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Cliques, gangs and close friendships, particularly between managers and their reports, are usually frowned upon in the workplace. This is due to perceptions of bias – real or otherwise – that could be serving to advance some employees while holding others back.

However, building strong relationships that enhance the working dynamic can have benefits for all concerned.

It’s one of the first rules that all new managers learn (or at least it should be). Being best friends with your direct reports or showing favouritism towards certain members of staff is an absolute no-no. Managers can bestow rewards and praise where merited, but there should be no ‘special relationships’ that offer unfair access or favour to one employee over another.

It’s certainly bad to indulge in ‘cronyism’, which implies that one person is benefitting from the relationship at the expense of others. We need look no further than recent events among this nation’s politicians to see irrefutable evidence of that… However, we do need to have useful relationships in the workplace. So, how does one collaborate without becoming a crony?

Ally vs crony

I recently read an interesting article discussing the ‘five types of workplace ally’ and why everyone should aspire to be one. That was primarily about the ways that people can use their own position to champion colleagues in marginalised groups. This is undoubtedly a positive way to work towards truly inclusive and diverse working cultures.

There are ways to be an ally in other situations, too, such as agreeing to support the same point of view in a meeting, because two voices will tend to carry more weight than one. In another example, when colleagues have sympathy for each other’s challenges, they may be willing to advocate on their behalf with managers who could make helpful changes to the workflow.

People should be able to develop constructive interpersonal relationships that benefit both parties, without being afraid of accusations of cronyism. At the end of the day, getting along with our colleagues – in different ways and for different reasons – is not only desirable; it’s a core requirement of our jobs.

With many of us still working remotely some or all of the time, the challenge of building working relationships that are both effective and open is greater than ever.

Leaders can cut out the cliques

Technology and distance have presented more opportunities than before to form cliques, not less. The same groups of staff who used to go to lunch together or huddle around the kettle for a gossip now have ways to connect more privately, via those post-Zoom chats and exclusive Slack channels.

In fact, people who were put off by cliquey behaviour in the office may be happy to join in, now that behaviour isn’t so visible to the rest of the team.

That’s why proactive, clear communication is more important for leaders than ever before.

Cliques usually form when the members feel they have something to gain by keeping some colleagues close and excluding others. If they feel that their leaders are not keeping them in the loop or paying enough attention, employees may turn to each other to fill in knowledge gaps or provide reassurance.

Encouraging people away from cliques that shun open communication and into more inclusive team dynamics is a key leadership skill. It’s also a more effective way for individuals to form positive working relationships with everyone around them, rather than being the ‘crony’ of a select few.

Leadership teams have an important role to play in this, by ensuring that everyone feels informed, valued and consulted. In that kind of environment, employees can have the confidence to build strong relationships with all their colleagues, without being labelled a crony or a clique.

Develop the leadership potential in your team

Leadership & management is about more than just decision-making. The best business leaders arm themselves with the information they need to make good decisions. Whether you are looking to gain a better understanding of your training and development gaps, build training plans across multiple teams, or need bespoke training solutions for a particular challenge, we can help identify your options and the solutions available.

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Mark Fryer

7th July 2021

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