Dealing With the Playground Mentality at Work

How to Deal With the Playground Mentality at Work
Gossip and cliques don't disappear after high school. Here's how to navigate the office playground.
Much like the days of our youth, every workplace has its own playground. It includes opportunities for making friends, advancing your career, and at times, the usual playground gossip and cliques. Because of this, the workplace—much like the first time you step foot on the playground in grade school—can seem an intimidating maze, especially if you don't know how to navigate it properly.
Who knew that our childhood playground would serve as a microcosm for our future workplace? While workplace play varies based on the company culture, size, and the people contained within it, developing a basic set of tools to help you navigate will give you the dexterity and, ultimately, the stamina you need to climb to the top of the proverbial jungle gym. 
Having worked at three different companies since graduating from college, I have learned that the playground landscapes vary drastically based on the size and the specialty of the company, and perhaps most fundamentally the players within it. So, perhaps the most important tool to develop is an understanding of your company culture first and foremost.
My first job out of college was at a boutique law firm, which, at any given time, had at most eight people working there. At 21, I was the youngest employee by no fewer than 20 years. And, because the two partners comprised a quarter of the firm with no one my equal until one of the partners hired his son-in-law, navigating the playground meant forming a close bond with the longstanding office manager and maintaining more formal relationships with my other coworkers, who were largely superiors.
After graduate school, I began working at a mid-size consulting firm, where socializing was strained and awkward, likely because of the high utilization rate required of the firm's associates. Here, everyone had their own office and there were very few areas to congregate and partake in water-cooler chitchat. What little socializing that happened was often one-on-one conversation in associates' offices, sometimes resulting in negative gossiping that could be overheard from connecting offices.
Often, I overheard tidbits—sometimes positive, sometimes negative—about my coworkers, about the company, and on occasion, about me. Being privy to such conversation was entertaining, and at the same time, anxiety-inducing. I quickly learned who I could develop bonds with and who I couldn't. At the same time, I knew that being friendly and appropriately bubbly to everyone—particularly in a work environment that wasn't particularly social or warm, played an important role in improving the company's social landscape.
By the time I began working at my current company I was amazed, almost baffled, at how sociable everyone was. People actually said hello when you passed them in the hallway; they stopped by to say good morning and ask about your weekend; they invited you to get coffee. In my current position, making friends is easy and simultaneously expected. For example, even if sometimes my preference is to take a walk alone during my lunch break, I know that inviting my coworker to join me is important to consistently contribute to the kindly company culture that's been manifested. 
Are you learning how to navigate your own workplace playground? Here are three primary skills to help you start:


Who are the primary players and who are the bystanders? What sorts of games are played on the playground? Pay attention, take notes, and comport yourself according to the company culture. This will vary based on the social landscape as well as the company's size.


Cliques don't dissolve after high school, and they are not necessarily a bad thing. They are everywhere, because most people are comfortable socializing in smaller groups. Find and associate yourself with groups that you identify with. If you're true to you, you'll find friends and groups who suit your social and career needs.


While it varies from office to office, some amount of gossip is a natural part of the corporate fabric. In cases of negative gossip, know that people are eventually seen for who they are—it's not your responsibility to call them out for it. The most effective way to navigate office gossip is to take the high road by engaging in conversation in a genuinely positive manner, while cautiously side-stepping irrelevant negative chitchat. Also, beware of associating with the office’s Negative Nancys.  
Developing these skills will allow you to properly navigate the office “playground” while also granting you the all-access pass to enjoy all that it has to offer—while minimizing risk for bumps and bruises.  
Have fun!