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Foundations - Building Empires: The rise and fall of cliques
By Joseph Bouchard
Published: 03/27/2007

0326cliq Editor's note – In his regular column “Foundations,” Joe Bouchard this month discusses a fundamental flaw that can cause havoc within any group yet be avoided with a little persistence and wisdom.

Foundations - Building Empires: The rise and fall of cliques
by Joe Bouchard

Bloody battles!


Broken treaties!

Sneak attacks!

Shifting alliances!

Vast tracts of territory under contention!

These are components of an empire on the rise. From the Mongols to the British, the rise and fall of empires have provided us many historical examples of how large domains develop.

When looking at groups in the work place, the common clique stands out as a fascinating and divisive example of how we treat each other. Upon further inspection, the rise and fall of cliques bears many resemblances to the rise and fall of empires.

First, let's define the word “clique.” It means an exclusive or clannish set of people. This is not a foreign concept to most people. Everyone knows of some in group that treats outsiders with contempt and scorn.

I once heard someone say that if there were three people stranded on an island, a clique would form instantly. Whoever said that nailed the concept. Cliques, of course, can be found in places other than a deserted island. Groups who separate themselves and look down in disdain at others are ubiquitous. One can find them carving up territories in sporting events, schools, places of worship, and, of course, in the work place.

In corrections this can be more than a minor irritation. It causes division in the ranks, and discriminatory cliquishness leads to corrections peril. Cliques set the stage for competition between groups who become more occupied defending themselves against each other instead of watching out for one another. Misplaced vigilance creates conditions unfavorable for safety.

With cadres present, loyalties and professional priorities become divided. If the camaraderie between clique members overrides professionalism, trouble is not far behind. This compromises the potency of the chain of command.

Of course, the innovative prisoner uses these staff flaws to control conditions conducive for their personal comfort. Some prisoners can sense division and prey on weaker parties. Sometimes simultaneously, enterprising inmates bloat the egos of members of opposing groups for the aim of ingratiating themselves and averting suspicion. Nowhere, then, are cliques more dangerous in the workplace than in corrections.

When one thinks of the word “empire,” one may substitute the word “clique.” There are many similarities:

No empire stays the same - Empires of all shapes and sizes have marched across the face of history; but they are so different. Each has its own unique origin, size and goals. No empire remains in a constant state perpetually. Empires change.

No clique will last forever in a rigid form. Internal factors such as shifting dynamics and inner squabbling may cause change and dissolution. External forces such as enforced anti-harassment policies or a stronger counter clique can dismantle a malevolent group.

No two empires are born of the same circumstances - Their specific birth are as unique as the individuals in them. Empires may coalesce around economic interests, a mutual defense initiative, or through a common ideology.

Cliques form because of such factors like occupational niches, relations, hobbies, or previous familiarity. No two cliques start in the absolute same manner.

No empire will last forever - It seems that powerful and oppressive empires will last for eternity. While each reign of terror rages, those who fall victim to the tyranny cannot wait for the empire to disband. But from Persia to the Holy Roman Empire, one thing is true: No empire is perpetual.

Cliques fall apart too. Cohesive factors grow stale over time. Fickle members are wooed by other factions. Clique leaders sometimes simply shed their cronies and lead a more independent work life.

Powerful empires attract enemies - As an empire rises, other competing groups will vie for primacy. It happened with Rome and Carthage. It occurred with Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

Cliques have a way of doing that as well. Individuals and other groups typically start with a silent opposition to the new gang in power. Sometimes, the arrogance of cliques impacts others strongly. What starts as eye rolls by others may become overt hostility.

Fallen empires leave a vacuum - When Rome fell (over many centuries) there were competing groups from within and without that took the reigns of power. The same is true of cliques. It can be as apparent as a formerly dominant exclusive group in the lunch room yielding their table to a group on the rise.

Empires and cliques evoke different reactions - What is a benevolent empire to some is an evil one to others. It is a matter of perception. With cliques, it is a matter of who one favors, in general. The personal choice of favoring a clique may rest with the notion of self interest.

Often founded and lead by a cult of personality - Like empires, the best cliques are headed by a charismatic leader. Observers wonder why followers are so obedient and fawning. They seem to follow the leader with a slavish devotion, nearly equal to the way pheromones drive animals and insects. The longest lasting empires and cliques are driven by dynamic leaders.

Parallels aside, the fact remains that cliques drive a great part of staff disunity. So, how do corrections professionals minimize the divisiveness of cliques? How do we erase factions in order to maintain and improve safety in our facilities?

  • Attend anti-harassment training,

  • Participate in cross training in different areas,

  • Adhere to a zero tolerance on harassment,

  • Maintain a strong presence in all groups,

  • Promote a deep emphasis on the mission statement and the interconnected nature of the profession,

  • Lead by positive example,

  • Engage in self assessment,

  • Perform outreach into different areas,

  • Reach out to ‘loners'.

    Cliques are a fascinating part of human dynamics. They are really petty empires of exclusion. Their goals are rarely in line with that of the institution. One thing is certain: Any individual clique will rarely outlast an institution. It is as simple as the rules of history.

    Joe Bouchard is a librarian at Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility within the Michigan Department of Corrections. He is also a member of the Board of Experts for “The Corrections Professional” and an instructor of Corrections and Psychology for Gogebic Community College. He can be reached at (906) 353-7070 ext 1321. These are the opinions of Joe Bouchard, and not of the MIDOC or Corrections.com.

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