I was recently reading a book about how to handle mean girls at work. Much of the advice in this book was about how to placate, ignore and avoid upsetting these women (who were co-workers, not bosses). When all of the above failed, the book recommended handling your upset by going for a walk or exercising. I couldn’t believe it. I have to say I have not felt so angry at a book in a long time. I found myself writing such comments in the margins as: “Are you kidding me?” “Yuck — this is more silencing!!!” “Conflict-avoidant.” After a few pages of my responses I had to laugh at myself and show my husband my little rants. However, I wasn’t laughing at the content and advice in this book. I’m aware that countless women will be reading this book and trying to incorporate the author’s advice into their lives and I know they won’t end up feeling better about themselves.
This post is an attempt to get a different voice out to these women, because, frankly, another book telling women to silently accept mean-spirited behavior may just lead me to pull my hair out.
First off, when you are faced with a “mean girl” at the office, your first move needs to be to get grounded. Before you respond in any way, take a deep breath and remind yourself that this is about her, not about you. Even if there is truth in what she’s saying to you (i.e. you did make a mistake), you have to know that being cruel, shaming or mean-spirited is not an okay way to handle things. So, while the mistake may have been your fault, her mean put-you-in-your-place response is 100% about her. Know this, live this and be comforted by this. Hold yourself in warm regard despite your mistake and do not for a moment allow this woman to get you to think less of yourself.
After you are grounded and clear about whose piece is whose, your next step is to have your back. If the woman was simply being mean because that’s just how she acts (eye rolling, sighing, making a rude comment), then address the behavior calmly and directly. Please do not pretend it was not said. Really, I cannot stress enough the importance of speaking up. Find your Grounded Powerful Strength (GPS) and speak. If you say nothing, then inherent in your silence is acceptance. There are several ways to address the mean girl that does not escalate things. Here are three choices:
1. Name it: I call this “being the mirror.” Imagine that you are a figurative mirror and you simply state the behavior. For example, if she calls you stupid, simply state, “You just called me stupid.” If she’s being sarcastic, state, “Wow, that was sarcastic.” Naming it sends you the message that you’re worthy of standing up for. It also gives her a moment to check herself and shows her that you won’t silently accept hurtful treatment.
2. Make a statement: Tune into the thought that is in your head or would be in your head if you saw this woman speak to your best friend in this way. State that thought respectfully. Common thoughts could be: “That was rude.” “Wow, you can really be mean. Has anyone ever told you that?” If the thought is, “What a bitch,” obviously do not speak that; that is following her lead. Clean up your thought and speak the message (“You can really be hurtful.”). Remember to speak your thought with a clean energy. You have to take the high road while also having your back. The clearer you are able to see that this is about her, not about you, the better able you will be to do this.
3. Make a request: In a grounded fashion, ask that she try again. For example, if she says, “Have you never taken grammar before? You write like a 5th grader.” Take a deep breath, keep your volume low and slowly say, “Can you try that again without the insult?”
In general, when you are dealing with a mean girl at the office, do not give her all your power. Mean girls prey on the weak. I am not talking about a boss, who does hold much of the power in the work relationship. I am talking about co-workers who are your equals. You have to know that you are equal to them. You have to know that exclusion, eye-rolling, contempt, shaming and mean-spirited comments are not okay. When you know this to the core of your being, you can step in with a GPS and have your back in a matter of fact way. Know it.
Do not for a moment try to get these women to like you. Don’t try to please them, excuse them, include them or win their favor. Know that there is no place in your life for mean women. Find connection in women who will support you and don’t get caught up in trying to “belong” with this group of women. Change jobs if you have to, but don’t throw yourself under the bus.
Challenge: If you have a mean woman in your office who is targeting you, get conscious of how you are responding. Be sure you don’t silently accept her toxic treatment. Silence will increase the behavior, not decrease it. Stay grounded and have your back. She may just change her approach with you, but even if she doesn’t, you will feel much better.