Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mean Girls

Many authors have written about the unique phenomenon of female bullying, and it's been the subject of popular fiction as well. "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Mean Girls" show on screen how nasty women can be to one another. It happens in every phase of life - school, the workplace, the neighborhood, families. It happens in clubs and gyms and on sports teams.

Non-fiction self-help books about girl-on-girl bullying fill the shelves at the local bookstore, and articles fill women's magazines. There's even a jargon term for what women do to one another - "relational aggression". The bullying tactics include:
  • Betrayal - breaking promises or confidentiality
  • Exclusion - convincing others to shun the victim
  • Gossip - spreading personal information
  • Humiliation - shaming the victim in public
  • Lies - spreading lies
When a situation goes toxic, it's hard to combat. One reason is that women seem to be able to discern nuanced emotion, and they tend to give weight to finely calibrated gestures. So a subtle sneer of the lip, a sidelong glance, a cold shoulder turned at a precise moment - these things dig at women, while barely registering with men.

I spent the first 18 or so years of my career working mostly with men, in a blue-collar environment, engaged in physical labor that was often dangerous. My co-workers and even the people we worked for tended to be non-conformists, misfits, risk-takers, substance-abusers and outcasts. Conflicts in the workplace were profane, outrageous, and usually brief, concluding with someone's ass getting kicked and everyone else getting drunk and telling stories about it.

I am not used to conflicts where one person gets upset because another person moves a decorative object. I don't know how to deal with that. In fact, sometimes I don't even notice the things one person does that sets another person off.

I'm currently on assignment where I have no direct power, but I'm looked to as a person with knowledge and leadership. I'm here to support workers who are stressed by overwork, inconsistent policies, uncertainty and neglect. I'm here to support a new manager who needs some help.

Have you experienced a situation of "relational aggression" - whether at work or elsewhere? Have you been bullied? Have you had to mediate such a conflict?

How do you defuse a "Mean Girls" atmosphere?


Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Wow, nothing is worse than a toxic work environment.

I think the important thing to do is to sit everyone down, and explain that this sort of thing is unacceptable. The average working person spends more of their waking hours at their place of employment than they do in their home, so why make it an emotional Superfund site?

If that doesn't work, break out the pillows, and start whalin' on the worst offenders.

SUEB0B said...

I worked for someone who actively cultivated an atmosphere where people were pitted against one another. She conquered by dividing - it was a small team, and there was always one shining star and one goat.

When I arrived, no one would speak to each other except a few allies who called each other at night to bitch and complain. People never ate lunch together.

I couldn't do much about the existing people, but attrition was high, so I started onboarding the new people by letting them know I was there for them, that I wanted to be friends and would do anything to support them. Soon the tides had turned - the slaves were united, and the evil shipmaster had to be afraid because we had taken the power from her.

She eventually got moved along, but we were each other's allies til the end.

Lisa Paul said...

Not sure how to help with Mean Girls. I generally just avoid them. But I want to hear some tales about those early working experiences!


Tell me, is the bully doing her bullying in a "cute" way? Those are the worst. This is a tough situation where your instincts tell you to simply pinch her head off. I do not recommend this approach as there may be legal ramifications. Please follow up with this problem.

Anonymous said...

That's a tough one. I even steer clear of PTA functions, so I'm of no help at all, but I will certainly listen and learn.

Sue said...

I've been really lucky. I didn't face it as a kid and I never really had it in the workplace. I know that such things are only getting worse, sad to say.

shrink on the couch said...

I don't have an concise answers but certainly avoid lowering oneself to the level of the bullier. And do clue the manager. Maybe have a three way? Manager (you?), and the two involved to air differences in a respectful atmosphere?

One thing I do know well - I frequently see women in my office whose primary struggle is an unrelenting toxic coworker.

Jackie Owens said...

I think this is more common than anyone wants to admit. A former co-worker of mine went to a class on dealing with difficult people while trying to deal with an extremely toxic individual. The instructor said the only way to effectively combat this was for everyone else to band together - without being a bully back, of course. But only a concerted, unified effort seems to work. This is also true of bullies in school, of course.

Making sure the manager knows is important as well, if there is reason to think that will help. But my personal favorite of the suggestions is the pillow fight ...

The instructor also pointed out that a bully is not the same as a difficult person.