Learning from Our High School Cliques

We’re all grown up now.  We are responsible, dress professionally and go to work with purpose.  But when it comes to career development and progression, we benefit from taking a trip back to high school.  Remember the cliques? The jocks, nerds, stoners, goths, etc.? In large organizations they did not go away.  The ability to identify the social groups within an organization, their hierarchy and how they impact your work is an important skill.  Peer groups in high school were a fundamental part of your adolescent development that influenced your short- and long-term life trajectories.  First, a quick trip back in time.

Back to High School

In 2018 researchers from Virginia Tech, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Texas at Austin published a study on contemporary college students’ reflections on their high school peer crowds (Crabbe, Pivnick, Bates, Gorden and Crosnoe – study).  They interviewed 61 recent high school graduates, an ethnically diverse group of 19- to 26-year-olds enrolled in college. They conducted 90-minute interviews about participants’ high school peer groups, then coded and analyzed the responses.

The researchers identified 12 categories in the social hierarchy; but I want to focus on the three general categories.  At the top, unsurprisingly, were the “cool kids”.  Examples include a) Populars – defined as rich and/or attractive students; well-known and known to party; and b) Jocks – affiliated with a sports team; well-known and known to party.

The next category includes “the middle of the field” students.  Below the cool kids socially, examples include a) Fine Arts – defined as skilled in an artistic endeavor; and b) Brains – those who excel academically and take advanced classes.

At the bottom of the social structure in terms of power and influence were the “contrarians”.  Examples include a) Loners – who keep to themselves and/or have low self-esteem; and b) Goths – who dress in dark clothes and listen to screamo music (punk/emo music).

The Cool Kids

Similar work cliques exist in large organizations, and they impact your career.  We don’t have sports teams, but we can recognize the jocks.  They are still at the top of the pyramid.  They use sports analogies at work, focus on sacrificing for the team and seamlessly appear to mesh work with play.  When on a business trip after a long day of meetings and a work dinner, they want to go to the bar and continue the evening.  People that are attractive, well connected and liked are also at the top.  You are most likely to succeed if you are viewed as part of this group.  Performance is important, but over time having a positive image becomes more important, along with exposure to other parts of the organization.

Learn from the Cool Kids

I share with executives that the most damming thing someone can say to thwart your advancement is, “I don’t know you.”  Learn the lessons from the popular kids, being known is important.  You can do it in a way that suits your personality.  Go out socially with your peers from time to time.  This makes you more approachable and likeable.  Bounds are made through social interaction, not just completing work projects.

Identify Your Towering Strengths

There is power in the middle group cliques.  The jocks and popular kids might have been voted prom king and queen, but the brains and fine arts kids were voted most likely to succeed.  There is value in investing the time and energy to be excellent in your field.  I call it your towering strength.  What do you do better than 85% of the population?  The exact percentage is not important.  The key is to recognize what you do well and be able to put it into words.

Learn from the Brains and Artists

If you are seen as a skilled artist or a brain with specialized knowledge and skills, make sure you communicate other attributes that add value to the entire organization.  If you don’t, you risk being pigeonholed or typecast.  The “cool kids” will be friendly when they need help with their homework, or to solve a problem they have, then ignore you when it comes time for promotions.

Be Different with a Purpose

There is nothing wrong with being yourself at work.  Workplaces are getting better at inclusion and diversity.  Many espouse bringing your whole self to work.  But don’t forget about the cliques.  Being very different can put you at the bottom of the social hierarchy.  Make sure you have a purpose.  I know many successful people who view work as just a paycheck, or a transaction.  They work hard, do their job, and get paid.  In exchange, they wish to be left alone, don’t get involved in office politics, and leave work at work.

Learn How to be a Contrarian

If you want to be loner, make sure people know you are skilled and don’t suffer from low self-esteem.  You deliver on your promises.  Think of your job as a path to your goals.  Are you a poet, that needs a day job to pay the bills?  Are you saving money to go back to school?  Whatever your reason, have a clear purpose in your mind.

Bottom Line

With a fresh perspective gained with age, we can all apply the lessons from high school social groups to advance our career aspirations – minus the bad hair, acne, and anxiety.

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