As a friend – who was homeschooled – spoke of a new corporate adventure, I realized he was simultaneously learning high school and the corporate environment.


A friend of mine won an incredible position at a huge, international company. It was his first time in a corporate environment. As he told his tales and asked for advice, something seemed oddly familiar.

I realized I was giving him a rundown of the major rules of high school – and the Mean Girls movie. He was homeschooled so he never experienced the lessons – and scars – many of us walked away from in those four years of high school.

organizational culture mean girls movie cliques at work intelivate kris fannin
A typical corporate environment is often comprised of common ‘cliques.’

As a consultant, the first thing I learn in each business I visit is the culture. Each of my visits begins with a Janis Ian who gives me the typical layout of the buildings. The couple hundred Janis Ians of my life give me a quick and critical lesson on the company’s culture and players.

Had I thought of it before he started, I would have given my friend these eight quick organizational culture lessons that most of us learned in high school or by watching the Mean Girls movie.

8. Cliques Exist in the Corporate Environment

There are cliques in every company. They are at all levels and very similar to high school. Instead of jocks and homecoming queens, you have the ‘suits’ and ‘stilettos.’

Just about every clique you find in a high school is found in most companies. The difference? The corporate cliques are more intertwined into teams.

While they aren’t as obvious as in high school, they are just as important. Take some time to pick your clique carefully. Corporate is competitive and you don’t want to end up in a backstabbing at work – or in the garbage can like Caddy.

And yes – where you sit in the cafeteria is crucial.

7. Gretchen Weiners Exists in Every Corporate Environment

Actually, there is a Gretchen Weiners on just about every team. These men and women know everything about everyone – or at least they want you to believe they do.

Sure, the Gretchen Weiners of organizational culture provide the occasional laugh but keep them at arms-length. They are dangerous and can turn on a dime.

One day you’re being told secrets and the next you are the subject of the secrets. Deep down inside – you know you deserved it for listening to the gossip.

corporate culture work cliques at work kris fannin intelivate
Gretchen Wieners makes common appearances in a corporate environment.

Most importantly, the Gretchen Weiners at work make the corporate environment suck. They are exhausting and feed off the misery of others. In reality, they are miserable themselves.

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And for the love of everything, NEVER listen to the corporate Gretchen Weiners during times of business transformation and change management because they always get it wrong and mangle it in some way to their favor.

6. Beware of the Plastics in Corporate Culture

Just like in the movie, the Plastics in corporate culture rule by fear. Why? Because they are incredibly fearful and insecure leaders. Don’t let them build you up just to break you down.

organizational culture beware of the plastics leaders intelivate kris fannin
Beware of the Plastics leaders in corporate culture.

The Plastics in organizational culture surround themselves with people more insecure than themselves. These ‘leaders’ condition people to tell them what they want to hear as opposed to what they need to hear. Because they don’t evolve as quickly, other leaders perform past them and the Plastics become falling stars.

Seek out the leaders who want to learn from you and will grow you to become more successful than they are. Natural leaders want you to be successful – not a pawn.

5. Important Conversations & Decisions Happen Outside of Meetings

In the corporate environment, we call these conversations ‘the meeting after the meeting.’

These impromptu meetings happen in break rooms, bathrooms, golf courses, bars and the work cafeteria. Collectively, these conversations develop more decisions and solutions than the official meetings.

Make sure you stay involved in the important conversations with the important people. It’s exhausting to keep up with all those factors, but it gets you in at the ground level for some ground-breaking and exciting decisions.

4. Shifts of Power Happen – Be Human

Whether it’s because of layoffs, mergers, promotions or demotions, power shifts are a norm in any organizational culture. Just like in the Mean Girls movie, power can shift rapidly and unexpectedly.

Be kind on the way up, because you’ll be seeing the same people on the way down.

corporate culture power shifts like high school and the Mean Girls movie.
There are often power shifts in every corporate culture. Prepare for them.

That service representative in the call center who you won’t lend a genuine smile when passing in the hallway? She’ll be the Senior Vice President that you’ll be working for someday.

That executive assistant who you treat like crap? He’s going to decide your fate soon during a layoff. In reality, EA’s are some of the most powerful positions in any organization because they hold knowledge and access to people that few others have.

Be human, sincere, consistent and thoughtful and you’ll land just fine. Always be good to your work best friend.

3. People Know About You Before They Know You

You’re the newbie, fresh meat, rookie, punk, babe, colt, or the freshman and Gretchen Weiners immediately takes aim.

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People are sizing you up, looking you up and down, imagining where you came from and wondering if they should tell you that your fly is open.

You’re new and people are cautiously curious in many corporate environments.

organizational culture high school mean girls movie kris fannin intelivate
Keep some mystery but promote your basics in a corporate environment to reduce the chances of going back to high school. (Image credit: BuzzFeed)

So what do you do? Start conversations, observe the cliques, measure the power players and tell appropriate parts of your story at the right times. Build your brand and showcase your professional achievements.

Don’t go overboard right away with self-promotion or in showcasing your personality, though.

Nobody needs to know everything right away. Keep them wanting to know more, but avoid others making your story up by being closed off or appearing to be put off by their natural curiosity.

Side-note: If you punched someone in the face and they thought it was awesome, I’d consider keeping that under wraps in any organizational culture. Just a thought.

2. Every Corporate Environment Has Its Own Language

I learn a new language with each company.

The number of acronyms, abbreviations, project code-names, and words people just make up to replace existing words is overwhelming at first. I have left companies with my eyes stuck in the rolled position after hearing the amount of culture-specific language.

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Corporate culture has its own language. You’ll have to learn many of them during your career.

Don’t be afraid to ask – just don’t ask too much at once. It can deflect from the meeting, the conversation and your image.

Keep a list and ask about that mysterious acronym or corporate slang during one of the ‘meetings after the meeting.’ Do as much homework as possible first.

Remember that communication is one of the biggest barriers in a relationship. Make sure you’re speaking the same language.

1. What You Wear & How You Wear It Matters

Business casual might mean flip flops and a tee shirt in one organizational culture and slacks and a polo in another.

I’ve been in corporations that have different dress codes in different departments that are in the same building (that’s an entire series of articles for another time) so don’t make assumptions.

organizational culture high school lessons mean girl movie intelivate
What you wear often matters in each corporate environment – even if that means not over-dressing. Dressing for Halloween might be different depending on where you are.

Regardless of the dress code and unlike high school, always dress like you want to be taken seriously – not to happy hour.

Are there any other corporate culture lessons to be learned from the high school or the Mean Girls Movie? I’d love to hear them over on Twitter or Facebook!

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