Grow your career on

Advanced Search




Cliques in the Workplace:
Building Trust with T-Birds, the Plastics, and Nerds

By Mark McKown


Imagine, you’ve gone back in time to when you were in high school. Or, you can think of iconic high school movies like Grease, Mean Girls, or High School Musical. In each of these examples one theme reigns supreme – cliques. The awful, debilitating, insincerity of immature behaviors that separate and label people into different factions. Good thing it stays in high school, right – or does it? Do workplaces have their own cliques? And if they do, can you be trusted by jocks and nerds at the same time?

You see, in these movies (and possibly during your own high school experience) people would associate and assimilate based on perceived values of themselves and members in their group. These groups, or cliques, created a bond among members (and sometimes separation from others). Examples of iconic movie cliques include the T-Birds like Danny Zuko and Kenickie: aggressive, macho, loud, males. Or The Plastics from Mean Girls (Cady Heron and Regina George) who were passive aggressive, feminine, beauty-conscious females. In most of these movies there were other cliques for ‘nerds’ that wanted to do well in school, musicians that liked performing, etc.

So, to my earlier question, yes. Cliques can be found in a workplace. Yet, research seeks to provide clarity on how someone can be trusted if you’re recognized as a common ‘band-geek’, but also playing on the varsity football team with ‘the jocks’. The term for these multi-clique persons is called, Simmelian Broker, but for simplicity let’s call them Floaters. The Floaters have created friendships among the different cliques in their workplace. In order for this to be true, Floaters need to have claimed loyalty to a member in a clique and vice versa. The questions for us is, how well can the jocks or band nerds, trust the Floater? How does the Floater share their thoughts and feelings with the different cliques –immediately and quickly, or quietly and slowly? Will they seek out interactions or limit their involvement with the different cliques?

The action being measured in one study about brokerage between friendship cliques was trust. Will the workplace ‘Cady Heron’ be trusted as a member of The Plastics or will she be rejected for being connected to “The Greatest People You Will Ever Meet” clique? Can ‘Danny Zuko’ be a trusted T-Bird, alpha when he joins the jocks as a member of the high school’s varsity track and field team? To measure the trust, we need to know if how often they speak out (blurt) will influence their spot within the clique. Also, to measure the impact of self-monitoring with being more involved or not. In the workplace, it is important to control for the influence of performance (maybe the Floater is highly skilled and certified in their position) or one’s managerial influence (is this person a boss and directly supervising people).


The research suggests that the Floater can be evaluated best when they ‘float’ into a group that is very exclusive, like The Plastics, T-Birds, or varsity basketball team. So, what’s the magic formula for ‘fitting-in’ with the elite and for ‘fitting-in’
“The most trusted in the workplace are those who float around a lot, monitor themselves closely, and are good listeners before they are good talkers.”

with the elite and for those that gained their trust in the workplace when there are no try-outs? Floaters that were in an elite, or disconnected clique showed higher self-monitoring in order to gain trust. Floaters needed to be slow to speak. The most trusted in the workplace are those who float around a lot, monitor themselves closely, and are good listeners before they are good talkers.

Now, to be clear the trust measured was a reflection of people saying how genuine they felt their friendship to be with the Floater on a rating scale. As was said, the Floater and the clique members all had to mutually identify themselves. It was cautioned that extroverted people with many friends are floating around more cliques, but that did not change the results. The research also accounted for people that have more friends or could be perceived as, ‘popular’, to be over represented and used necessary statistics to affirm they did not skew results.

When you get down to it, cliques happen… even when you’re not in high school. They are an inescapable reality. But what makes reality better than the movies is that you are in control of how you choose to behave in your workplace. Regardless of your role, status, gender, etc. you are interacting with different people, beliefs, and norms. In order to be the most trusted you need to be the most diplomatic. Talk to new people and walk around different parts of your office, building, or space. Listen to those people that have something to share and try to help them. Will you be a floater?

Find out more about earning others’ trust at work here.