Is Your Office Suspiciously Like High School?

Navigating the high school cafeteria—deciding what kind of statement you would make based on where you sat to eat your peanut butter and jelly sandwich—could be nerve-wracking. Many offices seem similar. Small talk can be loaded with anxiety: “What if I don’t like American Idol and everyone else does? What if I don’t follow sports enough to chat about the playoffs? What if I don’t know what night clubs they’re talking about?” Such questions should have no place in the mind of a hard-working, high-performing employee, but the same stress about fitting in that many of us experienced in high school persists in the workplace.

According to a CareerBuilder survey conducted by Harris Interactive, breaking through office cliques to have your work noticed continues to be a difficulty. While only 1 in 10 workers (11 percent) said they felt intimidated by office cliques, 20 percent of workers said they’ve done something they’re really not interested in or didn’t want to do just to fit in with co-workers. Forty-six percent in this subgroup simply went to happy hours to fit in, but the reluctant, adaptive behavior doesn’t end there. Some other activities include:

  • “Watched a certain TV show or movie to discuss at work the next day”: 21 percent
  • “Made fun of someone else or pretended not to like them”: 19 percent
  • “Pretended to like certain food”: 17 percent
  • “Took smoke breaks”: 9 percent

Imagine taking up a cancer-causing, health-destroying habit such as smoking just to fit in at the office! The study doesn’t say whether or not those who took smoke breaks to fit in already were smokers, but it makes you wonder. I’ve known many people I could envision smoking just for the purpose of getting ahead.

I once worked for an office where the boss protected an inept manager. Most of us didn’t like her, and many of us knew she was not too great at her job, rubbing us and others the wrong way. Our boss could be slavish toward her, practically simpering with compliments and seemingly in awe. I remember telling my mother it reminded me of how an awkward girl might act toward a popular girl in high school whose friendship she’s desperate for. I hypothesized that status as the boss hadn’t erased lingering insecurities from childhood, so it was more important for her to fit in with this person she admired than to take a fair assessment of the manager’s performance. Her insecurities left her easily manipulated.

Setting a corporate culture that emphasizes that at least while in the office all employees are in the same boat—all heading in the same direction with a need for camaraderie—is important. But it’s also important to take actions that give legs to that ethos. For instance, in mentoring programs, trainers and Human Resource professionals could help managers pair employees who so far haven’t interacted much. Instead of having just one permanent mentor, employees could be given a series of a mentors or “workplace buddies” who they otherwise may not have interacted with. These paired-up employees could be required to meet once a month—or even just once a quarter—to come up with three practical ideas to a current company challenge such as how to penetrate a new market or how to boost sales of a certain product.

Bringing together two employees who may be from different workplace cliques, or different ends of the high school cafeteria table, can be a great icebreaker. It can generate the kind of friendliness that cuts through fears of being ostracized because you didn’t watch the Olympics ice dancing competition.

How do you help create a sense of friendly openness across your company? How can trainers and Human Resource managers best accomplish this?