Recently, I attended a women’s entrepreneur group. As I was leaving, the talk turned to our local chambers. We have several within a 15-mile radius. The women, who were members of several other chambers (outside of our city's chamber, which is amazing), mentioned a nearby chamber calling it the “Mean Girls Club.” They said they had stopped attending events there. But, they added, things were looking up because a man they knew was planning on creating a new chamber—one for Christian businesses. And they were certain this new chamber would not be "drama central."
That got me thinking…
As a chamber pro, you work very hard. You thrive on fostering connections and building a vibrant business community. Yet, the presence of cliques (or the perceived presence of them) can cast a long shadow beyond just members. (Here I was being caught up in it and I knew nothing of this chamber except that it had been infiltrated by “mean girls.”). This can hinder inclusivity, stifle engagement, and ultimately deride the very mission you strive to uphold.
But what can you do? People should be able to be friends with who they want, right?
Not when it impedes your mission. Cliques aren't just friends. They're unfriendly to others. And they don't just sort themselves out. You can lose members over them and struggle with recruiting.
Note: this is not a problem for every chamber. However, it’s likely that by the time you realize it’s part of the chamber’s reputation, you need to act decisively. There are a few things you can do, assuming you are not the perceived cause.
But before we take on clique busting, it’s important to know what we’re dealing with and why cliques can be so divisive.
First, it's not a tight group of friends. There's nothing wrong with that. While a clique is a group that shares common interests and inside jokes, it also excludes outsiders from joining their circle. This exclusion can be intentional or unintentional, but it creates a barrier between the "in-group" and the "out-group." And is not something you want plaguing your chamber.
Think cliques aren’t a problem? That they’re just turf wars started by people who loved high school? If you’ve ever driven over a pothole at 50+ mph, you understand the damage that something as unobtrusive as water can be once it seeps into a hard surface and freezes.
Cliques within an organization can be like that, breaking things from the inside with their hidden barriers, dividing members and stifling the potential for growth and collaboration. While it's natural for people to form connections and friendships, cliques can become problematic when they exclude others, create barriers to communication, and foster a sense of exclusion.
For chamber professionals, tackling cliques head-on is crucial for building a strong, inclusive organization that thrives on diversity and collaboration.
Organized drama-seekers are dangerous to a cohesive organization because they create:
Don’t think cliques are a problem at your chamber? Take a closer look to see if something is going on in your organization.
1. Solicit feedback from current and former members about their chamber experiences. Ask specifically about the inclusivity of the organization and whether they felt welcomed and included or excluded and marginalized.
2. Pay attention to the interactions and dynamics during chamber events, meetings, and networking functions. Are there certain groups of individuals who consistently interact together while excluding others? Do certain members seem to hold more influence or decision-making power within the organization?
3. High turnover rates among members can be a sign of cliquish behavior within the chamber. If members are leaving at a higher-than-average rate or if new members are hesitant to join and participate, it could indicate that cliques are a problem.
4. Consider how the chamber is perceived by the broader community. Are there rumors or perceptions circulating about the organization being exclusive or clique-driven? Pay attention to online reviews, social media comments, and word-of-mouth feedback from businesses and individuals outside of the chamber.
5. Talk to chamber staff, volunteers, and interns about their experiences working with the organization. Do they feel included and valued, or do they perceive cliques forming among members or leadership?
6. Compare your chamber's reputation and culture to that of other chambers in nearby communities. Are there notable differences in how inclusivity and collaboration are promoted and practiced?
7. Conduct a survey or assessment of chamber members to gather anonymous feedback about the organization's culture and inclusivity. Include questions specifically addressing perceptions of cliquish behavior and opportunities for improvement.
If you’ve identified a potential clique problem, you’ll want to address it quickly. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as going up to the group and telling them to cut it out and be more welcoming.
While National Inclusion Day is October 10th, don’t wait until then to address the idea of cliques in your chamber.
Don't turn a blind eye to clique dynamics. Openly discuss the issue with members, acknowledging its negative impact and soliciting feedback on solutions.
Design events and activities specifically aimed at fostering connections across groups. Speed networking, roundtable discussions, and collaborative projects can break down barriers and encourage interaction.
Actively celebrate and embrace diversity within the chamber, highlighting the value of different perspectives and backgrounds. Partner with diverse organizations and promote inclusive hiring practices among members.
Offer mentorship programs, buddy systems with Ambassadors, and dedicated resources to ensure newcomers and members from underrepresented groups feel welcome and supported.
Encourage open communication and feedback within the chamber. Foster a safe space for members to voice concerns and ideas, promoting collaborative problem-solving.
Leverage online platforms and communication tools to facilitate connections beyond in-person events. Create online forums, discussion groups, and virtual networking opportunities to bridge barriers.
Communicate the chamber's values and expectations regarding inclusivity and collaboration. Make it clear that cliquish behavior is not acceptable and will not be tolerated within the organization.
Model inclusive behavior in chamber leadership, engaging with all members regardless of their affiliation. Recognize and reward members who actively promote inclusivity and collaboration. This goes for your board too. If you’ve noticed a problem with a board member being non-inclusive, speak with your board chair and have them address the issue.
Building an inclusive chamber requires sustained effort and commitment. By addressing cliques head-on, implementing proactive strategies, and fostering a culture of open communication, you can transform your chamber into a vibrant, dynamic space where everyone feels welcome, connected, and empowered to contribute.
Sometimes it’s harder to work against something than it is to work for something. Telling people to break up their clique won't work. Instead, prioritize inclusivity and actively work to break down barriers to create a welcoming and supportive environment where all members can thrive and contribute to the collective success of the organization.
*A final note: I used "Mean Girls" throughout this article because of the movie with the same name. Cliques are gender neutral. “Mean Girls” was the nickname my friends had given the chamber board member and her entourage. Cliques can be formed by any aged person and their cohorts. When they’re in leadership, that makes it even more difficult to deal with.
Please share your experiences with cliques in the Chamber Professional Group on Facebook.
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