Dealing with “Mean Girls” in the Workplace

Many women would like to believe that the ugly behavior they may have experienced at the hands of other girls in junior high – or perhaps even exhibited themselves – is just an unhappy memory by the time they join the working ranks.

But the truth is:  The mean girls are alive and well in the workplace today.

In a new book, “Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional when Things Get Personal,” authors Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster say they were at first reluctant to tackle such a subject for fear of contributing to bias against women or portraying women in such an unflattering light. But when they got a rousing response to the subject of “women haters” at a training session, they say they knew they had struck a nerve.

“Women have been pushing uphill for so long and trying to get ahead, that no one really wanted to look at what wasn’t working. It is something that women are reluctant to talk about and acknowledge,” Elster says. “It’s sort of the dark side.”

Crowley and Elster says that most women will recognize the “mean girl” at work. “The key indicator is that you have a feeling that she doesn’t like you and is in competition with you,” Crowley says. Elster describes it as a “sinking feeling in your stomach” when you’re around the woman.

There are various levels of professional-woman meanness, such as the “meanest of the mean” the “passively mean” and the “doesn’t mean to be mean,” they explain.  The woman may exclude her target from emails, gossip about her, use body language that conveys her dislike or distrust or even go behind her back to steal clients. The key for all of the levels of meanness is that it ramps up stress levels and affects a woman’s ability to be productive and successful, they say.

How did this meanness follow women from their teen years to their professional ones?

Crowley and Elster explain that competition between women to get ahead can deteriorate into nasty and demeaning behavior.

While men will issue a challenge face-to-face to a colleague and are more willing to fight openly – and enjoy it — “women are conflicted,” says Elster, a management consultant and executive coach. “They want to be liked and be competitive.”

Crowley, a psychotherapist, says that “men can literally wrestle each other to the ground and then go have a pizza. They grow up doing that.

“Women are always busy trying to make friends. Women under stress need to bond with other women, and that’s in direct opposition with competing with another woman,” she says.

The authors provide several scenarios for spotting the type of mean girl you may be dealing with, and how best to cope. They stress it’s important that even though you may want to lash out just like you did when you were mistreated by a mean girl at age 13, it’s important that you understand the workplace demands a more professional response.

“You’ve got to understand the workplace is a competitive place, and the less you take it personally the better,” Elster says.

Among their other suggestions:

  • When remarks are made to belittle your work, simply respond “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and walk away. You cannot solve this woman’s insecurities or jealousies, so don’t attack back or let her derail your energies.
  • If she’s condescending, don’t run to others for support but instead arrange a meeting where you point out specific instances of her belittling attitude toward you. If she continues, don’t react when she makes such comments and realize most people see through such behavior.
  • If you overhear her gossiping about you, don’t hold it against her forever or run away and hide. Take time to cool down then address the issue with her privately and ask her to come to you directly if she has an issue. Since trust has been broken but you still need to work with her, have a “friendly but not friends” attitude.

“Sometimes when we’re under stress, our behavior will get worse and we start to take everything more personally,” Crowley says. “Now is the time to take a look at these issues and learn to take care of yourself.”

 

How to you deal with mean girls at work?

 

Anita Bruzzese

Anita Bruzzese is a syndicated columnist for Gannett/USA Today on workplace issues and the author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy.” She has been on the Today show, and quoted in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, Self.com and BusinessWeek.com. Her website, 45things.com, is listed on the Forbes top 100 websites for women.

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