Hanging With the In-crowd

Every company will spawn a self-selected elite group of insiders. But whether it's a force for good depends on what draws them together.

By Judith Sills Ph.D., published November 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Whether you are in or out, people generally agree that a self-selected elite group of insiders can either move a business toward greatness or destroy its functioning altogether. It all depends on who's in, and what they do once there. So the real question is, how do you make the game work for you?

The best version of an in-crowd is that spontaneously emerging group of people from across different departments who meet informally to talk shop. In this account, the in-crowd is formed from the brightest and the most hard-working people, those strongly invested in solving problems and getting great results. These stars are hanging out late at the office or lingering over drinks, getting to know each other, and solving mutual problems along the way.

Without such natural cross-department alliances, employees might be siloed in their own separate spheres. Instead, this network of smart people hangs out in one another's offices to get the job done.

One biotech CEO spoke glowingly of his own employee in-crowd. "Great companies are all about problem solving, and this is the informal group of top people who make that happen. I make my decisions independently, but these are the people I get input from first. I don't set them up as a group. They find each other by working together and learning pretty quickly who has what to offer. Other people can go to these guys with their issues and get their problems solved. So there's no in-out jealousy. In fact, that's how an in-crowd gets its legitimate power and influence—by making positive changes in the organization."

This is a Mary Poppins version of an in-crowd, genially whisking in to solve our problems, providing energy, spirit, and a little corporate magic to make the medicine go down. And such groups certainly exist in companies whose corporate culture values excellence, supports a meritocracy, and insists the cream at the top pay attention to the problems of those who are rising.

Not every in-crowd makes excellent problem solving its ticket of admission. There are just as many companies or departments whose in-crowds are of the backbiting, rumor-mongering variety—where who you know is way more important than what you contribute, and sometimes how much you drink matters most of all.

Does being female ever keep you out? Sure, in some cases. But most women note that it is not so much being female that shuts the gate. It is being unwilling or unable to act like "one of the boys" that creates in-crowd barriers in some environments.

Achievement might get you in also, but that's not always a constructive process. One longtime journalist described the in-group at his newspaper as negative but inevitable. "Journalists are very competitive people, for not a huge amount of money. Our office in-group admitted only award winners—Pulitzers, national journalism prizes, that kind of thing. That group was a cut above the rest of us, and they got all the best assignments—assuming of course the assignment editor was an award winner herself. Otherwise, all bets were off.

"But since we were all basically competing against each other for those same few prizes," he continued, "the in-crowd was not a particularly nice or cooperative group. So we hated them, even though we always wanted in."

Awards at least are a vaguely objective measure of merit. At the most negative end of the spectrum are those in-crowds whose membership is entirely determined by friendship with one nasty, controlling person. Like every mean girl you ever knew in middle school, this nasty (and not necessarily female) person decides who's in and who's out, on no more than a whim.

Precisely how a nasty bully achieves this kind of power is not entirely predictable. Sometimes there is a power vacuum and a controlling tyrant steps in automatically. Sometimes this person wields power by virtue of a close relationship with the boss—as a relative, a romantic liaison, or a longstanding administrative partner. Sometimes, worst of all, this person is the boss, a quixotic, favorites-playing intimidator. Whatever the power source, everyone needs to get on his or her good side or get out of the way.

The human cost of this particular in-group dynamic can be huge. When the criteria for admission to the group is to curry favor, people who won't or can't are frozen out and made to suffer.

Good people may leave an organization rather than endure this interpersonal discrimination, and they are probably wise to. For those who stay, morale is low, productivity is reduced, and creativity is simply stilled. You just have to spend too much time watching your back to get quality work done.

Of course in real life most office groups do some constructive problem solving but manage a fair share of gossip too, admitting the people who work best, but including the occasional lovable jerk and shunning the occasional competent fool. And providing a critical, intangible steel thread to the complex social fabric of the workplace.

Judith Sills, Ph.D., is a Philadelphia-based clinical psychologist.

What Gets You In?

Whatever the nature of your workplace in-crowd, some traits and behaviors are more likely to gain you admission. Consider these:

  • You Want to Be There. Frankly, not everyone does. Some of us deliberately avoid identification with any subgroup. We prefer to be "floaters."
  • Your Personality. Sometimes the people with power really are the ones with charm and charisma. Naturally, everyone wants to be around them.
  • Your Gender. In-crowds run by old-boy networks or newer girl groups may not exclude the other gender. But you have to be willing to play by their rules.
  • Your Boss. A mediocre CEO might surround him or herself with yes-people. Or he might only feel secure with those he's known forever. Short of refining your suck-up skills or waiting for regime change, there's little you can do.
  • Your Organizational Structure. Some groups, schools for example, identify a subcategory of people as "leadership council" of some kind, which becomes an informal in-group. You have to get yourself on the council to be in.