Dealing with Mean Girls at Work: It's a Professional Issue, Not a Personal One

Mean Girls at Work With women graduating from college and entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, they're discovering that they still need help learning to navigate one of the trickiest aspects of their careers: working with other women.

Related: 6 Times You Should Be a Mean Girl

"Women to women relationships are naturally intense," Kathi Elster and Katherine Crowley write in the introduction to their new book, "Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal." "While it’s natural to assume that most women support other women and want them to succeed, it’s not always the case. In fact, studies show that many women believe it is their female associates who are most threatened by the prospect of a woman in power."

Not all mean girls are intentionally mean, Crowley, a psychotherapist, points out. "We’ve come up with seven categories of mean girls in our book because we’ve learned that some women are intentionally mean, while others just say and do things that other women find offensive," she told Yahoo! Shine. "The intentionally mean girls are easier to spot because you get the feeling that they don’t like you and that they want to take you down a notch."

There are several signs to look for if you're wondering whether you're dealing with an intentionally mean girl, Elster says. "She is hard to connect with. She acts cold and aloof. She gives off a tense energy -- people around her seem nervous and on edge," Elster, who works as a management consultant and executive coach, told Yahoo! Shine. "She is described by others as “difficult to work with, but valuable to the company.” She exhibits a superior attitude towards others. She appears unfriendly."

Here are a few more pearls of wisdom from Elster and Crowley on how to separate the personal from the professional:

Yahoo! Shine: Why do you think women are reluctant to have conversations about this?

Kathi Elster: After years of women fighting for equal rights and equal pay it seems counterproductive to talk about the dark side of women’s behavior at work. But now that women make up almost 50 percent of the US workforce, it’s time to talk about what needs improvement.

Katherine Crowley: We women have been so busy defending our value as competent performers in the workplace that the thought of uncovering our less-than-flattering interactive habits seems like a betrayal of the feminist cause. We also hate to feed into the stereotypes of cat-fights and petty behavior.

Y!: What effect can working with a mean girl have on your career?

Elster: Working with a mean girl can erode your self-confidence, leaving you feeling unworthy. If you’re dealing with a bullying mean girl, you may appear weak to your boss or coworkers. Even pursuing another job may prove difficult as your eroded self-confidence could cause you to perform poorly on interviews.  

Crowley: At the same time working with certain mean girls could have a positive effect on your career. Mean girls remind us that the workplace is a competitive environment, and the key to dealing with them is to stay focused on your own performance while addressing their behavior in a professional manner. So if I work with a mean girl who always dumps her work on my desk, I can grow both professionally and personally by politely saying, “No,” the next time she tries to make me do her work.  

Y!: How can one take mean girl behavior less personally?

Elster: It’s difficult not to take the poor behavior of a mean girl personally, because it feels so personal. But the more you see the mean girl as the problem and see that she is being mean because she suffers from feelings of envy, jealousy or inadequacy, the easier it will be to see that her behavior is not about you.  

Crowley: One way to take a mean girl’s behavior less personally is to do a little investigating. Find out if she’s done the same thing to other women. If she gossips about you, has she gossiped about others? If she criticizes you, has she criticized others? Chances are the answer is “yes!” In that case, you can trust that you’re one among many who’ve weathered her behavior.

Y!: How do you calm down and take control?

Elster: The best way to calm down and take control is through exercise. We are big believers in finding some form of exercise that you enjoy. It could be running, Zumba, tennis, yoga etc. We promise that after you exercise you will see things from a fresh perspective. For those who hate exercise, try a massage, meditation, walking, or taking a shower, these activities can also work. Avoid unhealthy forms of calming down such as over shopping eating or drinking, you will not feel better in the long run.

Crowley: The other thing that’s important if you’re dealing with a truly mean girl is to find a safe confidante (outside of your company) who can hear your story, and help you make sense of your situation. Remember that women are processors – we need to talk about what we’re going through. A mentor, executive coach or counselor can listen to your experience and help you devise a strategy for managing the relationship.    

Y!: Is fighting fire with fire ever a good idea when dealing with a mean girl?

Elster: In our opinion, it’s best to stay professional. When you fight or counter attack the mean girl, you could be seen as the lesser one. It may not feel fair or right, but trust us on this one. Taking the high road will pay off, usually the mean girl will get bored with you and find another woman to go after.

Crowley: Sometimes the toughest thing about a mean girl situation is accepting the fact that you are not the one who is going to render justice upon the mean girl. Instead, you have to focus on doing your job and getting out of harm’s way. We always recommend documenting any exchanges you have with a mean girl – especially if she harasses you or speaks to you in inappropriate ways.  

Y!: How do you deal with controlling coworkers?

Elster: We say that most controlling coworkers “don’t mean to be mean.” They are simply terrified of losing control and incapable of trusting others. A controlling coworker’s behavior may seem inconsiderate, but she won’t see it that way. To manage this kind of colleague, we recommend that you first try to respect her way of doing things.

Crowley: Yes. Once she sees that you are willing to follow her lead, a controlling colleague may be willing to relinquish some of her territory. If she’s a coworker (not a boss), the next time she starts bossing you around, you can also politely say, “I know you’re trying to help, but I really need to learn how to do this on my own. I promise to ask for help if I need it.”

Y!: Are there any go-to rules for dealing with any type of mean girl?  

Elster: Stay professional, which means do not gossip, do not shut anyone out, and do not act out in a way that will make you seem petty and small. If you feel attacked by another woman cool off and think about only taking actions that will not have you look like the problem.

Crowley: Venting is what women need and want to do when they feel attacked. The key is to vent with someone outside of the workplace – a safe confidante, family member or friend. You may need to describe what the mean girl did to you that day, but once you have, take actions to LET IT GO. Engage in exercise or other forms of healthy physical activity to release mean girl toxins from your system.

Y!: Do nice girls really finish last?

Elster: No, nice is not the problem. What would keep women from not getting ahead would be allowing others to take advantage of them or not standing up for themselves.

Crowley: I think we need to come up with a new slogan like “Nice girls can finish first – if they don’t let mean girls run over them.”