When I use the term “Mean Girls” I don’t (apparently) use it in the way that the film depicted it. I never saw the movie, so I am on really shaky ground here in using a popular reference to describe some pretty awful office behaviour. But when I use the term “Mean Girls” to anyone over 40, I immediately get head nods and indications of understanding exactly what I am describing.
These are the women in the office who, when they were in high school were the cool kids, the one who focused on clothes, appearance, and boyfriends. They excluded all others from their tight knit little group (usually numbering 5 or fewer), and dictated fashion, language, and cool activities. It was cool to be a cheerleader – not cool to be a female athlete; cool to hang out at the mall – not cool to hang out with your family; cool to have a boyfriend – not cool to not have one; cool to have parents who own a cottage at the lake – not cool to have a parent who builds cottages at the lake for other people.
Their power was that of exclusion.
They talked about parties they went to (to which you were never invited), clothes they bought (which somehow you could never afford, or, if you could, never seemed to fit the way theirs did). They shopped together, went to movies together, and ate lunch at school together. Now you, presumably did similar things – shopped, went to movies, and ate lunch with friends, but it seemed as if these girls were surrounded by a veneer of glamour.
But it wasn’t just that these girls were in a “special” group. It was their behaviour toward all the others whom they excluded which earned them the title of “mean girls”. And it wasn’t just the gossip, although that was frequently personally destructive as slander, lies, and fabrications were either passed around or invented. Nor was it merely their acceptance of their elevated status as merely their due but rather their relegation of every other girl in their grade to that of an inferior status. Sometimes they seemed to go out of their way to make life as difficult as possible for other girls by making fun of them in front of others, for example, while at other times they would put on a false front, pretend to include others, only to banish them once again after their usefulness was exhausted.
These mean girls went on to enter the work force, and they, unsurprisingly, carried on in the work place much as they had in the school yard. They are the spreaders of rumour and gossip, the women who eat lunch together in their own little clique, excluding the rest of their work colleagues, who have mastered the art of rolling their eyes at the contributions in meetings of anyone whom they have identified as outside their sphere of influence.
Sometimes the group is led primarily by one person who is not only mean but vicious. I remember doing some consulting work for an organization who had a group of women with a male supervisor whom they did not like. The leader of the unhappy women was a wolverine in disguise, and not just mean but vicious. She thought she should have had the job of supervisor, and she was going to make somebody pay for that serious lapse in organizational judgement. Their supervisor (poor sod) was a nice, gentle man, who had a hearing disability, so this group of carnivores deliberately talked in very low and quiet voices in staff meetings so that the manager had to constantly ask them to repeat or else guess at what they were saying.
I interviewed everyone on the team, submitted my report which outlined some of the more harmful dynamics that were in play, and identified the ringleader and her role in bullying both the manager and those colleagues who were reluctant to go along with her plan to overthrow the manager of the unit. Steps were taken to break the group up, move some of the more virulent members to other sections, but the damage had been done, and I suspect (although I don’t know for sure) that the wolverine continued her pattern in the new group just as soon as she could acquire new pack members.
So, if you are a manager, what can/should you do?
First, and without this there is no second step, you need to be aware of whether or not you are infested with mean girls. In my experience men, unless they are the direct object of an attack, are a little less aware of this type of behaviour. Look for patterns – who always eats lunch together or go for coffee together? Does it appear that others feel free to join them or do they only socialize with each other? Who’s a loner in the group?
Second, make it clear that you will not accept gossiping and rumour mongering. As Earl Wilson wrote: Gossip is when you hear something you like about someone you don’t.
Third, try to mix and match, where possible, people on projects or assignments. Don’t let the same people work together all the time. Occasionally have a fun exercise where people get to compete in different teams – United Way often promotes this type of activity, and put the mean girls on different teams.
Fourth, the mean girls can be seductively beguiling. They know how to present their best side to those in authority – remember, they have probably been doing this since fourth grade. Don’t fall into the trap of favouring them with additional praise and attention and neglecting those who are not part of the group.
Copyright © 2015 Pitsel & Associates Ltd., All rights reserved.