Career Clinic: how to handle cliques at work

Question from a reader: My work is disrupted by having to deal with cliques, which takes up time and emotional energy. What can I do to change this?

60x60  Answer by social care expert Ray Jones: 

It is probably just as well that there is no requirement in job descriptions and person specifications that we have to like everyone with whom we work, but this situation can become dysfunctional when interpersonal conflicts start to dominate time and attention.

Its impact is heightened when people are working closely together in small teams, such as during care home shifts. It can feel like there is no escape, and the tension and conflict escalates. It is unpleasant for everyone and has a negative impact on the work, as more and more time is spent fighting battles rather than working together with a common purpose. But although no one seems to be enjoying what is happening, some seem to thrive on the drama it creates, fuelling the dynamic and the distress.

Avoid partisan position

So what to do about it? First, if this is happening around you, avoid getting drawn into partisan positioning. When groups are fragmenting having colleagues who do not take sides and can bridge factions is important.

Second, it may be necessary to expose what is happening. Everybody is likely to be aware of what is going on, but if it is to be addressed it needs to be brought to the surface rather than being a continuous but unacknowledged undercurrent. Being outside any of the factions makes it more possible to speak about it, and to ask everyone to reflect about it. This takes some courage, and may be a task for managers, but it can sometimes be managers themselves who a part of, or are seen to be allied with, particular factions.

Stay neutral

Third, emotional intelligence comes in to play. Staying neutral and acting as a broker between factions means seeking to reduce the emotional heat that is being generated and helping others to move from entrenched positions without losing too much face. Assisting people to be a part of the solution rather than the problem is always a good approach. But if it is still stuck, it may be that external help is needed for people to realise what is happening and have enough distance to be able to challenge and confront what is taking place. This is where external consultation and facilitation may be necessary. If you think it is necessary, say so.

And what if you are a part of the dynamic where you are yourself lined up with a particular faction in a fragmented team? Do you see this as sensible? Is it where you want to be? Is this how you want to deploy your energy? Is it how you want space taken up in your life, both at work but probably intruding into your life outside work as well? Is it achieving what most of us want when we go to workto provide a good service for others?

It doesn’t have to be like this. You can decide how you position yourself in your team. Maybe you can be part of the solution, bringing people together rather than fighting battles that keep people apart. If so, it will be good for everyone: for you, for the team and for those who use our services.

Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, and is a former director of social services and a chair of the British Association of Social Workers

Next reader’s question

I am a newly qualified social worker looking for a job in children’s services, but I don’t feel particularly confident about going into a social work post straight away. Is there a more junior level I could start at and what kind of roles are out there for someone who doesn’t feel ready?

We will answer this question around the 23 October. We will publish readers’ advice too – send it to Derren Hayes.

Do you have your own career dilemma? E-mail your comments or questions

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