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Part I: Law fellow excluded from inner circle

Dear Office-Politics,

I began working in a Center at my law school in a temporary position immediately after graduating, and began a formal two-year Fellow position last summer. I am hoping to build a career here long-term; however, the Directors have a clique, among the Center staff, that is quite close, and I am regularly excluded from this group. Last evening, for instance, I was excluded from a dinner party. “Paul”, the Professor for whom I work directly, was invited (so it’s not that this was unrelated to my program); as well as the brand new Program Assistant, who is technically my subordinate and only 24 years old (so it’s not that this was for older/senior staff only).

The clique is a mix of Professors and other Fellows, ranging in age from late 20s (like me) to late 40s. I am not the only staff member who is excluded from the dominant clique, and I even know why others are disliked from comments I have heard, but have no idea why I’m on the outs. To be honest, I would rather spend time with my own friends than with these people (!), but worry that there are professional costs to being disliked and outside of this loop.

I am wondering whether I should ask Paul about this. He can be a domineering terror and we are not friends by any measure, but he does seem to take a genuine interest in my professional future and success, in particular in keeping me here working with him. Another option would be to ask another Professor, “Carolyn”, who is closer to my age and the colleague with whom I am most friendly. Both are, however, in the dominant clique, so I cannot be sure that they would not be irritated and just report back to the others to disparage me further!

What would your experts advise in this situation?

Not Cliquing


dr. rick brandon
dr. marty seldman

Dear Not Cliquing,

Who knows? Sometimes the reasons some people make the inner circle and others not are rational, other times totally random. Naturally, you know the stereotypes about power hierarchies within academia and even more within the legal sector (witness John Houseman in the classic movie, Paper Chase), in which Timothy Bottoms, the protagonist decides ultimately that it’s just not worth it. However, you make it clear you’d like to make a career here, so it seems to be the “price of the dream” and part of paying your dues, to deal with the ups and downs.

As far as figuring out why you’re on the outs, try to approach either or both, since you state reasons each might not have anything personal against you (the senior wanting your work to contribute, the woman being closer in age and friendship. However, do NOT refer to the word “clique” since it could come off as accusatory, but instead find casual ways of letting them know you’d love to contribute more than you have to the group, rather than asking head on “why am I being excluded?”

Eat Cow Cookies
Perhaps Professor Houseman (oops, sorry)… the senior Professor would respond to an offer of your desire to help him out on various projects more and that you’d appreciate the opportunity to network more than your busy schedule has allowed. Note that you hope you have not projected any sense of being too busy or not being interested (in other words, consider blaming yourself which is ‘cow cookies’ but might work to send a gentle non-blaming message). We also don’t know how many gatherings and large they’ve been where you’ve been excluded.

Widen your sphere of influence
Look at what you say you know are the reasons for others’ being disliked and make some educated guesses. What do you have in common or different from them? With some politically oriented people, it does matter who you know, what you look like, what powerful people you are wired into, etc. Consider gender issues, culture issues, etc. as sources? Try building relationships with other people that this clique might respect, through non-profits, pro bono work, social events, etc. and you never know, maybe someone important to the clique drops your name.

Earn a reputation for being helpful
While we’re at it about networking, are there kind gestures you can adopt to create bonds outside of the extra-curricular dinners, such as sending birthday cards, organizing projects or taking on tasks that others view as a hassle, so you ingratiate yourself, getting to meetings early when you are invited or gain de facto participation? Make these times really count. Offer to pitch in to go the extra mile. Make your participation entirely positive and genuine. But also take stock of your non-verbal behavior, verbal input, follow-up, and input. Do they know you were there if you were there, and was your participation “value-added” as they say?

Is anything here sticking to the Velcro? We hope so! If nothing works, remember that it’s not personal, since you’re not the only marginalized Fellow. Come to think of it, you might even be unknowingly projecting an air of not caring or even wanting to be with others as you’ve stated. Are you sure you have not built an unconscious moat around yourself to not be hurt by their rejection? Oooh, sorry to get heavy here or go on an archeological expedition into your psyche, but do look in the mirror at some point, OK? Hope we have not touched a nerve here, but are simply striving to toss out lots of possibilities. If there IS some truth here, take it on and find a way to express a change of heart, be more open. If an apology is needed for some slight on your part, do it. Without any strings. Say you were 100% wrong, and ask how you can make it better… Long shot we know since it does sound like it’s more to do with the half of the relationships that you cannot control, but if the shoe fits…. Let us know? Keep the faith!

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.

Warm regards,

Rick and Marty

Rick Brandon, Ph.D. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. Co-authors,
Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success

cover of Survival of the SavvyRick Brandon, Ph.D. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. are Co-authors, Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success. Dr. Rick Brandon is CEO of Brandon Partners. He has consulted and trained tens of thousands at corporations worldwide, including Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries. Dr. Marty Seldman is one of America’s most experienced executive coaches. His 35-year career includes expertise in executive coaching, group dynamics, cross-cultural studies, clinical psychology, and training.

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