If “mean girls” were just fictitious characters in comedy send-ups of high school, that would be one thing: a funny movie that makes you laugh and is mostly forgettable. But when “mean girls” (or at least the grown-up equivalent) are real-life coworkers and employees who are negatively affecting your office culture, that is a different story altogether. And, while we women would prefer to deny that mean girls as a phenomenon do not exist, many of us can recall a time in our career when we were privy to it. Mean girls are an inconvenient truth.
Mean girls can also be bad for a company’s bottom line. In the competitive world of business, a “mean girl” office culture is toxic to productivity in the workplace, because it can kill self-confidence, create distracting interpersonal conflicts and impede effective teamwork.
It is therefore not enough for a manager to turn a blind eye when they see mean girls at work (pun intended). They need to take the matter seriously. In fact, a competent manager will know how to successfully address and defuse the situation. What follow are six management tips for how to do that, starting with some insights into how a mean girl office culture can develop.
7 Tips for Combating a Mean Girl Office Culture
It takes a unique skillset for managers to effectively combat a mean girl office culture. Hopefully these tips can help.
1. Be aware of the dynamics that can contribute to a mean girl office culture.
It remains the case that in certain male-dominated business environments, women must claw their way to the top in order to succeed in their careers. Sadly, when they perceive one another as rivals for the same scarce resources, they may turn those same claws on each other. The resulting psychological “catfights” may turn a positive and productive work environment into a negative, backbiting one.
A mean girls office culture can be an indirect extension of gender inequality. In a business world where women must compete for limited opportunities for professional growth, that heightened competition can prey on personal insecurities and jealousy. It can also give rise to power struggles and unethical schemes in pursuit of those precious, few, open spots. And, when many women grew up hearing the message (whether implicit or explicit) that they should be subservient to men, they may subconsciously fear turning their frustrations toward men. Instead, they may project blame onto other women.
Many women who rose through the ranks in business and are now top executives had to make difficult decisions to get there. Many defied societal norms that prescribed more “traditional” roles as stay-at-home mothers or housewives. Even today—the pandemic threw this reality into sharp relief—women may need to pick being a mother over being in business. When they are able to choose both, the stress of being a “superwoman” and living up to social, family, business and personal expectations may come at the expensive of their mental health and wellbeing. Sometimes these pressures can be turned inward, manifesting as self-judgment or self-loathing.
The sacrifices women may have had to make in order to have a business career may also negatively affect the way that they view other women, too. These misplaced resentments and bitterness can manifest externally as negative behaviors.
2. Understand the behaviors that can manifest in a mean girl office culture and how they are toxic.
“Mean girls” are toxic to work environments, because they attempt to take down other women rather than uplift, support and empower them. In the business world, mean girls can operate in direct or subtle ways. They may criticize women in public, spread rumors discrediting their reputation, sabotage their projects, or exclude them from important meetings or activities, among other mean things. For some if not many female employees, the gossip, backstabbing and picking fights can cause stress, anxiety, weariness, distrust—and even more serious mental health problems.
Being successful in business as a woman requires a high level of mental toughness. With mental toughness comes skills in being direct and assertive. However, sometimes, in the absence of effective guidance and support, insecure women may become aggressive, controlling and downright catty. Competition is fierce in the business world, after all. That can leave little room for niceties.
3. Celebrate women’s holidays.
It’s important to recognize and honor holidays that focus on the celebration of women, such as American Business Women’s Day, Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. Similarly, acknowledging company-wide the long history of gender inequality helps to educate employees about institutional sexism.
This education can help to depersonalize unhealthy conflicts between women and foster compassion toward the plight of women in the workplace. It also assists in starting conversations and discussions about existing gender bias in the workplace and how to move towards systemic changes involving efforts of both men and women. The successes of the women’s rights movement can also give hope to women who may have a pessimistic outlook for the future and who unleash their grudges in the workplace.
4. Reward teamwork.
A healthy level of competition can motivate employees to do their best and be as effective as possible. However, focusing too much on individual competition can turn women against each other in order to gain recognition and power. Instead, create team goals and reward departmental achievements, rather than focusing on individual successes and the “employee of the month.” Provide team-building activities to strengthen interpersonal skills, through bonding, trusting and working together. Fostering a spirit of collaboration and cooperation can go a long way in helping to defuse a mean girl office culture.
5. Denounce office gossip.
When onboarding new employees or in your Human Resource handbook, be clear that office gossip will not be tolerated. When talking behind other people’s backs is part of the culture at work, it can be fodder for mean girls to spread scandalous rumors to discredit other women. Left unaddressed, rumors may run rampant, causing distrust, jealousy and defensiveness.
6. Promote employees and create plentiful opportunities for career advancement.
When there are limited opportunities for professional growth within a company, employees may feel powerless to advance in their careers. This perception of disempowerment can cause some to use destructive tactics to vie for scarce positions.
Consider developing more positions and titles that enlarge job duties and responsibilities to incentivize growth. Provide training opportunities for women to build upon their skills and advance in the workplace. Promote hardworking women as often as possible.
7. Offer equal pay.
Female workers still earn on average less than men. Women’s median weekly earnings are 81 percent of men’s earnings, according to a 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) analysis. The gender salary disparity has continued despite the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which requires that men and women in the same workplace be given equal pay for equal work. This should include bonuses, overtime pay, stock options, vacation time, etc., which are often overlooked as part of the Equal Pay Act.
To combat a “mean girls” office culture, begin to examine any unfair pay differences. Review wage scales based on gender and correct imbalances. Moving toward a society without gender discrimination in the workplace starts with each company implementing equal pay for all genders.
Effectively addressing and defusing a “mean girls” office culture is not necessarily just about dealing with specific problems between women in the office. Sometimes it may require re-evaluating company philosophy, with a view to ending existing gender inequalities and promoting positive, institutional changes. With the application of these seven tips, mean girls don’t have to win.
About the Author: Dr. Sachi Ananda, Ph.D., LMHC, MCAP, is the director of a specialized treatment program for first responders at the national behavioral health provider FHE Health.