You know that woman at your office, the one who makes your life difficult by leaving you out of important meetings or undercutting you in front of your boss?
If you have no idea what we're talking about, let us bring you up to speed: She's a mean girl.
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“A mean girl at work is a woman who practices some form of covert competition or indirect aggression toward another woman,” says Katherine Crowley, psychotherapist and co-author of "Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal."
We spoke with Crowley and co-author Kathi Elster, a management consultant and executive coach, to get the lowdown on what really motivates these mean girls—and, more importantly, how you should handle them.
LearnVest: Why did you become interested in this topic?
Kathi: A client asked us to give a lecture to women in technology about "women haters." We were like, "What is that?" She meant women who aren't very nice to other women. When we started talking to clients about this concept, we realized that a lot of women had been through this. We gave that lecture to a packed room, and we could just see from their faces that we had hit a nerve.
Katherine: When you look at the statistics—women comprise 50% of the workforce, and get 70% of advanced degrees—it became obvious that today's professional woman is likely to manage, report to or at least work with other women. So this is the time to offer concrete solutions to the dynamics that might arise from this situation.
What motivates a mean girl?
Katherine: It comes from internal conflict—wanting everyone to be your friend versus needing to compete with other women at work. I may really like someone, but I can be extremely jealous if she gets promoted, and then be tempted to put her down when she tries to tell me what to do.
How is a mean woman at work different from a mean man?
Kathi: Men, by nature, are more comfortable with competition, so they compete overtly. Then, at the end of the day, they go out for a beer. Women hold resentments, and carry the pain inflicted by a mean girl—maybe even for the rest of their careers. It’s the wiring of our brains, so we need to [learn to] depersonalize it, and think of our coworkers as "friendly," but not "friends."
Have either of you ever had to deal with a mean girl at work?
Kathi: While writing this book, I found myself often saying, “I’ve done that,” or “That’s been done to me.” The biggest breakthrough was when I took our "no gossip challenge" for a month. I started by telling everyone around me that this is what I was going to do—and I quickly learned which people tried to draw me back in, and the people who respected it. By the end of the 30 days, gossip felt disgusting to me.
Katherine: I recognized that there are types of women who bring out my own mean girl. When women are rude to me, I’ll be mean right back. Or if someone asks me unending questions, I’ll snap at them. I learned that, while I consider myself to be a fairly nice person, there are women who bring out the darker side of my behavior—and my challenge is to take the high road.
What's your best advice for dealing with a mean girl at work?
Kathi: Do not counterattack. Whether someone gave you a dirty look or critiqued you in front of other colleagues, the natural reaction is to attack back. But the best thing to do is take time to cool off, so you can react in a professional manner.
Katherine: Women are processors, so you’ll need to find a way to process what happened. Release those negative feelings through exercise or talk to a trusted friend or advisor outside of work. Then you’ll need to look for a way to solve the problem professionally—without getting into a personal battle.
What if the mean girl is your boss?
Katherine: Make the most of your current position for your resume, but also find ways to get out and meet other people in your industry, so you can build bridges that will take you to the next opportunity—to a better place.
Are there fewer or more mean girls at work these days?
Kathi: There are more because there are more girls in the workplace. We love women, and we’re big supporters of them in the workplace, but this is just a dark side to working with women. Not everyone exhibits mean girl behavior—but we’re all capable.
We're giving one lucky reader a copy of "Mean Girls at Work." Just head over to our Facebook page, and answer this question: What's your best advice for dealing with a mean girl at work?