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Dealing with 'Mean Girls' (and Boys) at Work

Ned Smith, Contributing Writer

"Mean girls" entered the national vocabulary in 2004 when a movie by that name became a box-office success. A new book takes on mean girls at work, offering advice on dealing with such co-workers' ability to sow dysfunction.

The movie that inspired the term, a teen comedy-drama written by Tina Fey and starring Lindsay Lohan, was based in part on the non-fiction book, "Queen Bees and Wannabes" by Rosalind Wiseman.

The book described how girls in high school social cliques operate and the effect their behavior can have on other young women. It didn't portray the mean girls in a flattering light. Though many dismissed "mean girls" as a sexist concept, the term fell into common usage as shorthand for those who engage in destructive interpersonal relationships with other women.

The debate resurfaced in November when David Petraeus, a highly decorated, four-star general who had served more than 37 years with the U.S. Army, announced his resignation as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, an office he had occupied for a little over a year. Petraeus cited an extramarital affair with Paul Broadwell, his biographer, as the reason for his resignation.

As the scandal unfolded, new details emerged, including the release of a series of anonymous, threatening emails that Broadwell had sent to Jill Kelley, a Florida socialite who was a personal friend of both Petraeus and the general's wife. Many observers cited the Broadwell-Kelley turf war as classic "mean girl" behavior.

So do mean girls really exist? And an you find them at work, or are they office archetypes perpetuated by workplace legend and sitcom writers?

In their new book, "Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional when Things Get Personal" (McGraw-Hill, 2012), Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster, argue that mean girls do exist. And such women don't end their reigns as queens of the roost when they graduate from high school or college. Instead, they find a broader canvas on which to unleash their portfolio of dysfunctional behaviors and terrorize others: the working world.

Crowley and Elster offer insights into what makes mean girls tick and how women can make the best of bad situations with other women in the workplace.

With women making up an increasingly higher percentage of the workforce, mean girls in the workplace is no longer just a pecking-order issue. For business owners, it is a pocketbook issue, as well. The hostile work environment mean girls create can lead to high turnover and a poorly functioning business.

Crowley, a Harvard-trained psychotherapist, and Elster, a management consultant and executive coach, are the principals of K Squared Enterprises, a consultancy that helps businesses uncover and transform interpersonal dilemmas. The two women also wrote previous bestsellers "Working for You Isn't Working for Me" and "Working With You is Killing Me."

They recently shared their insights with BusinessNewsDaily on how businesses can best identify and manage the mean girls on the payroll.

BusinessNewsDaily: Define "mean girls."

Kathi Elster: Our definition of a mean girl is someone who competes covertly or is indirectly aggressive. But we don't want to stereotype women; it's a particular behavior that both genders participate in. The name stuck from the movie. The whole mean girl issue has to do with women coming into the workplace with conflicting desires. On the one hand, we're programmed biologically and socially to tend [to] and befriend other women. But on the other hand, as with Broadwell and Kelley, we are in a competition. The workplace is a competitive environment. The way these two things tend to come out, the friendliness versus competition, is in [the form of] covert competition and indirect aggression.

BN: Does the behavior of Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley exhibit mean girl characteristics?

Katherine Crowley: Having a sexual relationship with somebody's husband is mean girl [behavior]. Doing anything behind someone's back is mean girl behavior. She didn't go to the wife and say, "I want your husband." She just took him. That's mean girl behavior. But as far as I'm concerned, so is his behavior. It's not nice behavior. If you're talking about Jill Kelley versus Paul Broadwell, they got caught in a classic mean girl power struggle — two alpha[s], both trying to guard what they perceive as their territory.

BND: Can men be mean girls?

KE:  Yes, men can be mean girls. In fact, many men have confided in me that they are mean girls. Traditionally, men approach competition with other men head on. A male professional may have no problem letting another man know that he is out to get his job. He may state up front, “I’m going to beat you,” leaving little doubt that he is fighting to win. Male meanness normally comes in the form of yelling, bullying, badgering or fighting.

KB: A man is a “mean girl” when he engages in covert competition. He may make fun of another man or woman behind that person’s back. Or he may say something condescending in public to hurt another person’s reputation. Or he may say, “yes,” then fail to follow through on a commitment. These are just a few examples of how men can be mean girls.

BusinessNewsDaily:As a small business owner/manager, how do you recognize mean girls who work for you?

Kathi Elster: As a business owner if you have a woman who works for you and other women complain that she is shutting them out, talking to them in a demeaning manner or creating a hostile work environment, then you can be sure you have a mean girl working for you.

Katherine Crowley: You may also have a mean girl if you have a female employee who pits other women in your company against an individual woman. If fights erupt where one woman seems to be the target, you probably have an alpha mean-girl leading the pack.

BND: What are the actions/attributes you should look for? Which are the easiest to see?

