Feeling left out at work? An office clique could be to blame — here’s how to deal

Feeling left out at work can propel you straight back to your teenage years when you were picked last for the football team or didn’t get a place at the popular kids’ table.

Luckily, these experiences happen less and less as we get older because adults are more accommodating while we as individuals gain the wisdom to create our own affiliations (i.e. we learn we never really wanted to be part of the football team or hang out with the in-crowd anyway).

The bad news is, there will still be occasions where you feel left out, fall foul of an office clique, or simply land a job where you just don’t gel with the rest of the team. The good news is, there are ways to remedy the situation.

Learn to integrate into a new workplace

Picture this: you’re in the lunchroom on the first day of your new job. Someone makes an in-joke and everyone cracks up. You have no idea what’s going on, so you smile politely into your sandwich and wait for the conversation to move onto something more inclusive. Sound familiar? Chances are you’ve been this person (or witnessed it in action).

When you step into a new role or put yourself in any kind of situation where people have shared histories together, you’ll encounter times where you feel left behind. This is normal: it’s natural for people to want to talk about things that are familiar to them because it’s easy and comforting. Your best option is to be polite and, if possible, steer the conversation towards a mutual ground.

If they continue to talk relentlessly about last night’s happy hour, it’s in poor taste, but try not to worry about it too much. After a handful of team lunches and after-work socials, you’ll be able to join in.

Top tip: show you’re not a threat

One way to break into a tight-knit group as an outsider is to show you’re not a threat to the dynamic. You can do this in a healthy way by finding shared interests – whether that’s being enthusiastic about a TV show or restaurant or bonding over stories about pets, children, football or the weather.

This doesn’t mean you need to mimic, overshare, or self-depreciate to please people – it just means talking about something everyone can relate to.

What is workplace ostracism?

Sometimes, the tight-knit group proves to be impenetrable. Being excluded at work is a serious problem, so don’t feel bad that you feel… well… bad. According to one study, people who are ostracized are more likely to quit their job than victims of harassment.

Being left out could happen simply because you don’t connect with your team on a personal level. There are things you can do to become more personable, but if all efforts fall flat, you could be dealing with bullying or a clique. Warning signs include any or all of the following behaviors:

  • Standoffish behavior or sudden silences when you appear
  • Frequent inexplicable outbursts of laughter from a few individuals (which is a sign they have a closed, exclusive group on the office chat app)
  • Rumour spreading and gossip-mongering
  • Invitations to social events that exclude you
  • Frequent ‘closed-door’ meetings that exclude you
  • A lack of interest in working on projects with you

There’s no need to panic if these things happen from time to time (after all, everyone has a bad day), but frequent recurrences could indicate there’s a bully or clique at the root of the problem.

What is a clique?

A clique is when a tight-knit group of friends becomes too closed off and actively excludes or bullies outsiders who try to integrate.

As humans, we’re naturally social creatures. We form friendships by bonding with other people and forming groups because it makes us feel safe and happy – but as soon as we learn to form these connections, we also learn to separate friends from the ‘not friends’ – in other words, we learn to exclude people.

Safety in numbers

Being part of a group positively reinforces our views of ourselves because we are surrounding ourselves with like-minded people. The problems arise when individuals within the group begin to see the group as part of their identity.

An outsider trying to become a part of the group threatens the dynamic of the group, and therefore the identity of the individual. In response, they begin drawing boundaries, which could include gossiping or intimidation to keep the newcomer inline or ostracize them entirely.

Cliques usually have a ringleader. This person is often someone with a dominant personality who, despite their swagger, feels insecure or jealous. To protect themselves and keep threats away, they surround themselves with others who rely on the safety of the group and its clearly defined boundaries. As etiquette expert Diane Gottsman explains, cliques create toxic environments by “saying bad things about one colleague in an attempt to win favor from another,” which causes those on the outside to feel less than worthy.

If it looks like you have an office clique on your hands, your best bet is to stay friendly and professional, but don’t try to form friendships.

4 ways to distance yourself from a clique and show you’re the bigger person

  1. Set boundaries: be clear about what’s acceptable and communicate where your boundaries lie so people don’t take advantage of you.
  2. Be assertive: use powerful body language and a strong vocal tone to stand your ground, rather than shrinking away or lashing out.
  3. Deflect negativity: when people make unhelpful comments, reply with the same volume while staying positive. This shows them how you expect to be treated.
  4. Report it: if the issue persists and is impacting your wellbeing, talk to a manager and if necessary, speak to a therapist and/or find a new job. Your mental health is always the top priority.

How to find your tribe

Friendships enrich our lives, and feeling part of a group boosts motivation. If your relationship with your immediate team isn’t working out despite your best efforts to resolve issues and integrate, rather than look for a new position, consider reaching out and making connections in other areas of the business.

Aside from chatting to people in the canteen and going on work socials (where you’ll have the opportunity to interact with the wider organization), make use of all of your resources, including your team chat app, which can help you nurture friendships with people even if they’re not sat next to you.

Striking up conversations with new people can be intimidating – but you’ll be happy you did. Expanding your circle of connections means you’ll be able to build friendships all across the business, which in turn means you’ll worry less about the approval of the employees who are making you feel left out.

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