Beware of mean girls at work
By Andrea Kay
Published: Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
You would think that most women want to help their female colleagues succeed.
After all, they know better than anyone how hard it is to get where they've gotten. But that's not necessarily the case.
If you are a woman who works for or with other women, you likely know this first hand.
You may have experienced a female associate who feels threatened by you. Perhaps she tries to make you look bad in front of clients or the boss or she always disagrees with you in public.
Maybe she agrees to back you up then leaves you high and dry. These are what you might call “mean girl behaviors.”
At their worst, mean girls and women can be vicious, cruel and vengeful, say the authors of “Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional when Things Get Personal.”
This happens when they act like workplace bullies, say cruel things that make other women cry or become jealous of anyone else's success, authors Katherine Crowly and Kathi Elster say. They're easy to pick out.
Other times, the ways in which a woman can hurt or insult a female colleague is more subtle and harder to detect. They include rolling your eyes when a woman you don't like starts speaking, or gossiping about someone who rubs you the wrong way.
However it is dished out, “ ‘mean' is the inherently female way of showing displeasure, of staking out our territory and telling another woman to back off,” they say.
This is not a topic most women are eager to confront.
Most of the time, such discussions take place behind closed doors or in the ladies' room, in part because it's hard enough to gain ground in the workplace. As a result, “women are hesitant to talk about the dark side of woman-to-woman relationships. It feels like a betrayal of the sisterhood.”
But here it is out in the open, with the authors acknowledging that woman-to-woman relationships are naturally intense.
“The biological imperative that compels women to ‘tend and befriend' can generate amazing friendships and incredibly productive work teams,” they say in their book.
But women are complicated. They want to be kind and nurturing, but “we struggle with our darker side — feelings of jealousy, envy and competition.” While men overtly jockey for position, women tend to compete more covertly and behind the scenes.
An example is a passively mean girl. She thinks she should be nice but she's deeply competitive, which results in passive-aggressive behavior. She's the type who conveniently forgets to mention that a deadline for a project the two of you are working on got moved up, even though the boss asked her to tell you. So you end up looking bad by not delivering your work on time.
You may feel inclined to yell, “How dare you!” But don't, the authors say.
Nor should you run to the boss. Take responsibility. And in the future, ask your boss to communicate with you directly so you'll be sure to know of any changes.
As for your colleague, don't count on her to have your back.
If you're dealing with a woman who “accidentally” forgets to invite you to important meetings, is friendly one day and cold the next, praises you in public then puts you down in private, you may have a mean girl situation on your hands.
Because women make up more then 50 percent of the work force, it will be hard to have a successful career if the women you work with and for are holding you back in subtle or overt ways.
And stop to consider that you may be hurting someone and not know it.
Be aware of what you're doing and how power struggles are affecting you. As the authors say, we can “strive for greater professionalism and support one another.”
After all, isn't that the way we thought it was supposed to be?
Career consultant Andrea Kay is the author of “Life's a Bitch and Then You Change Careers: 9 steps to get out of your funk and on to your future.” Write to her in care of USA Today/Gannett, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, VA 22108. E-mail: email@example.com. Twitter: @AndreaKayCareer. Facebook: facebook.com/AndreaKayCareerAdvice.
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