KE: The easy qualities of a mean girl to see are:

  • She gives harsh and demeaning feedback to others
  • She’s extremely argumentative
  • She is cold toward other women [and rejects them]

The less easy-to-see qualities are:

  • She solicits personal information about another woman, then uses it against [that woman]
  • She lies to others about a female colleague
  • She cuts a female colleague out of a project or email
  • She gossips about another woman behind her back, eroding her reputation

BND: What are frequently overlooked signs that a mean girl is at work?

KE: Women can use silent weapons that go undetected and unseen by everyone but the women receiving [the attacks]. We talk about 12 of them. Here are a few:

  • The up and down scan that says, "I’m judging you"
  • Rolling eyes when [someone else] speaks that says, "I ’m irritated with you"
  • Averting her gaze that says, "I want nothing to do with you"
  • Offering a fake smile that says, "I don’t like you"

BND: Is there anything positive about having a mean girl on your team?

KC:  Actually, I think it depends. If you can help a mean girl channel her ambition in more constructive ways, it could help your overall team [or] company. But first, you’d have to confront her and set goals for her professional development that included working well with and empowering other women. 

BND: How do they harm your organization?

KE:  Mean girls can erode company morale. If you have very mean girls, you’ll see high turnover around them.

KC:The big problem with mean girls is that they waste everyone’s time because other women get caught in power struggles with them. So, instead of a woman doing her job, she may be pre-occupied with the last time a mean girl insulted her or cut her out of a project. All of the undercover warfare leads to emotional inefficiency in the workplace.

BND: Can an organization have more than one mean girl?

KE:  Yes. In fact, a small business can have a mean girl culture. 

KC:  It’s extremely important for small businesses to foster strong, ethical, professional work cultures, and that comes from the business owner. Mean girl cultures arise when the leader or manager fails to set clear policies and rules of conduct.

BND: Once you recognize that you have a mean girl working for you, what steps should you take?

KE:Her behavior should be addressed by someone in a position of authority. She may need to see an executive coach, a therapist or just be warned that her behavior must change if she wants to keep her job. Her poor behavior should be pointed out with examples. The supervisor or coach should give her concrete examples of how she should behave in the future. 

You want to keep an eye on her conduct, and repeat the conversation once a month. Don’t keep someone just because [he or she is] a large revenue producer. If that same woman brings down the morale of your company, ultimately it’s bad for business and creates a hostile workplace.

BND: Should you wait until other employees complain? How should you deal with the mean girl’s coworkers?

.Photo of Katherine Crowley (left) and Kathi Elster courtesy of Roberta RaeburnCredit: Photo of Katherine Crowley (left) and Kathi Elster courtesy of Roberta Raeburn

KE:  Don’t wait for complaints, unless you don’t see the problem. The best way to handle the mean girl’s coworkers is to take action in their defense. If the coworkers see that you want to protect them and not allow that mean behavior to continue, they will feel less persecuted.

KC:  Many times, business owners don’t want to know about or address a mean girl employee’s behavior, because they don’t think it’s a serious problem.  We encourage you to spot it, if you can, before you lose valuable employees.

BND: Can mean girls be mean to men as well as women?

KE:  Yes, they can use their mean behavior on men, but in most cases they treat men in a seductive way to get what they want.

KC:I know of several men who feel manipulated by certain passive-aggressive female coworkers. The woman cuts the guy out of emails or excludes him from meetings, or gossips about him. It is not good for the guy and not good for the company.

BND: How do you screen during the hiring process to avoid recruiting a mean girl? What kinds of questions/attitudes should you look for?

KE:  Mean girls are very hard to detect on interviews because they will be on “good girl” behavior when they want something. Your best bet is to check references, not the ones they give you. Do your homework and find people who have worked with them before. See how long they’ve stayed at jobs, and honestly look at why they left previous jobs.

BND: Is it harder for men than women to recognize a mean girl in the workplace?

KE:  Yes, in part because a mean girl may be very good at winning over the men in her work environment. In fact, a tell tale sign of a possible mean girl is when she tells you that she gets along better with men than with women. This could be her way of letting you know that women are adversaries for her.

KC:  Also, men frequently do not realize the subtle wars that can go on between women. Many times they are not aware. 

BND: Can mean girls be rehabilitated? How?

KE:Yes, but they would have to want to be rehabilitated. The most severe cases cannot change. But certain women who are unaware of their “mean” behavior may, upon learning what they are doing wrong, make significant changes. We hope after reading “Mean Girls at Work,” many women will recognize themselves and say, “I don’t want to do that anymore.”

KC:The key to rehabilitation is learning healthier ways to compete with other women in the workplace. If a mean girl is willing to acknowledge her desire to “win,” and interested in learning a better way of competing, rehab can work.

Image Credit: . / Credit: Photo of Kathi Elster (left) and Katherine Crowley courtesy of Roberta...