds us that we’re all human, and we’re all dealing with conflict and stress in our lives.
Thatcher and Meister leave us with these words of wisdom: “To create and empower a high-performing team and organization, leaders need to learn to become bridge builders.” We all have differences, and it’s not unacceptable to want to find comfort in like-minded individuals. But in doing so, we forget how much learning and knowledge we can experience in our interactions with others.